An Interview with Karen B. Stewart, U.S. Ambassador to Laos

Laos Karen StewartKaren B. Stewart is the U.S. Ambassador to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, a position to which President Barack Obama nominated her in July 2010. Stewart joined the Foreign Service in 1977. She has served overseas in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and as Deputy Chief of Mission in Laos and Belarus. In addition to her overseas work, Stewart has served in various bureaus in Washington D.C. Stewart has received multiple honors, including the Department of State Meritorious and Superior Honor Awards, the Diplomacy for Freedom Award for her embassy’s work in Belarus, and most recently the Presidential Meritorious Service Award in 2011. This is her third time serving in Laos.

The Politic: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became first sitting U.S. Secretary of State to visit Laos in 57 years when she visited last summer. What strategic role does the US-Laos relationship play, and how do you view what Secretary Clinton called America’s “pivot towards Asia?”

The changing role comes in the importance the United States is placing on regional structures and organizations in Asia. Part of the background of U.S. policies toward Asia is the feeling that there wasn’t as much of a regional structure debate in Asia, where there has been in Europe. Laos, although it’s small and may not seem as significant as other countries, it can play an important and integrated role regionally, and in international affairs. I think the “pivot” is a natural response to the importance of this part of the world in relation to economics, trade, environment, and resources. We’re trying to focus more resources on Asia. Obviously, we’re a big power, so we won’t ignore other parts of the world. But we know this region is important.

The Politic: Last year, the U.S. is spent 9 million dollars on helping clean up unexploded ordnance left over from the Vietnam War in Laos. How has the history of the U.S. and Laos affected the current relationship? Have the wounds of the Indochina and Vietnam wars healed?

Oh yes, there has been a lot of healing over the years. I’ve served here three times over 25 years. I see healing in the environment and a change in attitude in both places with time and different generations. Our earliest breakthroughs were related to relationships from the war. There was a major decision in 1985 between our two governments to work together on recovery. We’ve tried to help with humanitarian concerns, and we’ve provided humanitarian assistance through building schools and clinics. Laos is full of gracious and remarkable people who are very focused on the future, so there’s really not a lot of dwelling on past. We can’t rewrite history. We are focused on how we can be cooperative for the future and create a better environment.

The Politic: Laos recently won admission into and became the 158th member of the World Trade Organization. What does this mean for the country’s economic future? Since a majority of Laos’ exports come from China, Thailand, and Vietnam, will this help Laos diversify its economy more?

In the long term, yes. I don’t think anyone is expecting that the WTO membership is going to show big short-term changes. Its major benefit is probably that it causes Laos to adopt international standards and regulations that will put it in a position to trade with the broader world. It will also help as it approaches the ASEAN Economic Community, which is to be a kind pre-trade consortium of the ten ASEAN countries. That’s coming up in 2015. So in many ways this is helping them get to be ready in terms of legal and regulatory frameworks, customs processes, and procedures and such, and to be able to take advantage of a broader market. The reason it’s going to be a longer-term effect is because the improvements are in infrastructure. There still has to be investment and advancement in the economy beyond just subsistence agriculture to more agro-processing and some other types of small industries, and that will take more time to develop.

The Politic: It has been nearly six months since the kidnapping of Sombath Somphone, a respected civil society leader in Laos. Secretary of State John Kerry has demanded his return and urged the Laos government to be more proactive in their investigation. How much of an impact has his disappearance had, and do you think the government’s efforts to find him have been sincere?

The unfortunate impact of his disappearance and abduction is that it really has sent a chill through the local civil society organizations. They were worried and concerned with all the speculation about what happened to him, why, and whether it was related to his work in civil society or not, all of which are questions that no one has the facts to answer. It has led to nervousness and a sense that perhaps people have to be careful about what they’re doing and their work. For that reason I hope there will be more encouragement by the government and by the authorities to recognize the importance of the role of civil society and how civil society organizations really do participate in the social and economic development of the country. A number of officials sincerely would like to see Sombath returned. We’re not satisfied the investigation is being carried out in a sufficiently transparent and sufficiently active way. The last report that just appeared from the police [in June] doesn’t give a lot of detail, and it doesn’t seem like there’s much progress being made. So we continue to call for a more thorough and more transparent investigation.

The Politic: The world has witnessed a rapid democratic phenomenon in neighboring Burma. What kind of ripple effects do you think this will have on Laos?

I’m not sure that I really see a ripple effect. This will be a complicated question looking into the differences in the histories of the societies of Burma and Laos. But there are enough differences in their makeup, their past governmental structures, what their familiarity was with democratic governance, and the fact that there was always some kind of opposition party or movement in Burma, whereas there had not been in Laos. There are a lot of differences, and so although one might want to speculate, on the whole Laos is pretty well… I guess I just don’t see it happening. I don’t see there being a ripple effect.

The Politic: Laos has certainly made economic advancements with the establishment of the stock exchange in 2011 and holding the Asia-Europe meeting in 2012. But, specifically in regard to the Mekong River Dam project that has raised environmental concerns and elicited the ire of some of Laos’ neighbors, do some of those advancements come at too high a price?

There is a lot of discretion both in the country and from outside donors and observers about how better to take into account environmental and social consequences of large projects in particular. The dam is one example, but you can look at large mine projects or other land, plantation, and agriculture projects. I would agree that there’s not enough study, enough way to measure whether or not the costs are too high. That really was a large part of the concern behind the Xayaburi Dam. Now Laos has modified the design to take into account the various complaints of their neighbors and other concerns, and there are ongoing studies. But the issue is that there’s more uncertainty if you continue to build while you’re still doing the studies. This is certainly an ongoing debate, both within the country and among donors, of how to compensate or mitigate social, economic, and environmental effects.

The Politic: What are the next steps for Laos going forward? Do you see future improvements in transparency of governance and business growth? What are the biggest obstacles? Has Laos taken a strong enough stance on issues like sex trafficking, for example?

Well that question has a lot of elements to it. You do witness Laos continuing to modernize and develop across a range of factors. There will be economic growth; there will be gradually more interest by foreign investors. We talked earlier about meeting WTO standards, and that will certainly help so that you can deal with them on the same kind of international rules on which you deal with other countries. The ASEAN Economic Community will integrate them, give them a bigger market, and allow freer labor flows, which will be a benefit to them. And there are developments in the government structure: the national assembly is becoming a body with more power and influence, and it brings added benefit to governance issues here.

On human trafficking in particular, we ranked them as a Tier 2 country in our human trafficking report, which essentially describes it very well. We think they’re making efforts, but they’re not yet sufficient to get them up to be a country that’s fully compliant or combatting the problem. A lot of Laos’ problems in development have to do with human capacity. First of all, there are not that many people in terms of training and education. So a lot of work in issues like human trafficking is training law enforcement officials to know how to provide the victim protection or education, and to get the schools involved to try to shield people from getting caught in these situations, which often start with labor and offers of jobs and such. So there’s a lot still to be done in terms of human resources, development, human trafficking, and a number of other issues across the country.

There are also legal reforms. We’re still urging Laos to complete a revision of their laws that have to do with trafficking persons. As a matter of fact, in general, I would say strengthening the legal framework and strengthening the judicial sector and the justice system is perhaps the next big governance improvement that needs to be made.

The Politic: I have to ask you about this rap video. Give me some context. What inspired you to get on stage in a backwards hat and rap in Lao? More broadly and seriously, how has the culture of Laos impacted you, as compared to other nations in which you’ve served?

Buddhist monks collecting alms in Luang Prabang
Buddhist monks collecting alms in Luang Prabang

[Laughs] The rap kind of started as a joke and my public diplomacy team ran with it because they were discussing the fact that we were sponsoring this concert that had anti-drug, anti-narcotics, and anti-counterfeit medicine themes and such. Of course, it’s tradition for the person who sponsors the event to get up and give a speech before the event.  I made a quip that it would be kind of dull to stand up and give a speech before a rock concert, so maybe I should do a rap. I thought I was joking, but my public affairs office thought that was a great idea and went out and got a rap coach for me and wrote a rap! So I decided I was going to do it, but I didn’t know my 15 minutes of fame was going to be a rap video.

More seriously, because of the fact that I’ve had more assignments in Laos than my other countries, I do feel a particular connection here with the country. One aspect is that this is a country for which music and dance is inherently part of their culture. For everybody to get up and take part and perform, whether it’s a birthday party or a wedding or a government meeting or something, is what they expect everyone to do. It’s very natural. So I think my getting up and rapping was kind of sitting in with that cultural background, except giving it a new aspect.

And of course, as part of overall global foreign policy, we’re encouraged to do as much outreach as we can. We’re encouraged to reach out and find connections with youth to somehow get our message across in different ways. So it was fitting with that overall policy approach. But on top of all that, the people of Laos are just so friendly and warm, and they make you feel like you’re getting up and doing something that in the United States I might feel very self-conscious about doing. Instead, they’re very appreciative of the effort to use Lao language. They make you feel good about it, no matter how you may look once you look at the video.

The Politic: What is your proudest achievement in your time as ambassador to Laos?

With Secretary Clinton’s visit, we were able to really put a spotlight on the Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) issue and the humanitarian aspects of that, which has led to an increase in resources we’re putting towards it. It increased recognition in the United States and perhaps will lead to more voluntary donations also. From a specific policy perspective, that may be one specific step I can point to.

But I have to say, the broader relationship in the three years I’ve been here has expanded. A lot of that has to do with the way our relationships have been developing in this part of the world, so I wouldn’t necessarily take personal credit for it, but that has certainly made it an exciting time to be here and to work. When I was here before, we were pretty much working just in legacies of the war issues. Now we do not only do those – not only the recovery of our missing MIAs, and not only UXO, and not only counter narcotics – but also health programs, education programs, trade programs, and a number of public diplomacy outreach programs. It’s been exciting to have a relationship that is broad across all experiences.

On a very personal note, I really like to see the people of the country. I’ve managed to visit every single province of the country, which I think no other foreign ambassador here has done. It’s been quite exciting and enjoyable and enlightening to see all different corners of the country.


Embassy of the United States to Laos:

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