Well, it is wonderful to be here and especially to be the first Secretary of State since 1955. I am excited by the work that you are doing every day, helping to shape our relationship with Laos. This is a quick first stop for me to demonstrate the high-level commitment that we have to this relationship and our desire to broaden and deepen it. I couldn’t leave without thanking all of you for what you do every single day. I want to thank Ambassador Karen Stewart. Karen and I went to the same college; we’re both Wellesley College alums. This is the third assignment for her in Laos, and I have to tell you that her performance at the Laos Street Jamz festival will go down in history.
I have been now in 102 countries, and I can count on one hand those countries where the head of state or government thanks me for the ambassador we’ve sent. And that has happened today with both the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister because of Ambassador Stewart’s great devotion to this country, her knowledge of the language and the customs. It’s really making a difference.
I also want to thank the locally employed staff. And I just had a chance to take a picture with them, including our longest-serving locally employed staff for now 36 years, and we are grateful. Please stand. We will give you a round of applause. (Applause.) We could not do our work without you. We are very, very grateful to each and every one of you for being part of this mission.
When I met with the Foreign Minister, we traced the arc of our relationship, from addressing the tragic legacies of the past, to finding new ways to partner for the future. And through trips like this one, the United States is deepening our engagement in the Asia Pacific. We’re practicing what I call forward-deployed diplomacy, using all of our diplomatic assets in a whole-of-government approach represented by so many agencies and departments in order to make our presence known and to be an effective partner.
Now here in Laos, the past is always with us. I just finished touring COPE, a painful reminder of the legacy of the Vietnam War era. An estimated 80 million unexploded cluster bombs remain scattered across Laos, and they continue to kill or injure about a hundred people a year, which is good because that’s down from several hundreds a year, but it still is unacceptable. And since 1995, the U.S. has provided nearly $59 million to help remove more than a million of these cluster munitions along with larger ordnance, clearing some 23,000 hectares of land that can now be used for farming or development. This year, we are increasing our financial commitment by $4 million, and I hope others in the international community will join us in our efforts to bring this legacy of the Vietnam War era to a safe end and give the people, particularly the children of this nation, the opportunity to live their lives safe from these unexploded bombs.
Now collectively, you are doing so much. You’ve been to every province, teaching English to government officials and students, connecting U.S. business leaders with entrepreneurs, helping rural provinces prepare for natural disasters, delivering tons of rice and cereal to hundreds of thousands of school children. And with 70 percent of the population under the age of 30, we are looking to the next generation of leaders to continue developing their country, to fighting corruption, opening up the political system to women and minorities, and strengthening reforms.
Now through the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation, a program near and dear to my heart, we will be providing $215,000 in additional preservation work to the iconic Wat Xieng Thong Temple. Through the Lower Mekong Initiative, we are expanding regional cooperation and we’re trying to open new markets in Laos through our economic statecraft agenda. We are expanding cooperation between our militaries, we’ve renewed our in-country USAID presence, upping the tempo of our fight against HIV/AIDS, and doing so much more.
We had excellent bilateral dialogue just a few weeks ago and we are pleased by the progress we are making together. With your help, we are writing a new chapter in our relationship and building a new, comprehensive partnership for the 21st century. I’m grateful for your long hours, your hard work, and your commitment. And I hope that we will continue to see progress from the multiple efforts that each of you is engaged in. And now, I think we’re going to take a couple of pictures.