Nervous Laos breaks its cocoon, India gets a reminder

Vientiane, Laos, Nov 28 | Updated: Nov 29 2004, 05:30am hrs
Sometimes one has to travel a long way from home to appreciate the traps and windows in ones backyard.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, on a mission to engage his eastern neighbours in trade and tourism, could not have picked a more fascinating mirror than this country of 57 lakh citizens. For years it turned its back on the world and now, like an awkward schoolgirl, it is greeting its guests with suspicion and curiosity. The nervousness shows.

Mr Singh drove into a town on which isolation had left its scars. All of a sudden we are hosting 3,000 guests, says government spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy. The strangeness of the occasion and the story of missed opportunities is everywhere.

The Asean summit and the meeting with India is the biggest international event that Laos has hosted in its history.

Tourists not connected with the summit have been barred from the city while a major Buddhist festival has been curtailed from eight days to three to ensure that the streets are safe and hotel rooms available.

The chirpy women of Vientiane (the European-sounding name is actually derived from a more oriental Wieng Chan) have been told to dump their low-cut jeans and high tank-tops or face a fine of $10. That is more than what an average citizen makes in a week.

The sheer poverty of the place tells you why Mr Singh has made his way to one of the worlds most closed countries to open more doors. The Prime Minister has already signalled his intention to more than double trade with Asean from the current level of $13 billion to $30 billion within two years. Let us face it. Asean can be a huge market for us, said a senior official accompanying the team. But our industries are nervous about opening up too quickly.

Protected by tariff in the range of 25% all these years, some industry players did not want the barriers that protected them from competition to come down too quickly. At the same time, some top Indian businessmen were here for the business summit, trying to suss out opportunities within the Asean region.

Aware that one could not hide behind tariff at home and seek a piece of the action abroad, Mr Singh moved straight into the business of attracting investments and boosting trade.

He met Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the prime ministers of Vietnam and Laos soon after touching down in the city.

It was a sobering experience. For years, communist Laos had shunned outsiders but at least it had an excuse. Dragged into the Vietnam war between 1960 and 1975, Laos was, per capita, the most bombed country in the world. Wary of the American way, it stayed on the fringes of international trade and has paid a terrifying price.

Its vulnerable currency, kip, has been battered and devalued to one-tenth its value of seven years ago. Its total trade stands at less than $850 million a year. When it tries to woo the world now, the world is not interested.

Well-meaning friends are making things even harder. It wanted to sell electricity to Thailand but western activists stalled funding for its hydro-electric projects, saying that the environment would be harmed. These calls to lock out the world and impractical pleas from well-meaning partners would have sounded strangely familiar to Singh.

In their meetings with the hosts, he and external affairs minister Natwar Singh tried to extend some help.

India has opened an IT centre so that Laos young can learn new skills. It has also opened a centre here to develop entrepreneurship so that people now looking for jobs can actually offer them to others.

Laos, on its part, offered India all that it could - support for its permanent Security Council seat. To the delegates from India, this proud nations plight served as a reminder and a warning.