Today the British Embassy celebrates one year since its re-opening by Foreign Secretary William Hague, during his visit to Vientiane for the ASEM Summit. This ended a 27 year absence of a British diplomatic presence in Laos.
Since re-opening, we have actively been working to raise the profile of the UK and its strengths in Laos, and work with the Lao government and other partners such as civil society and business, on areas ranging from education, business, trade facilitation, development assistance, human rights and good governance, and people to people links.
We are establishing a stronger political dialogue with Laos as it prepares to re-open its Embassy in London, to join the ASEAN Economic Community in 2015 and to chair ASEAN in 2016. Through a new Political Consultations agreement to be signed later this year, both governments will commit to a regular bi-annual political dialogue. We hope Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister Dr Thongloun Sisoulith will visit London before the end of the year to re-open the Lao Embassy.
We are developing a range of partnerships including in:
As Laos seeks to upgrade its human capital, there are clear opportunities for UK education providers in both the English language and vocational training sectors. Through a new partnership with Warwick University, we have expanded our Chevening Scholarship scheme, which offers talented young Lao the opportunity to study for a fully funded one year Masters programme in the UK. We have provided support to Wolverhampton University and the Forestry Faculty, National University of Laos in their goal to establish a centre of excellence on forestry management issues in Vientiane. We are working with the British Council in Hanoi to establish co-operation with the French Institute in Vientiane to develop their new English language courses using British Council materials and qualifications.
While bilateral trade between the UK and Laos is currently small, we are seeing signs of increasing British business interest in the Lao market. We have helped by initiating a British Business Group, working with UK companies already present in the market and reaching out to UK companies in the region regarding their current and potential interest in the Lao market. Our local presence is giving confidence to British business to pursue actively opportunities and some are now doing so. We are working closely with the European Chamber of Commerce in Laos and the regional UK Trade and Investment (UKTI) network, in particular in Bangkok. We recognise that there are challenges in the business environment here, and we are assisting the Lao government in areas such as trade facilitation.
In addition to development funding through multi-lateral donors (including the EU), the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) continues to provide direct funding for UXO clearance work in Laos, through Mines Advisory Group (MAG). DfiD is also supporting Lao progress towards achieving the Millenium Development Goals, granting £600,000 to the UK NGO Health Poverty Action earlier this year to run a child nutrition project in Attapeu province. Through the Embassy’s small grants programme, we have started funding a range of small scale projects in a range of areas, including anti-corruption, human trafficking, development of primary school English language materials, forestry management and anti-money laundering.
Crime and security issues:
Through regional Foreign and Commonwealth Office funding, we have supported co-operation in Laos on child protection, particularly on the internet. The UK’s National Crime Agency, through its regional presence in Hanoi, is also engaging on law enforcement in areas such as money laundering, human trafficking and counter-terrorism capacity building.
We continue to engage Laos actively on respecting its international human rights commitments, working with partners and NGOs such as Amnesty International, particularly with regard to the continued disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone.
Since taking back consular responsibilities from the Australian Embassy in April this year, we have been dealing effectively with a steady flow of consular issues from both the resident British community of 200-300 nationals, and the 37,000 who visit annually. We are able to provide the full range of services including Emergency Travel Documents and have been able to manage more effectively some long-standing and complex consular cases.
We have established a periodic mobile visa application service in September, which means that those living in Laos wishing to apply for a visit to the UK no longer need to travel to Bangkok to do so. The service launched in late September and will take place quarterly, with the next clinic scheduled for 21 November.
We have established an active and innovative digital presence to communicate about the UK and our engagement with Laos through our website, Facebook page and blog. To continue to follow the work of the Embassy in Laos, please visit these channels.
On the occasion of our first birthday, we would like to thank all those who we have had contact with in the last year to help us get up on our feet and establish our work streams, and look forward to continued co-operation in the coming year.