Highlights of 2012
It’s an American tradition to make “Top Ten” lists at the end of the year. So, I decided to make a list of some of my favorite memories from the past year. Here it is, hope you like it …
10. Social media: Since I am writing this on my personal blog, it seemed appropriate to start this list by talking about the growth of social media in Laos. One of the highlights of the year for me has been watching the increasing number of Lao citizens who are using social media to communicate, connect, and engage with each other. Social media sites like Facebook are allowing conversations to take place that would never have been possible before, about every sort of topic. I have been particularly happy to see the growth in our Embassy social media platforms, which include Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and this blog. We have more than 7,000 fans on Facebook now, and I always enjoy reading the discussions that take place on our page.
9. Proud to Be Us: Another highlight of the year for me was the event we organized in June to show support for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) people in Laos. Members of the LGBT community are often marginalized in society, and I felt very proud that my Embassy could show solidarity with them. The title of the event was “Proud to Be Us!” and for some of the people who attended, it may have been the first time they were ever able to express that feeling publicly.
8. Visiting every province: Another great highlight of 2012 for me was fulfilling my goal of visiting every province in Laos. I reached this milestone in April when I made a visit to Salavan Province.
7. Spending Thanksgiving with our JPAC team: I had a unique Thanksgiving holiday this year, and it was definitely one of my fondest memories of 2012. I spent the holiday in Xekong Province, observing one of the four or five missions we mount each year to recover the remains of U.S. service members who were killed or went missing in Laos during the Vietnam War era. These operations are conducted by military personnel from the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Command (JPAC), assisted by the Lao team, and in November they were kind enough to invite me for a visit to their base camp. One night, the team members and I shared a simple Thanksgiving dinner. It wasn’t fancy, and it certainly wasn’t the most gourmet meal I have ever had, but I have never had better company, and never been more proud of our soldiers and the great efforts they go to recover lost comrades.
6. Flu medicine from Walgreens: In April of 2012, the American drugstore chain Walgreens donated $9 million worth of flu vaccine to the Lao Ministry of Health. This was a very significant event, not only because it helped protect up to 375,000 vulnerable Lao people (especially pregnant women, children, and the elderly) from potentially deadly flu outbreaks, but also because it represented a promising new model of a successful public-private partnership.
5. Hip Hop dancing: To promote the Fang Mae Khong Dance Festival in October, I learned how to hip hop dance. Without a doubt one of the most memorable experiences of the year for me! Watch the video here: Than Toot’s Got the Moves
4. Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation: In 2012 we committed over $200,000 in funding to support the restoration of the Wat Xieng Thong Temple in Luang Prabang through the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. Over the past ten years, this terrific U.S. government program has enabled us to provide over a half million dollars to cultural preservation projects in Laos. 2012 was our biggest year ever in terms of funding for the program, and we hope to continue to support projects that demonstrate the American people’s appreciation for Laos’ cultural heritage.
3. Launch of the AMCHAM: One of the most significant developments of the year in terms of business relations between the U.S. and Laos was the establishment of the Lao Chapter of the American Chamber of Commerce in September. One of our main goals at the Embassy is to encourage sustainable economic development and promote better ties between U.S. and Lao businesses, so establishing an AMCHAM (as the Chamber of Commerce is colloquially known), has been a priority of ours for quite a while. I was delighted to see this goal finally come to fruition, and I hope it will signal a new era of closer relations between Lao and U.S. businesses.
2. Additional funding for UXO assistance: Quite frankly, it is impossible to live in Laos for any length of time without becoming aware of the devastating effects that unexploded ordnance (UXO) - much of it dropped by the U.S. military during the Lao civil war - continues to have on the country. So, without a doubt, one of the highlights of 2012 for me was the decision by the U.S. Congress to expand our assistance in the UXO sector to $9.2 million dollars, almost doubling the previous year’s funding. My hope is that this increase in funding marks the beginning of a new commitment by the U.S. government and our partners to rid Laos of UXO once and for all.
1. Visit by Hillary Clinton: Well, it’s probably no surprise, but my number one favorite memory from 2012 was the visit we received in July from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - the first visit by a sitting U.S. Secretary of State in 57 years! Although her time in Laos was quite short, Secretary Clinton managed to meet with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister and advance a number of important U.S. initiatives. More importantly, she let everyone know that America recognizes Laos as a dynamic country with a growing economy, a vibrant culture, and an important role to play in global affairs.
So that’s my list. I hope you had as wonderful a year as I did, and I wish you an even better 2013!