Hillary Clinton on Wednesday became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Laos in 57 years, on a trip focused on the damaging legacy of the Vietnam War and a controversial dam project.
At Vientiane’s flag-bedecked Wattay International airport, Mrs. Clinton was given flowers by girls in traditional purple-silk costumes, kicking off her brief but historic trip.
“It’s a pretty big deal for the Laotians, and we will underscore a number of areas that we’re working on together,” a senior U.S. official said.
These include leftover ordnance from the war which ended in 1975, excavating the remains of U.S. soldiers missing in action and the continuing effects of defoliant Agent Orange, used by the U.S. to try to flush out communist forces.
Mrs. Clinton, whose four-hour whirlwind trip has been front page news in Laos this week, met with Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong at his office in an elegant white-columned building with two large elephant statues outside.
The pair had “substantive discussions on the broadening bilateral cooperation,” according to a joint statement released after the meeting.
The countries “agreed to improve and further facilitate the accounting operations for American personnel still missing from the Indochina War era,” and address the “remaining challenges” of unexploded ordnance, the statement said.
They also discussed the forthcoming entry of landlocked Laos, one of the poorest nations in the world with just 6.5 million people and an annual gross domestic product growth rate of 7%, into the World Trade Organization.
Mrs. Clinton is only the second secretary of state to visit Laos after John Foster Dulles, who spent a day in the then-monarchy in 1955.
Mrs. Clinton was invited to Laos by Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith in 2010 who was the first top Laotian official to visit Washington since the Soviet-backed communist rebels swept to power, ousting the monarchy, in 1975.
U.S. relations with Laos, while never severed, were long tense, in part over its campaign against the Hmong hill people who assisted U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.