How Obama can win hearts and minds in Laos

Dear President Barack Obama,

Your visit to Laos this week to attend the Asean meeting will be the first visit by a sitting US president to the country.

You were one year old when the American cluster bombs fell massively onto Laos - a fact that became an open secret during the Vietnam War. Back then, Seattle, where your mother had just resettled, and Vientiane, the capital of Laos, were worlds away.

Even now, Laos - a country of seven million people and the size of Minnesota, with a national market value of all goods and services only one-tenth that of McDonald's - still barely registers in the minds of many Americans.

The Asean meeting this week represents a coming-out party for the country whose single-party government longs for legitimacy through strong economic performance and active regional diplomacy. Thus, its chairmanship of Asean represents a political apogee of sorts in the quest for global recognition.

Despite the restoration of diplomatic ties between the United States and Laos in 1992, a persistent deficit of trust still hangs over the relationship. Much of this simmering distrust, in fact, centres on military actions American forces took during the Vietnam War. The relationship has not been helped by the low priority accorded by the US to this unassuming, poor, landlocked country.

Cluster bombs on display at the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (Cope) Centre in Vientiane. Cope provides those injured by unexploded ordnance with access to orthotic and prosthetic devices. During the Vietnam War, the US dropped 2.7 m
Cluster bombs on display at the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (Cope) Centre in Vientiane. Cope provides those injured by unexploded ordnance with access to orthotic and prosthetic devices. During the Vietnam War, the US dropped 2.7 million tonnes of bombs on Laos, 30 per cent of which did not explode. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

How can you fix this deficit during your visit?

•Accelerate the detection and clearance of US cluster bombs: At the current rate of clearance, it will take a century for Laos to rid itself of the 2.7 million tonnes of cluster bombs that were dropped, 30 per cent of which did not explode and are imbedded in the ground. Indeed, unexploded ordnance (UXO) represents a dark legacy of the war. Bombing people "back to the Stone Age" runs contrary to the "soft" or "smart" power you have advanced. Recognising this, along with the principle that the polluter pays, will go a long way to bridge the trust deficit. A smart move will be to introduce drone technology in the detection of the millions of tennis ball-sized bomblets scattered throughout the country; Laos currently uses handheld World War II-era technology. In contrast, a drone, equipped with a sensor, can scan kilometres in a day, not metres. Clearing the UXO will lift the tax in perpetuity imposed by the presence of the bombs on the social and economic development of the country. And critically, it is not only a smart move, but also a moral obligation.

•Support the Convention on Cluster Munitions: You voted in 2006 for a legislative measure to limit the use of the bombs. It is time for the US to join 108 others that have signed the international convention banning their use. However late, your support will send a powerful message to the Lao people that the US recognises their suffering and that there is a moral and legal commitment we are ready to make in preventing future atrocities against civilian populations.

•Invest in and cultivate the youth: Half of the Lao population is under 25, eager to learn and engage. Yet decades of underinvestment in education and health have resulted in the lowest human resource capacity in the region. Child malnutrition is pervasive, and it undermines young brains for life. But youth stay and grow. Lending this cohort a hand, and tapping into this demographic window, will ensure a new generation that will be trustful of the US. One immediate opportunity is to turn the old embassy in the heart of Vientiane into an educational and cultural centre for Lao youth. A US country club that is currently planned on the site is not the best use of US taxpayers' money. A youth leadership development centre is.

•Drop the Radio Free Asia (RFA) broadcast into Laos: This Cold War relic is anachronistic, ineffective and, above all, counterproductive to the US interests in the country. Winning hearts and minds takes a lot more than running down a country, five hours a day, from the comfort of Thailand. One former high-ranking State Department official has called RFA "a waste of money". This official added: "Whenever we feel there is an ideological enemy, we're going to have a Radio Free Something." In the time of Google and Facebook, who are we kidding?

•Meet with the wife of missing activist Sombath Sompone and inquire about his fate: Sombath, a Lao community organiser and an alumnus of the University of Hawaii, was abducted mysteriously nearly four years ago. His whereabouts and well- being remain unknown today, despite considerable efforts by the international community, including queries from two US secretaries of state, Mr John Kerry and Mrs Hillary Clinton. A true partner tells it as it is. You do not want to let this longstanding issue be swept under the rug.

Clearly, the subtext of your conversation in Laos is about winning hearts and minds in Asia and, specifically, about China. In that context, the Trans-Pacific Partnership with Laos, when it happens, has its own limits.

The US missed an important opportunity early this year when it spurned a Chinese invitation to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a founding member. AIIB is a component of the global "soft power" deployed by China to deepen ties with its neighbours. This knee-jerk rejection - another relic of the Cold War - deprived the US of an occasion to engage China and to affirm that financial assistance alone, in the long run, does not make enduring partners. Trust does. However, constructive opportunities to engage still abound. And we should not miss them.

A "pivoting to Asia" policy does not mean a revival of US containment policy. It means offering your audience a better "brand" through attraction or persuasion. Here in Laos, as in Asia, soft power speaks volumes.

•The writer was the United Nations resident coordinator and the resident representative of the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to Laos from 2011 to 2014.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 06, 2016, with the headline 'How Obama can win hearts and minds in Laos'. Print Edition | Subscribe