“Sabaidii”: President Obama Speaks to the People of Laos

This week, President Obama became the first U.S. president to set foot in Laos, a small, Southeast Asian nation that lies at the heart of the Asia-Pacific region, which is diplomatically, economically, and strategically central to the United States in the 21st century.

The U.S. and Laos share a difficult history defined by war — a history that we must both acknowledge and work together to heal in order to build a new relationship that will benefit future generations of Lao and Americans alike.

That is the vision and the hope President Obama expressed in his remarks to the people of Laos in Vientiane.

Here are three important highlights:

On the history of America’s secret war in Laos: 

“I realize that having a U.S. president in Laos would have once been unimaginable. Six decades ago, this country fell into civil war. And as the fighting raged next door in Vietnam, your neighbors and foreign powers, including the United States, intervened here. As a result of that conflict and its aftermath, many people fled or were driven from their homes.

At the time, the U.S. government did not acknowledge America’s role. It was a secret war, and for years, the American people did not know. Even now, many Americans are not fully aware of this chapter in our history, and it’s important that we remember today.

Over nine years — from 1964 to 1973 — the United States dropped more than two million tons of bombs here in Laos — more than we dropped on Germany and Japan combined during all of World War II.

It made Laos, per person, the most heavily bombed country in history. As one Laotian said, the “bombs fell like rain.”

Villages and entire valleys were obliterated. The ancient Plain of Jars was devastated. Countless civilians were killed. And that conflict was another reminder that, whatever the cause, whatever our intentions, war inflicts a terrible toll, especially on innocent men, women and children. Today, I stand with you in acknowledging the suffering and sacrifices on all sides of that conflict.

But there is still much more work to do. So today, I’m proud to announce a historic increase in these efforts. The United States will double our annual funding to $90 million over the next three years to help Laos expand its work. This will help Laos expand its work to remove even more bombs, allow Laotians to farm more land, and increase support for victims. I’ll bear witness to this work tomorrow when I meet with survivors.

Given our history here, I believe that the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal.”

On the new relationship the U.S. hopes to build with Laos:

“We want to be your partners as you invest in the well-being of your people, and especially your children.

I believe that when any child anywhere goes hungry, when their growth is stunted, that’s a profound injustice.

So we’re joining with Laos to promote nutrition and bring more healthy meals to children in school so they can grow strong, focus in class, and realize their full potential.

We want to be your partner in improving education.

I’m told that there’s a saying here — “a tray full of silver is not worth a mind full of knowledge.” So we’ll help more children learn how to read.

We’ll bring more American teachers here to help teach English, and more Lao teachers to America to strengthen their English. And I’m proud to announce that an initiative that’s very important to me and to my wife Michelle, an initiative called Let Girls Learn, is coming to Laos and Nepal.

We believe that the daughters of Laos have just as much talent and potential as your sons. And none of our countries anywhere in the world can truly succeed unless our girls and our women have every opportunity to succeed, the same opportunities as boys and men do.

We want to be your partner with the young people of Laos as you strengthen your communities and start businesses, and use Facebook to raise awareness for the rights and dignity of all people. And that’s why, as part of our Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, we’re helping young men and women across Laos develop the skills you need to succeed. Two of our top companies — Microsoft and General Electric — are helping to increase training in engineering and technology.

Young people in Laos shouldn’t have to move someplace else in order to prosper. You should be able to work and build a better life right here in Laos.

And we want to be your partners as Laos forges greater trade and commerce with the world. When other countries invest here, it should create jobs here for the people of Laos. So as Laos pursues economic and labor reforms, we’ll work to encourage more trade and investment between our two countries, and between Laos and the rest of this region.

As a result of my visit, I hope that more Americans come here as well, to experience your country and the beautiful culture, and to forge new friendships between our peoples.

And as Laos grows, we want to be your partner in protecting the natural beauty of your country, from your forests to your rivers. As Laos works to meet its growing need for energy, I want to work with you to pursue clean, renewable energies like solar. And let’s help farmers protect their crops, and villages adapt to a changing climate. We should work together so that development is sustainable — especially along the Mekong, upon which millions of people depend for their livelihood and their food and their health.

The Mekong is a treasure that has to be protected for future generations, and we want to be your partner in that process.

So this is the future our two countries can build together, and I’m optimistic that we can do it.”

On the values that will guide U.S. policy in the Asia Pacific:

“First, we believe that all nations and peoples deserve to live in security and peace.

We believe that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of every nation must be upheld. And we believe that every nation matters, no matter their size.

We believe that bigger nations should not dictate to smaller nations, and that all nations should play by the same rules. America’s treaty allies must know our commitment to your defense is a solemn obligation that will never waiver. And across the region, including in the East and South China Seas, the United States will continue to fly and sail and operate wherever international law allows, and support the right of all countries to do the same.

We will stand with our allies and partners in upholding fundamental interests, among them freedom of navigation and overflight, lawful commerce that’s not impeded, and peaceful resolution of disputes. That’s the security that we seek.

We also believe that just as nations have rights, nations also have responsibilities, including the responsibility to work together to address problems no nation can solve alone.

So many of today’s threats transcend borders, and every country has a role to play. We will have to cooperate better together to stop terrorist attacks, and to prevent the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons. We will have to work together to avoid the worst effects of climate change. We have to work together to stop the horror of human trafficking, and end the outrage of modern-day slavery. These are areas where we seek deeper cooperation.

We believe in prosperity that is shared and that reduces poverty and inequality by lifting up the many and not just a few wealthy people at the top.

Rather than simply extracting another country’s natural resources, we believe development has to invest in people — in their education and in their skills. We believe that trade should be free and truly fair, and that workers and the environment should be protected. We believe that governments should not conduct or knowingly support cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property for commercial gain. And we believe that there needs to be good governance, because people should not have to pay a bribe to start a business or sell their goods. And that’s the kind of development and the kind of trade that we seek.

That’s why the Trans-Pacific Partnership is so important — not only because TPP countries, including the United States, will be able to sell more goods to each other, but it also has important strategic benefits.

TPP is a core pillar of America’s rebalance to the Asia Pacific.

And the trade and the growth it supports will reinforce America’s security alliances and regional partnerships. It will build greater integration and trust across this region. And I have said before and I will say again: Failure to move ahead with TPP would not just have economic consequences, but would call into question America’s leadership in this vital region. So as difficult as the politics are back home, I will continue to push hard on the U.S. Congress to approve TPP before I leave office, because I think it is important for this entire region and it is important for the United States.

I believe that nations are stronger and more successful when they uphold human rights. We speak out for these rights not because we think our own country is perfect — no nation is — not because we think every country should do as we do, because each nation has to follow its own path.

But we will speak up on behalf of human rights because we believe they are the birthright of every human being.

And we know that democracy can flourish in Asia because we’ve seen it thrive from Japan and South Korea to Taiwan.

Across this region, we see citizens reaching to shape their own futures. And freedom of speech and assembly, and the right to organize peacefully in civil society without harassment or fear of arrest or disappearing we think makes a country stronger. A free press that can expose abuse and injustice makes a country stronger. And access to information and an open Internet where people can learn and share ideas makes a country stronger. An independent judiciary that upholds the rule of law, and free and fair elections so that citizens can choose their own leaders — these are all the rights that we seek for all people.

We believe that societies are more stable and just when they recognize the inherent dignity of every human being — the dignity of being able to live and pray as you choose, so that Muslims know they are a part of Myanmar’s future, and Christians and Buddhists have the right to worship freely in China.

The dignity of being treated equally under the law, so that no matter where you come from or who you love or what you look like you are respected. And the dignity of a healthy life — because no child should ever die from hunger or a mosquito bite, or the poison of dirty water. This is the justice that we seek in the world.”