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Cablegate: Baby Steps: U.S. Speaker Blong Xiong Opens Some Doors In

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RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHVN #0632/01 3391034
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 041034Z DEC 08
FM AMEMBASSY VIENTIANE
TO SECSTATE WASHDC 2307

UNCLAS VIENTIANE 000632

SIPDIS

STATE FOR IIP/S (R. ADAMS and P. BENDA)
STATE FOR EAP/PD (S. HINTON)
STATE FOR EAP/MLS (J. EMERY)

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: KPAOPREL LA

SUBJECT: BABY STEPS: U.S. SPEAKER BLONG XIONG OPENS SOME DOORS IN
LAOS

1. SUMMARY. Blong Xiong, President of the Fresno City Council,
participated in a U.S. Speaker program in Laos from November 17-21
that Post had planned to focus on local governance and constituent
services in the United States for roundtables of smaller audiences
from academic and administrative organizations. Instead, the
Ministry of Foreign Affairs only reluctantly approved a short
program that included, at MFA's insistence, the more sensitive issue
of Hmong-American relations. From the Embassy's perspective, the
program still ended up a notable success, with Party organizations
prominently represented in the audience at Mr. Xiong's primary
lecture and two excellent meetings at MFA. While not all that we
had wished, the program brought one of the most senior
Hmong-American elected officials to Laos on an official visit - a
first worth noting. END SUMMARY.

2. Mr. Blong Xiong, whose mother is ethnic Lao and whose father is
ethnic Hmong, is one of the few elected officials in the United
States with a Hmong background. He was born in Laos in 1969 and
came to the U.S. as a refugee with his family at the age of five. He
holds a Master of Business Administration and has had several years
of experience in both the public and private sector. Elected to the
Fresno city council in 2007, Xiong became the President earlier this
year. His program in Laos focused on local government and
administration in the U.S. and what it is like to be Lao-Hmong in
America.

----------------------
HOT POTATO, HOT POTATO
----------------------

3. Although positive when the program was first proposed informally
in the spring, the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) took an
unusually long time to grant formal approval. After first assuring
us that MFA didn't see any potential problems, the MFA Europe and
Americas Department tossed the program to another division within
the MFA, snatched it back, and briefly threatened to cancel the
program entirely ("not enough time") one week before the start date
- and after Mr. Xiong had already arrived in Laos. The Director
General of the Europe and Americas Department was convinced of the
program's potential benefits only after direct intervention by
Ambassador Huso.

4. Post's initial request kept the proposed lecture topics as
anodyne as possible, including "Local Governance Models in
California" and "City Planning and Budgeting," but MFA officials
requested what they considered a more neutral (or perhaps more
interesting?) topic: the role of overseas Lao in strengthening
bilateral relationships. (Note: Post agreed to ask that Xiong cover
both, although we were surprised to hear that the MFA thought the
role of overseas Hmong was not as politically sensitive as the
Fresno city budget.) In addition, since formal approval came late
and during the largest religious and cultural holiday in Laos, the
MFA informed Post that "all the requested parties" would join one
large lecture hosted by the Institute of Foreign Affairs (IFA),
rather than holding a series of smaller roundtables as Post had
proposed. Furthermore, although MFA officials stated that they very
much wanted Xiong to meet with the authorities for the City of
Vientiane to begin work on exchanges and mutual cooperation, the new
mayor and his staff were "fully occupied" on the dates in question.
(Note: The newly-appointed Mayor formally took office the week of
Xiong's arrival, and most likely was in fact otherwise occupied.)
Finally, Post received a call from MFA at 4:30 pm the day before the
lecture, informing us that journalists would not be invited,
disappointing our hopes for what is traditionally robust press
coverage of Embassy PDS events hosted at IFA.

-------------------
THE WEEK IN REVIEW
-------------------

IFA Lecture
-----------
5. The lecture at IFA included a packed house of over 80 government
officials and Lao People's Revolutionary Party structure
representatives, including from offices that were not on our
original proposal, such as the Ministry of National Defense (MND),
Lao Federation of Trade Unions, Lao Front for National
Reconstruction, and Lao Women's Union. Officials from MFA and MND
requested copies of the powerpoint presentation, which focused
exclusively on the structure, roles, and responsibilities of the
Fresno City Council, while most questions came from the Party
representatives. The lecture itself created no controversy and
generated no pointed questions, although the participants were
interested in hearing about Xiong's attempt to balance his city
responsibilities with pressures from his ethnic community.

Presentations to Student Groups
-------------------------------

6. Xiong also spoke to student groups during his visit. He
lectured at the American Corner to a class of university students
from the Lao American College on city government and local
responsibilities. The students were particularly interested in
local elections and the decisions Xiong had to make as an official.
Xiong toured the facilities at the Lao American College and spoke to
the director, Virginia van Ostrand, about opportunities for the U.S.
Lao-Hmong community to support scholarships for students in Laos.
Xiong later spoke to approximately 50 secondary school students at
Eastern Star Bilingual School on the same topic of local governance.
Questions from this group were more targeted to national issues,
including what policy changes Xiong expects to see once
President-elect Obama takes office. (Note: This is the first time
Eastern Star has hosted a U.S. speaker or Embassy event. The school
is small but students are generally from wealthy and influential
families.)

Meeting with MFA Europe and Americas
------------------------------------
7. Finally, Xiong had two important and extremely positive meetings
at MFA, one with the Director General of Europe and Americas,
Ambassador Khouanta Phalivong, and the second with Director for
Overseas Lao, Mr. Lyying Sayaxang, who is himself ethnic Hmong.
Khouanta went out of his way to thank Xiong for his participation
and spent a good 10 minutes inviting Xiong back to Laos for a longer
and more robust program. He said the Embassy could submit our
original proposal for "complete approval" and the MFA would be
pleased to facilitate a series of events with Vientiane
Municipality. Furthermore, Khouanta noted that he had requested
information about Xiong from the Lao Embassy in Washington, and had
been pleased to learn that Xiong is already a good contact of the
Lao Ambassador there. Khouanta told Xiong that the Government of
Laos would be happy to act as host for the next official visit, and
Xiong could work either through the U.S. Embassy here or the Lao
Embassy there. He also made a point of asking Xiong for his "honest
perspective" about conditions in Laos, to which Xiong replied that
he has seen only positive change during this visit in comparison
with his previous visits as a tourist.

Meeting with MFA Overseas Lao
-----------------------------
7. Xiong's meeting with Overseas Lao Director Lyying included all
of the welcoming remarks and hopes for another trip that DG Khouanta
had delivered earlier, in addition to a list of "messages" Lyying
asked Xiong to take back to his community. Lyying made a point of
stating (and restating) that this was the first visit to Laos by a
Hmong American in an official capacity. He said that his office is
working to get approval for native Lao with foreign passports to:
--receive visas for 90 days, rather than the usual 30;
-- expedite the approval for cultural performers entering and
leaving the country;
-- "make it easier" for families and volunteers to come to Laos to
help as "experts" in different areas;
-- allow Lao to return family members for burial here; and
-- permit overseas Lao to return and retire in Laos.

8. Director Lyying said that the GOL had learned a lesson from
others, including Vietnam, and asked Xiong to "tell the people that
the Government of Laos will welcome all overseas Lao to come back
home." He then noted that requests would be approved case by case,
as there were some "individuals" who may not receive approval. The
Director also stressed that every dollar sent to Laos from the
United States was helpful, and that the government would not
interfere with money sent to family member. He cautioned, however,
that overseas Lao must obey local rules and regulations when they
want to return to set up NGOs or other organized assistance
mechanisms in Laos.

9. Language Note: Lyying began the meeting with an apology for
speaking in Lao, but noted that since this was an official meeting,
the two needed to use the official language of Laos. Furthermore, he
noted the U.S. Embassy escorts didn't speak Hmong, and his own
notetaker was ethnic Khmu. Lyying then immediately switched into
Hmong, for what Xiong says was a quick conversation about Lyying's
recent trip to Minnesota.

---------
COMMENT
---------

10. Despite the last-minute negotiations to get a rump program off
the ground, Post believes we achieved some notable success with
Xiong's visit. The Embassy was disappointed at the delays and
obfuscation of the MFA during the approvals process for this
program, given what we thought were the obvious advantages of
building relations with an increasingly important overseas Lao
community and the relatively tame subject matter of U.S. local
government structures. The Public Diplomacy Section had hosted

speakers earlier in the year, without difficulties, on matters we
thought were more sensitive, including a two-week program on
international human rights norms and comparative government with two
Georgetown University professors and a rule of law program led by a
U.S. federal judge. We were also surprised that the MFA insisted on
adding overseas Lao relations to the program, and told us this topic
was "more neutral" than city planning and budgeting.

11. Still, while our usual set of academics was not included, Party
and MND participation meant that we reached some traditionally
less-accessible audiences, and ones that may have the least amount
of accurate information about the United States. Despite the lack of
local press coverage, Post believes the large lecture format turned
out to be a great success. Students at both schools were also
clearly delighted to have an ethnic Asian speak in perfect American
English, and they were even more engaged on the topics than many of
the officials in the IFA lecture.

12. The meetings with the MFA were so warm and almost apologetic
that we believe the invitation for this particular Hmong-American to
return was quite sincere, and that the GOL would permit him to speak
to a wider range of offices next time. Finally, the program did help
avoid what could have been a public relations setback for relations
between the Lao government and the overseas Hmong community in
Fresno: media interest in Xiong's visit in California had already
generated TV and print press stories even prior to his arrival, and
Xiong has interviews with local TV scheduled for the week after his
return home.

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