Russian troops have been clearing an area of around 500 hectares of unexploded ordnance, or UXO, in Laos’ Xieng Khouang province with plans to build a new airport and military facility as part of an expansion of military aid to the impoverished Southeast Asian nation, according to Lao officials.
A Russian demining team has been working with Lao counterparts to clear the UXO since Dec. 5, provincial officials recently told RFA’s Lao Service, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the plans with the media.
“The Russians came here to build a military airport on the other side of the Plain of Jars,” one of the officials said, referring to the archeological landscape in the Xieng Khouang Plateau that was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2019.
“They’re currently clearing the UXO and then they’re going to upgrade the existing airport, making it larger and more beautiful.”
Another Xieng Khouang official, who is a provincial military officer, provided further details about the new airport to RFA.
“The Russian and Lao armed forces together are building this new airport that will be larger than the existing one and will be divided in two different zones,” he said.
“One zone is for Lao and Russian military use and the other is for civilian use.”
The officer said that the Russian military intends to provide substantial assistance to Laos going forward, including with training and developing the latter’s armed forces.
“Some work on the new airport has already begun, but the actual construction will not start anytime soon because the UXO clearance will take some time,” he said.
“Once the UXO has been cleared, we’ll lay underground powerlines. We’ll do our work step by step.”
Besides the airport, the Russians intend to expand military cooperation with Laos that will include building a facility to train Lao troops on how to use Russian military equipment, according to a report by Russian news agency Sputniknews.com.
A former senior government official in Laos told RFA that the two sides are expanding cooperation in line with an agreement they have in place on security and defense, as well as the new airport.
“In the agreements, most cooperation would include training and teaching military techniques to the Lao armed forces,” said the former official, who also declined to be named.
“We had more cooperation and more Russian military presence in Laos during the Soviet era,” he added.
RFA spoke with an official at the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs who claimed not to know anything about the Russian military aid projects.
In 2018, Laos ordered four jet fighters and 10 Yak-130 tanks from Russia following a state visit to Moscow a year earlier by Laos’ then-Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, during which the two nations signed a military cooperation agreement. Four of the tanks were later delivered to the Lao Ministry of Defense by Russia’s Rosoboronexport Company and took part in a 2019 parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Lao People’s Armed Forces in the capital, Vientiane.
In April 2019, Russia’s TASS news agency reported that the Russian and Lao defense ministries had agreed on the areas of expanding military cooperation between their two countries on the sidelines of the Moscow International Conference on International Security, citing Lao Defense Minister Chansamone Chanyalath. The report did not provide details of the agreement.
In June last year, Laos unveiled plans to build statues to honor two unnamed Soviet pilots who died while serving in the Southeast Asian country, angering citizens who said the $775,000 earmarked for the project could be better spent on recovering from the coronavirus pandemic. The pilots were in Laos as part of Moscow’s military presence in the fellow communist country between 1975 and 1992 and are believed to have been involved in training pilots in Laos’ air force. An official from the Ministry of Information Culture and Tourism told RFA at the time that the pilots were killed in a crash over Xieng Khouang province while on a practice mission.
According to a report on the Lao Defense Ministry website, Chansamone met with Russian Ambassador to Laos Vladimir Kalinin at the Russian Embassy in Vientiane on Dec. 29 and thanked him for Russia’s gift of a hangar to store tanks in Xieng Khouang province. Chansamone also expressed gratitude for joint military exercises held in the province in 2019, Russia’s assistance with UXO clearance, its work in upgrading the airport in Xieng Khouang, and for building an office of the Russian military representative in the province. The meeting took place a week after Russia’s military donated an air force training center to Laos.
Source of aid
Moscow was a major arms supplier to Laos after its communist government, closely associated with the Soviet-aligned communist government in Vietnam, was established in 1975. According to a January report in The Diplomat, recent aid to Laos highlights the country’s importance in Russia’s desire for broader defense cooperation in Southeast Asia.
Russia has provided various forms of assistance to Laos in recent years.
In January, TASS cited Russian Ambassador Kalinin as saying that Moscow and Vientiane had agreed on deliveries of 2 million doses of Russia’s homegrown Sputnik V vaccine, which would be used to inoculate around 25% of the Lao population against the coronavirus.