Remarks at the YSEALI Interaction Event

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Vientiane, Laos
January 25, 2016

MS SOUKDALA: Secretary Kerry, it is my great pleasure to welcome you to Laos. I’m sorry, my voice is going to be shaking because I’m so excited and cold at the same time.

Yeah, so the young people gathered in front of you today come from all walks of life. They all have different backgrounds, but they share a few common thread. First, they share a passion of the environment. Second, they are committed to helping Laos reach its full potential. And third, they are all YSEALI members. Many of them have already participated in the YSEALI exchange program. Some of them went to their original programs and some of them went to the United States.

I have been working on YSEALI since I joined the embassy in 2014. I have seen the numbers of the members shoot up from 50 to over 1,000 in a little over a year. And since then, I have seen our YSEALI member engage in many activities, from holding startup weekends to teaching summer schools, from organizing trash collection in the communities to helping the farmers know how to market their organic vegetables. They come from across Laos, ranging from the far north to the far south and everywhere in between.

So while we are rich in the natural resources, Laos’ greatest strength in – is its people. Over 70 percent of the population is under 35 years old, so the youth are our future. If the young people of Laos are as dedicated, as energetic, and as committed as these young people, the future of Lao PDR is bright. (Laughter.) Right?

Yeah. So it is fitting today that we are sitting in front of the Mekong River, and I understand that your early experience in Southeast Asia was along the Mekong. You have come the full circle. Would you like to say a few words?

SECRETARY KERRY: (Inaudible) about that. (Inaudible.) Thanks. Technically much more proficient than me. (Laughter.)

Well, first of all, Christina, thank you. You did a wonderful job of introducing this initiative. And thank you, all of you, for sitting out here in the cold. I see you’re shivering. She’s really cold.

So we’re only scheduled to be here for about 25 minutes, half an hour, so you don’t have to freeze too long, I promise you. And I want to hear from you. I want to have as much discussion as we can, but let me just say to you, look: I first came here in the very early 1990s. I think it was 1992 or so. And we were still very far apart in terms of our relationship, but we began to work, trying to resolve some of the questions of the war that took place in Vietnam, here, Cambodia, that got pulled into it. And there were enormous differences.

There are differences still, but now there are many, many things that are pulling us together. We are involved in ASEAN, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. And there is a unity among those nations to want to work with rules-based economies, to want to work with a non-aggressive structure where the countries are really cooperating in a way that provides jobs, education, health care, and a real future, which is what people want.

I see most of you are sitting with your smartphone, right? (Laughter.) And so everybody’s connected. You’re texting, you’re on Facebook, you’re Facetiming, you’re talking to people. You can pick up any piece of information. This is a very different world. And when you think about the fact that 70 percent of your nation is under the age of 30 and 50 percent is under the age of 21, you’re going to see enormous change. And you – all of you who are part of the Young Southeast Asian Leaders – are going to be the leaders of that future.

Now, there’s so many things we have to do. We have to protect this incredible river – which is very low right now, as you see – but this river doesn’t belong to just one country. This river belongs to all of the countries from its source to the delta, and every country has to think about the other countries downstream, but also, every country has to think about the sustainability of the river. It’s a major environmental and economic and even a moral challenge.

So we are working with you now. We are working with Laos to help provide technical assistance, to provide knowledge about what kind of dam can you put in without damaging the fish. How do you manage to deal with the silt so the river doesn’t just fill in? What do you do in order to continue to be able to adequately fish on a sustainable basis and have the fish be able to move through the dams and not see the whole ecosystem disturbed? And climate change will have an impact on this, because the melting of the glaciers, which is increasing everywhere, is going to have an impact on the availability of water, and water sometimes can even create wars. So this is a very important national security issue for you, for us, for everybody.

We want more people to be able to have access to full education opportunity, because today’s world demands many more different kinds of input and disciplines. There are different job opportunities. Your growth, incidentally, here in Laos is one of the fastest in the world right now. You have a small economy, but it’s growing at an unbelievable rate. And I know every single one of you is thirsty to grab onto the possibilities of this different economic future.

So the United States is committed to working very closely with Laos, with the rest of the ASEAN countries. President Obama has invited all of ASEAN to come to California next month. We will have a summit; we will talk about all of these economic issues, how do we improve trade. We are currently working with Laos to respond to its request to join the WTO, which will open up the opportunities for trade.

We’re also working in order to assist in terms of nutrition challenges, because many young people don’t have sufficient nutrition, and that stunts their growth and also affects their ability to learn and to be productive members of society.

So there’s so much for us to work on, and rather than have me just tell you what you probably already know, I would like to hear from you. I would like to know what you think the biggest priority is. What do you want me to leave here knowing that I might not have known if you didn’t tell me? What do you want us to work on together to make a difference? What do you think would make the biggest difference? Any of these kinds of questions are really what we want to talk about, okay? So now it’s up to you. I want you to sort of carry this conversation. And Christina, you going to moderate?


SECRETARY KERRY: All right. You’re on.

MS SOUKDALA: Thank you very much for your remarks. I would like to thank the press for coming today. We will now begin the question and answer conversation.