The London embassy of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (LDPR) was formally reopened in Porchester Terrace, London after a 29-year gap, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony held at Asia House, on Thursday.
The event completed the full diplomatic representation of all ASEAN nations in Britain, complementing the UK’s presence in each of the 10 member countries of the southeast Asian trade and economic bloc.
“Today’s event is of great significance in the history of the longstanding relationship and cooperation between the Lao PDR and the UK,” LDPR Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith told Asia House before he cut the ribbon with Britain’s Minister of State for Asia Hugo Swire at exactly 11.11 am.
Distinguishing an event with a triple number – 11 minutes past the 11th hour on a day in the 11th month – is considered auspicious in many Asian cultures.
“This marks another important milestone in enhancing the friendship and understanding and cooperation between our two countries,” Mr Sisoulith said.
The Embassy of Laos PDR is based at 49 Porchester Terrace, London W2 3TS.
Laos Deputy Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith with Asia House CEO Michael Lawrence and the Laos UK Ambassador Sayakane Sisouvong at the ceremony
London heads of mission from ASEAN countries and Asia House corporate members attended the Asia House event to mark the re-opening, which builds on Britain’s drive to develop stronger commercial and political ties with Asia.
Mr Swire said the reopening of the embassy at Porchester Terrace was an important step in UK efforts to intensify its relations with Laos “as we are doing with partners right across Asia.”
He said progress in relations between Britain and the LDPR since the reopening in 2012 of the British embassy in Vientiane had been remarkable and he expected more in the coming two years, including the inauguration of the ASEAN Economic Community which he saw “breaking economic barriers in South Asia to the region’s and the world’s benefit.”
Bilateral trade between the UK and the LDPR, one of the world’s poorest countries, is small. But Britain is seeking to boost its profile and has initiated a British Business Group in Laos, working with UK companies already present in the market and reaching out to UK companies in the region.
Britain’s ambassador to the LDPR, Philip Malone, said doing business in Laos “does have its challenges.”
“You look at the transparency and the ease of doing business tables and they are still quite low but they are slowly moving up,” he told Asia House in an interview ahead of the ceremony.
Laos Deputy Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and UK Minister of State Hugo Swire toast the reopening
UK exports to Laos increased by some 20 percent to £3.98 million in 2013, compared with the previous year while Lao exports to the UK, mostly made up of garments, grew by 9 percent £42 million.
The largest UK investor in Laos is Imperial Tobacco, which owns a minority stake in Lao Tobacco.
Other active British brands include Land Rover and Range Rover cars – popular among the growing Laotian middle class – as well as JCB construction vehicles and financial services companies such as Standard Chartered Bank, KPMG and PwC.
Tourists are also being attracted to Laos in growing numbers, drawn by its pristine environment, historical sites and backpacking opportunities.
Mr Malone said there were potential opportunities for specialists in areas like equipment or technical services, as well as tourism and value added business in the agriculture sector.
“Pharmaceuticals, after vehicles, are one of our main exports to Laos and I think that retail will be a future opportunity,” he said.
“There are a lot of UK retailers in Thailand and some of them have already been taking a look at Laos so potentially in time some of those companies will come. “
Mr Sisoulith said LDPR’s entry into the ASEAN Economic Community would have both a positive and a negative impact.
“Because Laos is a small economy, we have to make sure we are well prepared to compete with others and that we create the conditions to display our abilities.
“Laos cannot move alone. We need ASEAN. But ASEAN also needs Laos. This is very important.”
To view a photo slideshow of the ceremony, click below:
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David Cowell is a freelance journalist working for Asia House.