Quietly, without much ado or loud noise, the Russian Federation has intensified its relations to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic during the last decade. It went almost unnoticed by the so-called mainstream media of the West, which are busy writing about the Ukraine conflict, the Syria conflict, the Venezuela conflict, and all kinds of other global conflicts. At the present time, there are surely no conflicts in Laos, although this country has had its fare share of wars and destruction in the past. The Russians sell weapons to Laos. On the 20th of January 2019, newly delivered Russian tanks and armoured vehicles were displayed at the military parade in Vientiane, on the occasion of the 70th birthday of Lao People’s Armed Forces. Furthermore, Russian sappers are helping to de-mine Laos and to build new hydropower plants. Overall, ties between both countries are intensifying, as Russia is very interested in the Southeastern region of Asia.
Laos is a landlocked country in Southeastern Asia, bordered by Vietnam in the East, Thailand in the West, Cambodia in the South, China and Myanmar in the North. Vientiane is the capital and largest city, located on the banks of the Mekong River, near the border with Thailand. Sixty-five percent of Laos’ inhabitants are Buddhists.
Laos is one of Russia’s strategic partners in the Asia-Pacific region. Diplomatic ties between the two countries were established in 1960. Since then, Laos and Russia have been connected by a close relationship. With the assistance of the Soviet Union many projects in the fields of transport infrastructure, healthcare and education were implemented in Laos. About 8.000 Lao citizens received higher education in Soviet and later Russian universities.
Even after the breakup of the USSR in 1991, these good relations continued. In 1994, Laos and the Russian Federation signed an agreement on the foundation of friendly relations. Both parties retained common views on crucial international issues and continued cooperating in various spheres. Cooperation has been rapidly evolving in the last few years in connection with the generally increased interest of the Russian Federation in South East Asia.
“Russian-made tanks T-72 and armored vehicles BRDM-2M amphibious armored patrol cars took part in the parade on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the establishment of Lao People’s Armed Forces” (INTERFAX, 20.01.2019). The tanks were delivered to Laos at the request of the president of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic as part of military-technical aid. Earlier, Laos had already received four Yakovlev Yak-130 aircraft from Russia under a contract signed in 2017.
In addition, the Russian Defence Ministry opened its representative office in the Lao capital Vientiane, in implementation of a Lao-Russian intergovernmental agreement. “The opening ceremony was attended by Laotian Defence Minister Lieutenant General Sengnuan Xayalat and Major General Alexander Kshimovsky, the chief of the Main Directorate for International Military Cooperation, who heads Russia’s military delegation on a working visit to Vientiane” (TASS, 20.01.2019).
Russia wants to expand military and military-technical cooperation between Moscow and Vientiane in areas such as training Lao soldiers in military schools subordinate to the Russian Defense Ministry, organizing trips of Russian military experts as consultants to assist Laos in building its armed forces and in using Russian-made weapons and military equipment.
How was this military equipment paid for? “Traditionally, the Lao military does not like to reveal the true cost of such purchases, using national security as an explanation for its silence. The cost of the Russian heavy weapons has not been published yet, but Laos doesn’t pay Russia in cash, some local newspapers reported. A source close to a high-ranking Lao military officer said that the Lao government is giving Russia the concession of mining and development projects in exchange. Russia is already surveying mines in Laos” (RADIO FREE ASIA, 28.12.2018).
Neither has the Russian Defence Ministry declosed any further details, so we may keep guessing, how Laos will pay for the Russian weapons and which mines the Russians inspected. Certainly, the mining concessions will be a good deal, since Laos is very rich in mineral deposits. More than 540 mineral deposits of gold, copper, zinc, lead and other minerals have been identified and are being explored in the Southeastern country of Asia.
The government of Laos sent back 30 old Russian tanks to Moscow. The World War II vintage T-34 tanks were in active service with the Lao military forces until recently. At the beginning of the year 2019, they were shipped by sea to Vladivostok, Russia’s Far Eastern port. From there, the vehicles went by rail to Naro-Fominsk outside Moscow. They will be used in various Russian cities for the Victory Parades. The vintage tanks will also update Russian museum exhibits and play a role in historical films about the “Great Patriotic War”, as World War II is called in Russia.
“Working T-34s frequently appear in Russia’s annual Victory Day parades. They’re also a cinematic draw. The Russian government sponsored the 2019 historical action film T-34, which is about … the T-34. In the first week of its nationwide release on the 1st of January 2019, the movie raked in more than $15 million, making it the top Russian movie at the time. More than four million people saw the movie in that period” (THE NATIONAL INTEREST, 10.01.2019).
Speaking of wars, Laos has had its fair share of those. During the War against Vietnam, the US forces bombed Laos as well. Massive aerial bombardment of Laos by the USA killed millions of people. Between 1964 and 1973, the USA dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, making Laos the most heavily bombed country in history, relative to the size of its population. The New York Times noted this was “nearly a ton for every person in Laos”.
Many US bombs failed to explode and remain scattered throughout the country, rendering vast swathes of land impossible to cultivate and killing or maiming 50 Laotians every year. Due to the particularly heavy impact of cluster bombs during this war, Laos was a strong advocate of the Convention on Cluster Munitions to ban these weapons.
From October 2018 until March 2019, Russian specialists in Laos are helping to de-mine the country. In October 2018, the first detachment of the International Mine Action Centre of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation started its de-mining mission in the village of Lak Sao, Bolikhamsay province. The ceremony dedicated to the start of this dangerous and complex work was attended by Lao Deputy Minister of Defence, Lieutenant General Onsi Sensuk, representatives of the Directorate of the Chief of Engineers of the Russian Armed Forces, and heads of the administrative regions of Bolikhamsay province.
Besides, there were soldiers of the de-mining detachment of the People’s Army of Laos, with whom the Russian detachment established cooperation. The Deputy Defence Minister of Laos thanked the Russian engineers for their readiness to render assistance in clearing the Lao territory. As part of the event, the Lao representatives were shown the means of engineering equipment. They also learned about mine clearance procedures of the Russian Armed Forces.
The squad of Russian sappers is equipped with modern means of searching and detecting explosive objects (IMP-S2 inductive portable mine-detecting sets, MBI-P2 man-portable magnetometric mine detector, MG-1I mine detectors, INVU-3M portable detector of noncontact explosive devices) and OVR-2-02 personal protection fitted with a cooling system (Press Release, October 2018, Russian Defence Ministry).
By December 2018, the Russian sappers had already cleared more than 40 hectares of mines. The team of 36 de-miners plan to clear over 100 hectares of mines in Laos until March 2019 (TASS, 24.12.2018).
Russia is lending a helping hand to Laos in various ways. In the summer of 2018, the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydroelectric dam broke in Laos, which caused the flooding of the Attapeu region, killing 35 people and displacing about 6.000 people. The Russian Ministry of Emergencies sent an IL-76 plane carrying 36 tonnes of humanitarian aid to the city of
Vientiane. The goods included portable power plants, tents, blankets, boats, utensils and food (TASS, 24.08.2018).
The accident raised concerns about dam safety. The Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam is one of five planned on a tributary of the Mekong. It is due for completion in 2019. In recent years, Laos has invested heavily in hydroelectric power. The country sells much of this electricity abroad, which makes up 30 percent of its exports. The Lao government plans to double current energy production by 2020 to become the “battery of South East Asia”.
The Russian Federation is assisting Laos in dam planning and management. Already in 2017, Russia’s Inter RAO Engineering, A-RKSYENS and Electricité du Laos Generation Public Company signed an agreement on the project for construction of the Sekong 5 hydropower plant in southern Laos. The signing ceremony in Vientiane was witnessed by the Lao Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines, Sinnava Souphanouvong, and the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Laos, Mikhail Baranov.
The Sekong 5 plant will have a capacity of 330 Megawatt. From 10 to 20 percent of the electricity generated will be used in Laos, 80 to 90 percent will be sold to Thailand. This hydropower plant means a significant boost to the development in the Xekong province. The project is located near the village of Talooy Ghai in the Xekong River basin. It includes a 199 metre high dam that will create a reservoir stretching about 50 km up to the border with Vietnam. Xekong 5 is one of the key investment projects in the economic cooperation agenda between Laos and the Russian Federation (ASIA NEWS NETWORK, 21.07.2017).
Furthermore, tourism was boosted after the governments of Russia and Laos decided to cancel visas, in 2016. Lao and Russian citizens can enter each other’s country for up to 30 days without an entry visa. Russia is the 11th country, with which Laos has a visa exemption agreement.
Education is another priority on the list of cooperation. “ The good tradition of training personnel for Laos in Russia is continuing. In 2017, almost 100 people from Laos went to study at various Russian universities,” said Mikhail Baranov, the Russian Ambassador to Laos. “ The annual increase in the number of scholarships allocated to Lao nationals became a tradition after the reestablishment of the Russian Centre of Science and Culture in Vientiane, in 2013. This centre successfully promotes Russian culture and language in Laos. We have witnessed a striking interest among Lao people in our country,” he added (VIENTIANE TIMES, 05.07.2018).
In addition, Laos and Russia have agreed to continue broadening their cooperation in trade, economic, scientific and technical affairs. In November 2018, the 14th session of the Joint Laos-Russia Intergovernmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Scientific and Technical Cooperation took place in Vientiane.
During the session, the two parties agreed to boost cooperation in the public and private sectors across a range of fields such as political relations, banking and finance, trade and investment, telecommunications, culture, education and public health. Russia and Laos are keen to share knowledge in the fields of science and technology, natural resources and the environment, agriculture and medical sciences (VIENTIANE TIMES, 03.12.2018).
Laos has an embassy in Moscow, Russia’s embassy is located in Vientiane. Normally, Russian tourists or visitors on business in Laos want to try out Laotian cuisine. When they get homesick for Russian food, they can eat at the “Pon its website in Russian and English Privet” restaurant in Vientiane, which offers a large variety of typically Russian dishes on its website in Russian and English.
The address is Ban Don Pa Mai, Vientiane 01000, Laos. Tel: +856 20 78 097 784.
“Privet” – “Hello” from Russia and Laos.
Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Moscow.
Her blog: https://olivia2010kroth.wordpress.com