VIENTIANE • It is a secretive communist state with a sprawling security apparatus, but Laos has turned to a less menacing demographic to protect visiting dignitaries this week: bookish students.
The authoritarian nation, which rarely allows in foreign media, has been thrust into the international spotlight as an Asean security summit brings a coterie of top diplomats to its dusty capital, Vientiane.
As ministers hustle through the wide corridors of the Chinese-built National Convention Centre, lines of students, mostly petite women in traditional skirts, link arms to keep the hordes of reporters back.
That contrasted with an incident on Sunday when North Korean heavies faced off with a journalist from the South who got too close to Pyongyang's envoy Ri Yong Ho on the airport tarmac as he landed.
For many of the students from the National University of Laos drafted in as volunteer security guards, it is a rare chance to socialise with foreigners who are not backpackers, the most frequent Western visitors to tropical Laos.
Many of them hope to one day swop places with those they are assigned to protect. One said she dreamed of being an ambassador to South Korea and was working part-time in a Korean restaurant to brush up her language skills.
"I want to work for the ministry of foreign affairs," said another student, who had just finished her third year studying international relations.