OPINION: Laos needs regional cooperation to realise its land-bridge dream

VIENTIANE (Vientiane Times/ANN) - A UN official in charge of helping landlocked nations around the world to fulfil their development potential has asked Thailand to play a greater role in assisting Laos to become a regional land link. 

“As a transit country, Thailand should help Laos improve transportation through the Asean region under the bilateral agreement between the two countries,” said Mrs Fekitamoeloa Utoikamanu, when addressing an international conference held in Bangkok last week.

“Transit arrangements should be the first priority. Partnership cooperation in other areas like infrastructure development and ICT connectivity is needed as well,” she added.

I strongly support the comments made by the UN official. However, I would like to add that not only Thailand but also other Asean member countries should cooperate with Laos to help the country transform its position from being landlocked to creating a land link within the region. 

Ms Utoikamanu’s comments are very perceptive. They highlight the big picture - that landlocked nations need cooperation and assistance from other countries to realise their development potential, such as assisting them to get greater access to world markets.

In fact, I personally think it should be an obligation of UN member countries to support and facilitate landlocked countries to do business with the outside world. Let’s imagine, if our house had no road link to the main road and our friends did not provide a road for us, we would find it difficult to travel around.

I agree with Ms Utoikamanu’s point that landlocked nations face a number of development challenges. This is very true in the Lao context. However, to make it clearer, I would like to further elaborate that Laos really needs to transform itself from being landlocked to a land link.

Laos is located in the middle of the Mekong region. The country has plenty of natural resources, its people live in peace, and the country is ready and willing to stand on its own legs and develop itself in order to catch up with modern nations around the world.

With these conditions, in theory, this small country should have no difficulty in moving forward and becoming more prosperous. But, as a landlocked nation, the task of national development is not easy.

Like other landlocked countries, Laos has no direct access to the sea. This geographic disadvantage disables the capacity of the country and its people to trade with the outside world and develop a modern defence force and technology.

This is one of the reasons why the United Nations created a mechanism to help landlocked nations speed up development and narrow the economic gap between rich and poor nations.

In addition, a number of studies show that transport costs in landlocked nations, especially in Laos, are higher compared to those in countries that have direct access to the sea. These transport difficulties put companies in landlocked countries at a distinct disadvantage in competing with regional rivals. 

The Lao government is well aware of this fact and has been seeking domestic funding and international support to build roads and infrastructure to connect with neighbouring countries.

I also agree with Ms Utoikamanu that Thailand should play a greater role in working with Laos to achieve its land-bridge ambition. I understand that she might assume that Thailand has well-established seaports and strong cultural and economic connections, so is strongly recommending that Thailand take the lead in supporting Laos’ ambition.

However, in addition to Thailand, countries like China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Malaysia, and Singapore must also open doors to enable Laos to become a land link.

Laos has already built a bridge across the Mekong to link with Myanmar, as well as a paved road to Cambodia and other roads linking to Vietnam. And the hugely important Laos-China railway is currently under construction.

Without the support of these countries, Laos will continue to face challenges in exporting goods to world markets.

An alternative view is that Malaysia and Singapore do not share a border with Laos, so are they playing any role in enabling Laos to become a regional land link? The answer is yes, because of the Laos-China railway.

The Lao section is part of the Kunming-Singapore railway, which Asean countries have agreed to support. Without the backing of Malaysia and Singapore, the Lao dream of becoming a regional land link would be in doubt. 

I have learnt that Thailand and Malaysia have agreed with China to take part in the construction of the Kunming-Singapore railway. However, at this stage it is unclear when this will take place.

In addition, Laos plans to build expressways and a railway to connect to Vietnam, which could also serve as gateways for communication and business with international trading partners. Again, without the support of Vietnam, these projects will be impossible.

In conclusion, I strongly agree with UN officials that landlocked countries are hindered in their attempts to develop.

Laos agrees that Thailand should play a key role in enabling the transition from being merely landlocked to becoming a land bridge. But it would be very encouraging if other Asean countries could also help Laos to achieve its dream for the sake of Asean cooperation, regional connectivity, and in a spirit of economic cooperation.

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