Ben Rhodes at a Tak Bak ceremony in Laos with YSEALI leaders. July 2016
Ben Rhodes
Jul 28, 2016 · 5 min read

Last week, I travelled to two countries that don’t always get a lot of attention in the United States, but are important to our past and our future.

In September, President Obama will become the first sitting President to visit Laos.

Given its increasing role in global affairs, President Obama has put an increasing focus on the Asia Pacific, and Southeast Asia in particular. During his trip, he will attend the ASEAN and East Asia Summits for the final time. He will also be able to build a new bilateral relationship with a former adversary and increasingly developing country.

Over my three days in Laos, I met government officials, young leaders, civil society, and media. Laos is a deeply Buddhist country, and my visit included a traditional Tak Bat ceremony, in which you get up at sunrise and make offerings to Buddhist monks.

Of the 632 million people in the 10 ASEAN countries, 65 percent are under the age of 35. As the President recently noted:

“We live in a time when more than half the world is under the age of 30. That means we got to make sure that all of our young people around the world have the tools they need to start new ventures, and to create the jobs of the 21st century, and to help lift up entire populations. And so many of you are already doing this. As I travel around the world, one of the extraordinary things that I have the opportunity to do is to meet young people in every region and to see the problem-solving and the energy and optimism that they’re bringing to everything from how to generate electricity in environmentally sound ways in remote places that are off the grid right now, to how do you employ women in remote areas who all too often have been locked out of opportunity. You just see enormous creativity waiting to be tapped.”

So during my time in Laos I was able to have two separate meetings with participants in our Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI). Already, our YSEALI network has roughly 70,000 participants, and the young Lao leaders I met are doing impressive work, like helping provide rural communities with electricity, and cultivating social entrepreneurship to solve problems.

Ben Rhodes with YSEALI leaders in Laos. July 2016

A critical part of our relationship with Laos involves addressing the legacy of war. We are working to account for the remaining Americans listed at POW/MIA in Laos. We are also helping to clear unexploded ordnance (UXO) from the Vietnam War. The United States dropped some 2 million tons of bombs on Laos, and since the end of the war some 20,000 Lao have been killed by unexploded ordnance.

During my visit, I met with courageous survivors of UXO, and discussed ways that the United States can continue to increase our efforts to support the removal of UXO while supporting victims.

Ben Rhodes meets with victims of unexploded ordnances (UXO) in Laos. July 2016

In my discussion with Lao leaders, we discussed how we can advance our relationship, particularly by working together to promote education, health, trade and investment, and people-to-people exchanges. Finally, we discussed preparations for the upcoming summits which will discuss issues ranging from the South China Sea to economic cooperation.

After Laos, I made my fifth visit to Burma — also known as Myanmar — in the last four years, and the change has been extraordinary.

The President walks to Air Force One at Naypyitaw International Airport in Burma for departure en route to Yangon.(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

After decades of dictatorship, political prisoners have been freed, the economy is opening up, a democratic election was held, and Aung San Suu Kyi — once a political prisoner — is now State Councilor and her National League for Democracy (NLC) has a majority in the Parliament. There are still enormous challenges — from ethnic conflict, to economic needs, to a military that has not fully relinquished its role in politics, to tragic humanitarian situation in Rakhine State. Still, it was remarkable to reflect on how far the people of Myanmar have come since President Obama first visited in 2012.

During my visit, I met with Aung San Suu Kyi to review her government’s progress, including their recent efforts to launch a nationwide peace process and improve the tragic humanitarian situation in Rakhine State. We also discussed recent steps to further ease U.S. sanctions, and said that the United States will be committing an additional $21 million in development assistance to support the economy and efforts to combat human trafficking.

President Barack Obama walks with Burmese Opposition Leader Aung San Suu Kyi following their statements to the press at her home in Rangoon, Burma, Nov. 19, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Finally, I was pleased to bring a letter from President Obama inviting Aung San Suu Kyi to visit Washington in mid-September, which she accepted.

I was also able to meet with a broad range of voices — civil society, former political prisoners, and U.S. business leaders. I was also honored to speak at the University of Yangon, which President Obama has visited twice, where I was able to speak with young students and take their questions. Seeing the interest and excitement of those young people made me more confident than ever before that, despite enormous challenges, Myanmar is moving in the right direction.

Since taking office, President Obama has made engagement a hallmark of his foreign policy.

In both Burma and Laos, we have engaged countries that were once adversaries, and will continue to do so in ways that promote good relations, development, and human rights.

In Laos, we have an opportunity to address the legacy of war while building a new future. In Burma, we are supporting a truly hopeful and historic transition to democracy that is being led by the people of that country.

In doing so, we have an opportunity to forge new friendships and partnerships in an important part of the world in ways that will enhance our security, opportunity, and commitment to human dignity.

“To some, this is just a snapshot and doesn’t belong in this gallery of candid photographs from the year. But to me, it evokes what the trip to Burma was all about. Here is the President, shoes and socks off in respect, posing like an American tourist in front of the oldest pagoda in the world in a country that no U.S. President had ever been able to visit.” — Chief White House Photographer Pete Souza

Ben Rhodes

Written by

White House Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications & Speechwriting. Notes may be archived:

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