November 12, 2018
A Railroad? In Laos?

Back in 1969 I was assigned to our embassy in Laos to be our press attache — the official spokesman for a murderous, illegal, pointless, undeclared, unwinnable and therefore unwon “secret” war in which we dropped more bombs on that tiny country than in all of World War II. I told some of that story in a novel called The Bombing Officer, so go read it. $1.95, how can you go wrong?

Back to the railroad, though. In those days there were about four miles of paved road in the entire country of Laos, from the capital down to the Thailand ferry. A four-story hotel was the tallest building in town. It had the city’s only elevator.

Drivers on Vientiane’s dusty dirt streets seldom blew their horns. They figured that the car in front of them would get out of the way once its driver could deal with whatever was holding him up.

I remember visiting a village six or eight miles down the Mekong for the dedication of a school we had financed. Before the ceremony the USAID director met informally outdoors with village leaders. Improvements were planned for the footpath leading to Vientiane, he told them, so that motorcycles could get there much more quickly.

Why would anyone want to go to Vientiane?, one of the elders asked. Well, you could get your pigs to market. But then what would I give the neighbor I get my bananas and mangoes from? Well, you could sell your pigs for money in Vientiane, couldn’t you? Okay, but what do I need money for? Well, maybe you could buy a radio. Okay, but what would I do with a radio . . .

The provincial governor finally stepped in and led us all to the new school, which consisted of a tin roof supported by posts and beams, open on all sides. Everyone sat on folding chairs while the governor, certainly the highest official any of the villagers had ever seen, launched into his speech.

Seated a couple of rows in front of us were three of four Lao ladies of a certain age, that age when it no longer makes sense to pretend you’re still hot stuff. Consequently you say the hell with it, and whack your white hair into a crew cut because who cares?. And when some big shot starts to get boring one of you calls out, loud enough for everybody to hear, “He’s not too bad-looking a guy, you know it? I wonder what kind of pecker he’s got. If I was thirty years younger I’d take him out back and find out.”

The governor cracked up. Everybody did.

The point I’m making is that Laos was once the most civilized country on earth. And when I read the first two paragraphs of this article in Foreign Policy in Focus, I feared for the worst. I needn’t have. If China can’t do it, nobody can.

China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) seeks to facilitate political and economic cooperation among Eurasian countries and spur the development of member nations that lag behind economically.

The initiative, for instance, has greatly improved the economic and social conditions within Laos. The construction of the China-Laos railway is the first step to boosting the economy of this landlocked country. It will increase both trade and tourism. Besides building infrastructure, China has also introduced technological innovations in Laos. It helped launch Vientiane’s first satellite, which will not only improve Internet connection quality for communication purposes but also spread health services and educational opportunities to the countryside.

Despite the ambitions of these grand projects, very few have produced any significant achievements. Many Chinese enterprises have encountered unanticipated difficulties in the implementation phase. Based on interviews with representatives from the Jixiang cement factory in Yunnan, for example, the core obstacle impeding the advancement of public projects is that it’s difficult to attract and keep Laotian workers. Several corporations mentioned that salaries were often distributed three to four times per month to ensure workers won’t quit halfway through the project.

This lack of motivation, even in the face of financial benefits, can be ascribed to Lao demographics. Laos covers an area of 236,800 square kilometers and has a population of almost 7 million people, making it possible to allot abundant land to each individual household. Additionally, all agricultural lands are privatized, providing locals with accommodation and fulfilling their dietary needs. Lao citizens are satisfied with their present conditions and not eager to change the status quo.


RRLaos.jpg

Webding3.jpg

Posted by Jerome Doolittle at November 12, 2018 04:25 PM
Email this entry to:


Your email address:


Message (optional):


Comments

I watched a program-- Somewhere Street-- on NHK TV a couple of weeks ago and Vientiane Laos's capital was the somewhere street. The only train station is in the capital and it just recently opened and takes people about 4 miles across the Mekong into Thailand. The only train station is what caught my attention.

Posted by: on November 13, 2018 7:20 AM
Post a comment
Name:


Email Address:


URL:


Comments:


Remember info?