“Sweden has had a huge involvement in Laos since the end of the Vietnam War and I think it stems from our interest in the politics of that war. It was a big subject at the time in Sweden and even our prime minister was openly against the war”, says AnnLis Åberg who as a part of the 68 generation did not herself participate in the demonstrations but ‘sympathized with the cause’. More than hundred Swedes are present in Laos. Many of them are working for various Swedish organizations under the SIDA umbrella. It is all directed from the SIDA Embassy in Vientiane where AnnLis Åberg is Chargé d’affairs and Head of Mission.
“We have stayed in Laos because it takes time to build projects and relationships and see the results”, says AnnLis. That is the case of the new educational program in which Sweden assists Laos in educating teachers.
“Our commitment has made us one of the largest donors of bilateral aid to Laos”, says AnnLis Åberg. “The bilateral program adds up to approximately $ 22 million per year and on top of that we have regional programs worth of $ 3 million”, she adds. The other main donors are Japan, Germany and the former colonizers, France.
Focus areas then and now
The Swedish Embassy in Laos was founded in 1978; three years after the war had ended.
“Back then the main focus areas were support of reconstruction and the forest industry of the war ridden country”, says AnnLis
“Today we are also focusing on poverty reduction and democratization and I think you can see a very clear Swedish foot print on many of the projects for example human rights in Laos”, says AnnLis referring to The Informal Working Group on Human Rights which is co-chaired by the Swedish Ambassador in Bangkok, Jonas Hafström.
“The group has a big influence in Laos. I have seen a lot of progress in human rights in Laos over the three and a half years I have been in the country and our work has contributed to that progress”, she says.
AnnLis Åberg worked in Vietnam before and then Laos was just a nice place to visit. “I remember the first time I got here. It was in 1987 and the weather was so great compared to Vietnam. Everyone was smiling and saying ‘Sawadee’. The country made a great first time impression and I am still very happy to live here”, she says.
Closing time or further commitment
The embassy is very busy as it has the functions of any other embassy, but its ambassador is located in Bangkok.
“We are busy especially because of the increasing number of Scandinavian tourists in Laos”, says AnnLis Åberg. “The infrastructure and hospital facilities are not the best here and when we have about 15,000 Scandinavian tourists per year we also see some fatalities and serious injuries”, she says.
Another thing that makes the embassy busy is that only three EU countries have embassies in Laos and they therefore take turns in representing and speaking on behalf of the EU member states.
“I have just finished a letter to our head quarters in Stockholm asking for another Swedish employee for the embassy”, she says. That wish might not be accommodated as the Swedish government is in the process of concentrating its international activities, which means closing down embassies. “I have no idea whether it will affect our embassy, but I hope not. We will know this summer when they make it official which embassies are to close”, says AnnLis. It speaks for the embassy that we have a long relationship with Laos which is a country moving in the right direction. It would not be the right time to leave. But the fact that Laos is still a one party state speaks against continued Swedish commitment in the country.