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Hugh Evans

British Ambassador to Laos

Part of UK in Laos

31st July 2019 Vientiane, Laos

In Laos, women hold up ‘more than half the sky’

Lao government VIPs and special guests toast together

The Queen’s Birthday Party or Women United Festival took place on the 5 June 2019 at the Crowne Plaza, Vientiane. This is the full speech delivered by His Excellency Hugh Evans, UK Ambassador to Lao PDR, to open the night.

Our Chief Guests: Your Excellencies, Madame Sengdeuane Lachantaboun, Minister of Education and Sports and HE. Mr. Thongphan Savanhphet, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs. H.E. Prof. Dr. Bounkong Syhavong, Minister of Health, H.E. Mr. Alounkeo Kittikhoun, Minister to Prime Minister’s Office, HE Madame Suansavanh Vigaket, Secretary General of the National assembly; HE. Dr. Buakham Thippavong, President of Justice Committee of National Assembly, H.E. Madam Thippakone Chanthavongsa, Vice Minister of Ministry of Finance, HE. Madam Watthana Dalaloy, Deputy Governor of the Bank of Lao PDR HE. Mr. Savankhone Razmountry, Vice Minister of Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism and HE Mr. Thongphath Khammany, Vice Minister of Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. Ambassadors and fellow diplomats, civil society leaders, members of the British and business communities, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you all for coming to celebrate this auspicious occasion.

Kon-eun- mode, kha-pha-chow kor-kao pen pa saa lao song sarm paiyoke.

Kha-pha-chow mee-kuaam-yindee-lai thee-mee okaad kao-kampasai nai kam- keun-nee. kha-pha-chow hu-seuk chai-hai thee thong chak pathed lao wai wai nee.

Tae-wah meu-nee kha-pha-chow kor hai teuk kon huaam moan seun kab ngaan liang. Kha-pha-chow dee-jai lai thee ngaam kam-keun-nee maen kaan-saleum-salong pon-samled khong mae-nying. Lae kha-pha-chow cha kao nae-nam koom mae-nying thee pen tohyaan thee paseub-pon-samled nai wiak ngaan tayla saykaa.

Kor-aphai lai lai kha-pha-chow kor wao pen pa-saa-angeed. Taewah kha-pha-chow kor hai kaa-man-sanyaa waa cha bor leum pa-saa-lao, kon lao lae pathed lao. kha-pha-chow gap-maa ek. Dai bor? Tae-tae bor?

Actors dress as Suffragettes to represent women’s rights in the UK

My wife Nirmala, and I, and the Embassy team, warmly welcome you to the Crowne Plaza – Vientiane’s leading British hotel brand – for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second’s 93rd Birthday Party.

We celebrate Her Majesty as our longest serving monarch. She has given extraordinary service to the nation over her 67 year reign and is one of the world’s most recognisable women. Other family members also play their full part in promoting the UK, such as Princess Beatrice of York who spent a week in Laos last October. One of my special guests tonight, Aluna, sang at the UK Festival to welcome her. We look forward to welcoming the Princess back next year, maybe as patron of the new Laos/UK Friendship Association. I am delighted approval for the Association was granted last week.

So, it is fitting that this year’s theme should be women’s empowerment, women’s achievements and #Women United. You have already seen a fantastic stage show illustrating the changing roles of British women as well as women’s contribution to the development of Laos. I want to thank Ms Thiane Khamvongsa and her Beasts on the Moon theatre company, and the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre for such a powerful creative collaboration.

Tonight isn’t about applauding how women are catching up with men. In many cases they are doing better. Women have certainly made a more than equal contribution to the work of my Embassy. In my experience, they hold up “more than half the sky”.

But before I talk further about the role of women, let me say a few words, as I do each year, about UK foreign policy and our bilateral relations with Laos. But this year sadly will be the last time I address you. After four wonderful years, I will be leaving Laos shortly.

Of course, when it comes to British politics, one issue continues to dominate. But whatever the precise outcome of Brexit will be under the leadership of our next Prime Minister, the government will remain committed to honouring the result of the 2016 referendum. At the same time, the UK will remain a leading player in international affairs and a powerful and dependable ally to our many friends. As British Ambassador to Laos, I have benefited directly from those friendships, especially with my EU colleagues here.

Global Britain best embodies the concept of a UK that remains firmly part of Europe but also looks elsewhere. Here it means stepping up relations with Asia and with ASEAN and its member states, reflected in the opening this year of a British Embassy to ASEAN in Jakarta. As we further upgrade ties, I expect we will devote more attention and resource to the region, directly benefiting Laos. Indeed, it already benefits from our multi-million dollar global programmes, particularly on UXO clearance. And I’m delighted that another special guest tonight is Blossum Gilmour, who heads the Mine Action Group.

As Britain’s international role changes, my dedicated staff and our many partners have worked tirelessly to boost bilateral ties. It’s been an amazing journey. When I arrived, the Mission was still in temporary offices. Now it occupies a modern purpose-built site. And, with our Creative Partnership strategy, we have used our small Post to showcase the best of Britain. We call it boutique diplomacy.

Let me start with politics. Since we celebrated 60 years of diplomatic relations in 2015, the pace of bilateral exchanges has accelerated, especially over the last year. We had four senior British visitors in four consecutive months, including FCO Minister Mark Field. During his visit last August, Mr Field co-chaired with HE Vice Minister Sengphet the second round of our Political Dialogue. Though we did not agree on everything, we did agree on the need to intensify our overall cooperation. And we look forward to a third Dialogue this year.

On education, I accompanied HE Madame Sengdeuane on her latest UK visit in January. Her programme covered the breadth of our educational cooperation, including closer university ties. During the visit, she also met Chelsea Football Club and agreed we should also work on our first bilateral sports initiative focused on disability inclusion. And, in another highlight, the Minister visited Oxford where she met Lao students, including Chevening Scholars. One of my guests tonight is Vilada Chansamouth, a medical researcher at the Mahosot-based Wellcome Trust programme, who will start her PhD at Oxford University this autumn.

Dancers demonstrate female union and leadership

Another priority has been governance. Since 2017, the Westminster Foundation has worked in the National Assembly to strengthen its legislative and oversight capacity. Let me express my gratitude to HE Madame Secretary General of the National assembly for all her support for the Foundation. And my thanks too Phetmany Xaychaleune, another of my guests, who has singlehandedly embedded the Foundation’s programme here. In addition I am proud of the UK role in supporting the financial services sector, including strengthening Laos’ Anti-Money Laundering regime. In this sector, let me say a special thank you to the Deputy Bank of Lao Governor and to the Deputy Minister of Finance for your support and encouragement in recent years. Your Excellencies Mme Wattana and Mme Thippakong, I am delighted to recognise you tonight as high achieving women, as well as being government VIPs. On Illegal Wildlife Trafficking, we were delighted that a Lao delegation under HE Thongpath Vongmany, Vice Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, attended our London Conference last October to announce a domestic ivory ban (delighted you are here). At the same time, our #IWTMekong film competition has helped raise public awareness of the issue.

And then there is our prosperity agenda. When I arrived, the UK was the 14th largest investor. Lao leaders urged me to get the UK into the top 10. We did, though I know there is much more to do. Helping us do it, though, is the British Business Group. Formed in 2015 and only recognised as a chamber last year, it already has over 100 members, has an active outreach programme, and contributes to wider corporate life in Laos. My thanks to the BBG Board for doing a fantastic job.

But while we will strive to bring in more UK trade and investment, the government, too, must also do more to fulfil HE the Prime Minister’s ambition to make Laos more attractive to investors. We will continue to lobby for faster reform. And, in this context, I want to recognise the important advocacy work led by the European Chamber of Commerce in Laos.

Of course, none of our achievements would have been possible without a vibrant contact network. We have more sponsors than ever, including three gold sponsors: RMA Group who always steal the show with their Jaguar Land Rover range; Panyathip: the British International School in Laos; and Prudential, this country’s top international insurance company. Our valued Silver Sponsors include Heathfield School, Wimbledon School of English, Microtec and the British Education Centre. My thanks to Unilever, Highland Bar, Spirit House, Balamy Trading, Love Life and last – but never least – Beerlao, for all providing delicious food and drinks this evening.

Meanwhile, our partners, covering every aspect of our work – have set up stalls around this room. Please do go and check them out! And let me also thank everyone who has assisted the Consular team in supporting Brits who have faced difficult situations over the last year.

Gold sponsors Panyathip International School with their #WomenUnited banners

So, as you can see, we depend heavily on an extensive supportive network. Which brings me back to my theme of “Women United”. It would be impossible to highlight all the women who have made an important contribution to UK/Laos friendship – there are so many. But I did want to present a small group to represent the many different sectors we cover.

I’ve cited a few distinguished women already. But there are others. In business, Mina Gnouttithan is a versatile and successful entrepreneur, shortlisted for the UK-based “Women of the Future Awards”. Fleur Varenne, a BBG member, has built her SME catering business from scratch. Her cake for tonight’s QBP elegantly captures our Women’s United theme.

In civil society, Dr. Manivone Thikeo is the only trained clinical psychologist in Laos. Dr Inaleusa Basengkham has been a courageous champion of transgender rights in this country. And Madam Chanhpheng leads the Lao Disabled Women’s Development Centre, whose amazing wheelchair dancers you saw earlier. I am proud that we are collecting donations this evening for her Centre.

In media and culture, Pany Saignavonga, the architect of Lao Fashion Week, highlights talented young designers and sends them abroad for training, including to the London College of Design & Fashion. Souk-Prasay Sithimolada is a distinguished media contact who has interviewed all major British visitors to Laos in recent years. And Viengkham Nanthavongdouang is an innovative fashion designer who has forged strong ties between Lao silk and the UK market.

In education, Ms Pathana Panyathip is a true visionary. Her Panyathip schools have been instrumental in bringing top UK educational brands to Laos, including Nottingham University, and, most recently in the Panyathip group, the famous Pingu kindergarten programme.

Special guests from each sector to represent women’s leading role and contribution to Lao-UK friendship

Finally, Madame Excellency, I am deeply honoured to have you as my Chief Guest tonight. When I arrived, you made clear that the UK must play its part in helping you and the government transform educational opportunities in Laos. Every initiative we have pursued – on English language assistance, teacher training and building university links – has had your personal backing. It has been an extraordinary partnership. I am delighted that your Ministry, and my Embassy, will very soon sign an MOU to intensify our cooperation.

I am grateful to all of our partners, women and men, including our male VIPs this evening – and, in this regard, I want to acknowledge the tremendous support we have had from HE the Minister of Health in launching our Fleming Fund programme in Laos to address Anti-Microbial Resistance.

When we are united, we can do so much more. As someone once said “You can’t write a story together if you are not on the same page”.So, I am grateful to all of you for being here tonight. I am also grateful to my most amazing team for all their support over the last four years. They are too numerous to mention. But I did want to highlight the role played by our new Public Diplomacy and Policy Officer, Steffica Warwick, in overseeing all the arrangements for tonight.

So, before I invite our Chief Guest and other distinguished VIPs to come on stage for the toast, I’d like to invite all the women I’ve mentioned in my speech to join me now. Please do give them a very warm round of applause.

Since this is my last Queen’s Birthday Party, I will also shamelessly exercise my host’s prerogative to invite one more woman to come on to the stage, somebody who has supported me personally over many years and without whom I would not be standing in front of you as Ambassador tonight. I’d like to welcome my wife Nirmala.

Thank you all very much for your warmth and support, both this evening and throughout my time in Laos. I will miss this country enormously but will also have the fondest memories. Thank you very much.

And now can I invite HE Excellency Madame Sengdeuane and HE. Mr. Thongphan Savanhphet, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs to join me for a toast. To be followed by all our VIPs.

I’d like to raise a toast to the health of His Excellency Bounnhang Vorachit, President of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic; to the health of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II; and to all the women and men of Laos and the United Kingdom.

Guests of Honour and Government VIPs cut the Women United birthday cake with HE Hugh Evans

About Hugh Evans

Mr Hugh Evans was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 2015. Mr Evans joined the FCO in 1985 and has covered a wide range of…

Mr Hugh Evans was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 2015. Mr Evans joined the FCO in 1985 and has covered a wide range of policy and management roles.

He spent his early career as an FCO Research Analyst working on South and South East Asia and was seconded to the US State Department as a regional expert on Asian affairs. He has since served overseas in Nairobi, Khartoum, Moscow and, most recently, Erbil, in northern Iraq.

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