Relations with the United States suffered some of the same cutbacks as those experienced by Vietnam and Cambodia after the United States withdrawal from Indochina in 1973, but there were important differences. After 1975 Laos provided the United States the only official window to its former enemy states in Indochina. The United States was also willing to treat all departing Laotians as political refugees entitled to asylum, with hopes that third countries might eventually accept them for resettlement. And, in spite of the full economic and diplomatic embargo imposed by the United States on Vietnam and Cambodia in 1975, United States diplomatic relations with Laos facilitated such occasional humanitarian aid projects as food and prosthetics. In this manner, the door to full diplomatic relations was kept ajar.
Diplomatic relations with the United States were never broken, even though the United States Agency for International Development (AID) and the United States Information Agency (USIA) both withdrew, under harassment, and diplomatic representation in Vientiane and in Washington was reduced to the level of chargé d'affaires, with a limit of twelve persons and no military attachés. Relations eventually were reciprocally restored to the ambassadorial level in the summer of 1992.
A tentative agreement to allow United States Peace Corps personnel in Laos fell through in the spring of 1992. The admission of Peace Corps workers was initially approved but then rejected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Apparently some party leaders feared that the volunteers might have a subversive impact on the Laotians, especially if deployed outside Vientiane. As of 1993, a country agreement was on the table, and the Peace Corps remained interested in sending volunteers but was waiting for Laos to initiate a program.
Other United States agencies run small programs in Laos. In 1992 AID made a US$1.3 million grant for a prosthetics project. Because AID does not have an office in Laos, the program is administered from AID's office in Bangkok. The United States Information Service, the overseas branch office of the USIA, reopened a one-officer post in Vientiane in October 1992. The post concentrates on supporting English-language teaching activities and publications, press activities, and cultural and educational exchanges. Two Laotian Fulbright grantees were in the United States in 1993.
Since the establishment of the LPDR, Laos and the United States have cooperated in varying degrees on two major issues of high priority to the United States. One is the search for information on the more than 500 United States servicemen listed as missing in action (MIA) in Laos. This problem has proved to be a surprisingly durable issue, which delayed an otherwise uncomplicated and mutually beneficial rapprochement between the two states. Starting in 1985, Laos treated the MIA issue seriously enough to undertake joint searches of known wartime crash sites of United States aircraft. However, the United States Senate Select Committee on Prisoner of War/MIA Affairs concluded in January 1993 that: "The current leaders of Laos, who are the successors to the Pathet Lao forces that contended for power during the war, almost certainly have some information concerning missing Americans that they have not yet shared." Further cooperation brightened the atmosphere of Laos-United States relations, even though a full accounting of United States military personnel lost in the Laos theater of war can probably never be achieved.
The second long-standing issue is the production and export of opium. In April 1993, Laos received a national interest certification on the issue of cooperation in counternarcotics activities. Opium traffic out of Laos is a tangible irritant to relations, however, particularly because of the suspicion that high-ranking Laotian officials, especially those in the military, are involved in protecting the trade. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration worked with the LPDR to maintain Laos's eligibility--despite its opium trade--as a potential United States aid recipient. In 1990 an economic aid project worth US$8.7 million was provided to help the hill tribes that grow poppies turn to substitute crops. Thus, the legal barriers to expanding Laos-United States consultation and commerce were essentially removed. Yet most-favored-nation treatment for imports such as coffee from Laos might conceivably have to await the full release of the last of the political prisoners held in the mountainous eastern provinces since 1975.
An irritant in Laos-United States relations was the United States charge in 1981 that Laos had engaged in aerial spraying with deadly toxins--yellow rain--against Hmong villages. The United States government adopted the position that chemical weapons were used in Laos in the late 1970s through 1983. Such reports lost credibility after 1984, however, when the United States stationed scientific personnel in Bangkok to test any incoming evidence, which never appeared.
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