Australia and Laos

By Pick Keobandith

H.E Paul Kelly, Ambassador of Australia to Laos, celebrates 70 years of unwavering diplomatic relations and friendship between Laos and Australia. His appointment as Australia’s ambassador to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic Lao PDR was announced on 16 December 2020 by Senator the Hon Marise Payne, Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs. We feel privileged to talk with him about the 70 year-long Friendship Bridge between Australia and Laos.

When working on the subject “International Friendship Bridges” I realised that in 1992 the Australians built the first one between Laos and Thailand.
What role did your government play? What makes a bridge such a powerful symbol?

H.E Paul Kelly :

  • Australia provided 42 million for the feasibility studies, design and construction of the first Lao-Thai Friendship Bridge between 1991 and 1994. 
  • The concept of a balanced cantilever bridge was proposed by Bruce Ramsay of VSL with the final design carried out by Maunsell consulting engineers – both Australian companies.
  • Australia also helped fund the border-crossing and immigration facilities on the Lao side.
  • The bridge signified the end of Laos’ isolation as it became integrated with its Mekong neighbours – and Lao and Thai people and goods could cross the Mekong River with ease.
  • The bridge was opened in April 1994, providing major economic benefits to the Lao people.
  • The Bridge remains an enduring symbol of the connection between the Australian and Lao people, the strong bonds of friendship between our countries and of Australia’s longstanding commitment to peace and prosperity in the region.

Last month you were celebrating 70 years of unbroken diplomatic relations between Australia and Laos. What makes it work so well?

H.E Paul Kelly :

  • This is Laos’ longest – unbroken – diplomatic relationship with any country.   It is a compelling statement of commitment and cooperation between our two countries.  
  • The fact we both call the Indo-Pacific home means that economic growth and national security in both Australia and Laos are affected by many of the same regional issues.
  • Trust and mutual respect has been established as the foundation of the relationship.  I think the relationship is strong because of a number of attributes that our countries share:
    • We get along because we recognise in each other a friendly and easy-going nature;
    • We also have a shared sense of pragmatism – we have a desire to solve problems and to work for solutions when challenges arise in bilateral or regional affairs; and
    • Our people have a strong sense of determination – I saw this when I visited Houphan Province soon after my arrival to understand Laos’ modern history.  Similarly, it is Australian to be optimistic in the face of hardship and to look forward.
  • Over the years, we have supported each other in many issues on the global stage.
    • When Laos wanted to join the World Trade Organization in 2013, for example, Australia was there in support.
    • And when Australia was working to win a seat on the United Nations Security Council that same year, Laos backed our candidacy.
  • As close friends and partners, Australia and Laos will continue to support each other as we recover from the impact of the pandemic.

So, as you can see, after 70 years, the Laos-Australia relationship is thriving. We’ve done a lot together across the widest range of fields. In the years ahead, there will be many global and regional challenges that will test us all.  They will require strong partnerships, a willingness to collaborate, and a creative and open approach to problem solving.  The Laos-Australia relationship has all of those qualities, so I am confident that in the decades ahead, we will be continuing to celebrate even greater growth in what we do together. Our partnership allows us to work together to achieve shared interests and promote peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific.

H.E Saleumxay Khomasith, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lao PDR, H.E Paul Kelly, Australian Ambassador to Lao PDR

What is the role of culture in the diplomatic relations between Australia and Laos? Any plans for the future?

H.E Paul Kelly :

  • Cultural diplomacy plays a vital role in our international relations, including in Laos, offering unique opportunities to foster mutual understanding and build relationships. 
  • The COVID-19 pandemic unfortunately has put a pause on traditional cultural exchange activities. But Australians and the people of Laos have a long history of cultural ties, through our shared love of great food, sport, travel and the arts. Just before COVID-19 closed the borders, we hosted several cultural activities including a fantastic visit from the famous Australian chef Adam Liaw who exchanged a few recipes with the Lao National Institute of Tourism and Hospitality. We also welcomed the Australian women’s football team who shared their love of sport with the Lao Women’s National Team.
  • Now that restrictions are easing for travel between Australia and Laos, we recently sent a group of Lao students to begin their academic journey in Australia through the Australia Awards Scholarship program. When they return, they will join the more than 1300 Alumni who will create life-long connections between our two countries, strengthening the understanding of our respective cultures and advancing our shared interests.
  • As we celebrate 70 years of diplomatic relations between Australia and Laos, we will continue to take the opportunity to highlight our rich cultural ties throughout the year.

You lived for several years in Vietnam, Laos’ neighbour; do you see any similarities or differences between these countries and their cultures?

H.E Paul Kelly :

  • All people around the world are alike in many ways.  The priority of family and culture.  The importance of education and having a job.  And the generosity and hospitality they show to strangers.  This is also true of Laos and Vietnam (and Australia!).
  • People talk about the ‘Mekong region’ and so we group together Vietnam and Laos with Cambodia and Thailand or Myanmar.  It is a dynamic region with a lot of change happening rapidly.  While the Mekong countries have similarities, they are of course quite different and have great cultural and ethnic diversity. 
  • I am very fond of Laos and Vietnam and their people – sometimes for different reasons.  I am so grateful that I have been able to live and work in both countries.   I enjoy learning about the history and culture, meeting different people in different regions, tasting the food and assortment of drinks, and karaoke.