Indochina Time UTC/GMT +7 hours
Capital City Vientiane
Currency Lao kip
National Day December 2
LAOS’S NEW AMBASSADOR Phongsavanh Sisoulath arrived in London in February this year with his wife Monekeo and their two children. “It’s long been a dream of mine to come to London. I’ve been to many P5 countries for ASEAN related meetings, but not the UK, up until now.” He’s found the capital to be incredibly friendly. “We’ve met lots of people from the diplomatic corps and FCO. It’s been good to share information and opinions on important issues like Brexit.” They’ve been enjoying living nearby Hyde Park, especially convenient to indulge his passion for soccer. “Back home in Laos I have my own team,” he exclaims.
Growing up, Ambassador Sisoulath’s parents worked in the Ministry of Education, a theme that runs throughout his career. After high school in Laos, he studied for his master’s in International Relations at MGIMO University, the Soviet Union (now Russia), later taking a further master’s in Globalisation and Economic Development in Antwerp, Belgium. In 1991, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs back in Laos, where he’s now worked for over 30 years, steadily climbing the career ladder.
His work has mainly focused on ASEAN affairs, becoming Director-General of the ASEAN Department of the MoFA (2013-18) prior to his appointment in the UK. There, he “gathered great experience in dealing with international organisations, bodies, issues and multilateral platforms. I now know the structure of ASEAN and southeast Asian nations well, plus their decision-making processes. My experience means that I can contribute to enhancing Laos-UK cooperation in the coming months and years,” he declares.
As Ambassador in the UK, ASEAN affairs will continue to be important. “The hope is that after leaving the EU, the UK can become a key dialogue partner for ASEAN. I have been discussing this with colleagues at the FCO, working alongside other ASEAN Ambassadors in London.” He continues: “The UK has an awful lot to offer countries in our region. We can work hard together to enhance our bilateral and multilateral cooperation, as well as the UK’s application to become part of ASEAN in the future.”
The Ambassador’s role in the UK will also involve enhancing education cooperation. “The number of Laos’s students coming to study in the UK is increasing year-on-year. In order to develop our country, we need to develop our human resources and education is an important part of that. The UK is the best destination for our students.”
Trade and investment are also high on the agenda. “We believe that in the coming months and years, there is great potential for more trade and investment from the UK, especially after it departs from the EU.” People-to-people exchanges are also essential. “We must promote Laos’s tourism industry. Many British already come to Laos each year, especially to Luang Prabang, the UNESCO World Heritage site, In fact, Luang Prabang has been voted the world’s best tourist destination by Wanderlustmagazine for many years.” Ambassador Sisoulath was thrilled to discover that both Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Mark Field of the FCO have been to Luang Prabang on holiday. No less important, he says, “I’m already discussing with FCO colleagues the exchange of high-level visits between both countries. We need to enhance our multifaceted cooperation between Laos and the UK.”
Like so many other Heads of Mission, he’s closely observing the day-to-day challenges of Brexit. “I do think that once the UK has fully departed from the EU, there can be more substantive cooperation between the UK and Laos. The UK will have more time to deal with southeast Asian nations, with more cooperation with individual ASEAN member countries, including Laos.”
This is part of Laos’ broader foreign policy. “We are a small country, surrounded by major countries, and we conduct a policy of promoting peace and making friends, not enemies.” He continues “Laos’ main challenge is to achieve the ultimate goal of being an important country in South East Asia, and making itself relevant, with important cooperation in the international arena. It’s challenging for our diplomats.”
Ambassador Sisoulath reflects on the many world leaders who have made an impression on him throughout his extensive career: “I met US President Barack Obama on a few occasions, including the 2016 ASEAN-US Special Leaders’ Summit in Sunnylands when my President co-chaired the meeting alongside the US leader.” And more recently, Her Majesty at a royal garden party. “It’s been another dream of mine to meet The Queen. It was wonderful to have a few minutes to talk.” He also met Princess Beatrice that day. “She is a great friend of Laos. After visiting Luang Prabang last year, she is raising money for a hospital there. This is wonderfully symbolic of our cooperation with the UK.”