Working with all sides

The Laos experience

Fritz Lherisson
Fritz with President
UNICEF
15 December 2021

1973 was a historic year for Laos on several fronts. The Royal Lao Government and the Pathet Lao signed a peace agreement on 21 February 1973, after many years of war. This included the proviso that each side would be able to retain the territory under its control until the general elections to establish a National Government. Meanwhile a Provisional National Coalition Government and a National Political Council was to be established to oversee the implementation of the peace agreement and ensure the administration of national affairs. This comprised members of each side in equal proportions. Later that year, in September 1973, UNICEF opened its first office in Vientiane Laos.

It was early July 1973, when I received a call from the Executive Director of UNICEF Mr. Henry Labouisse offering me the post of UNICEF Representative in Laos with the mandate of working with the authorities of both sides to ensure that UNICEF support was provided to all children in Laos as approved by the Executive Board.

I arrived in Laos in early September 1973 and was warmly welcome by officials of the Royal Lao Government. As the first UNICEF Representative in Laos, I had to work initially with a small team of 3 staff that was later reinforced with a programme officer, a social planning officer, a supply officer and a United Nations volunteer. As a small team we were very much conscious of the tremendous responsibility given the task on which we were embarking, namely to find a way to provide support to children on both sides of the politically complex environment and also the risks associated with that mission: politics having the upper hand over everything else.  The environment in which the UNICEF office was working was challenging indeed.

Old vientiane
UNICEF Laos
Ariel image of Patuxay monument

It should be underlined that UNICEF, through its Regional Office in Bangkok, Thailand has been cooperating with the Royal Lao Government providing support to children in the area under its control in several areas: health, water and sanitation, education and technical support to the Children and Youth Planning Unit of the Planning Commission. After opening the Office and discussion with the RLG authorities concerned, an emergency component in the area of health including drugs, vaccines, and also food supplements was added to meet the immediate needs of the children.

As mentioned above the UNICEF mandate, as agreed by the Executive Board, support was to be provided to all children in Laos wherever they are. There serious challenges: first to establish contact with the Pathet Lao authorities; and second to obtain information on the situation of the children living in area under their administration in order to determine the type of support needed. However, as the peace agreement had not led yet to the reunification of the country, we had to find a way to provide such assistance to these children. We had, by then, enlisted the support of some strategic allies. One such ally, and an important one, was the Prime Minister of the Royal Lao Government, Prince Souvanna Phouma. He was able to help us achieve this important part of our mission by arranging a meeting with Prince Souphanouvong, the leader of the Pathet Lao. When I met with Prince Souphanouvong, who was also the Chairman of the National Political Coalition Council in the royal city of Luang Prabang, I was able to express UNICEF’s readiness to work with the Pathet Lao authorities in order to provide the appropriate support to the children living in the area under their administration. After a tense but useful meeting that ended cordially with a toast to our future collaboration, he agreed to accept UNICEF support based on an assessment of the situation of the children in the area under their control.

Three days later we were invited for a three-day visit to Sam Neua, the capital city of the area under the administration of the Pathet Lao for a rapid assessment and discussion with the authorities of the support needed.

Plane
UNICEF Laos

Along with the programme officer and the supply officer we had a very useful exchange with the authorities concerned about the situation of the children, the UNICEF support and the modality of such cooperation.  It was a successful mission that had allowed us to submit a proposal to our Headquarters, based on the information we had. This was in the areas of health, nutrition and education. It was approved and processed very rapidly to the satisfaction of the Pathet Lao authorities.

This UNICEF assistance was much appreciated. It opened the door for a friendly and wider cooperation after the Pathet Lao took control of the entire country in August 1975, about two years after the establishment of the office in Laos.

A year after the signing of the peace agreement, the Provisional National Coalition Government and the National Political Coalition Council were established around mid-1974. This involved protracted negotiations, but they were short- lived. They were abolished right after the take-over the entire country by the Pathet Lao. The country was reunified and became the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. A new Government was formed with Prince Souphanouvong, the leader of the Pathet Lao, as President.

The cooperative relationship that had already been developed between UNICEF and the Pathet Lao, meant that the new Government saw UNICEF as their trusted partner. The current programme of cooperation with the Royal Lao Government was reviewed by the new authorities and was approved with a request for an expansion of its coverage to include all children in Laos. Necessary adjustments were made to the programme to the satisfaction of the new authorities who praised the UNICEF pragmatic approach.

My tenure as UNICEF Representative was not smooth sailing, but we had the firm support of the Executive Director as we were carrying out the mandate of the UNICEF Executive Board. Nevertheless it was a highly interesting and rewarding assignment given the results achieved in an extremely difficult political environment providing support to all children across the country.

 

A mother and a child
UNICEF

What was accomplished was the result of a true sense of duty and responsibility felt by the UNICEF team in Laos who showed an uncompromising commitment and passion for the cause of children. They spared no effort in a complex environment to help achieve the UNICEF objective to provide support to all children in Laos wherever they were. When this was taken alongside the firm support of the Executive Director Mr Henry Labouisse and the advice and back up support of the Indochina Peninsula Liaison Group (IPLG) team, we never felt alone. This support and dedication really helped us to achieve such a great deal for the children of Laos.

All of us who worked in Laos during this period derived great professional satisfaction from all we achieved as a team in rising to the challenge to provide support to all children in Laos, thus responding to the UNICEF Executive Board mandate and the expectations of the Executive Director and other senior colleagues at Headquarters and IPLG unit. In addition, the recognition by the new Government of the value of UNICEF cooperative work for the benefit of the Lao children was a source of great happiness.

A meeting
UNICEF
Fritz (middle) introducing new Representative, Akram Piracha (left)to introduce him to the President, Prince Souphanouvong (right)

Those three years working with a passionate and committed team were challenging but also really interesting and rewarding. I treasure them. Working in such a setting created strong personal bonds that I have never forgotten. I left with a great sense of personal satisfaction of work done under difficult circumstances, and consider myself lucky that I was given the opportunity to serve the cause of children in such a politically complex and difficult environment. It was a wonderful experience that I will never forget. What a baptism of fire!