Laos NTR sign now

We write to you as current or former staff of organizations working in the Lao People's Democratic Republic or neighboring countries; as academic specialists on Laos and Southeast Asia; and as analysts of US relations with Laos. Based on our professional knowledge and personal experience, we strongly support H.R. 3195, which would grant approval of Normal Trade Relations (NTR) status for Laos, and urge that the House Ways and Means Committee take action to expedite the passage of the bill as soon as possible.

Laos is one of the worlds poorest countries, ranking 143rd out of 173 countries based on the United Nations Human Development Indicators. Half the population lives below the governments own defined poverty line. Laos has the lowest life expectancy in Southeast Asia, and the highest adult illiteracy rate in the region, particularly among women.

The economic isolation which results from withholding NTR from Laos makes finding solutions to these problems all the more difficult. Laos is the only country with which the US has normal full diplomatic ties but not normal trade relations and thus faces the highest tariffs in the world. In the absence of NTR, typical American tariffs on Laotian goods average 45\%, and rise as high as 90\% on some products. By contrast, for the great majority of Americas 223 trading partners, tariffs average 2.4\%.

We believe that granting NTR to Laos could have a significant effect on the Laotian economy. For comparison, since trade was normalized in 1996, Cambodian exports to the US have jumped to a billion dollars worth of clothes, which in turn has created 200,000 urban jobs. This has enabled Cambodia to become one of the first least developed countries to enter the World Trade Organization. In Vietnam, trade with the US more than doubled in the first year after NTR was granted and we are now Vietnams largest export market.

In view of the strides made toward trade normalization with these two countries, there is no justification for allowing economic relations with Laos to remain a vestige of the Vietnam war. The Bush administration has praised Laos for its bilateral cooperation in recent years, in areas such as narcotics interdiction and counter-terrorism, as well as with the search for the remains of American military missing in action. Ironically, Laos is the only country in Indochina with which the US never broke diplomatic relations yet it still suffers unjustified economic sanctions.

We know from our work with the Lao people that they are eager to develop their skills and their economy. In the coming year, Laos will assume the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) for the first time, and is working to meet the challenge of its increasing participation in the region and the international community. At the same time, Laotians are anxious to preserve traditional arts and skills that define their culture, and that maintain ethnic diversity. Granting NTR to Laos will enable handicraft cooperatives to market their products and thus to act as the everyday guardians of Laotian culture.

We urge you and the Ways and Means Committee to support Normal Trade Relations for Laos and to help move this process forward as quickly as possible.

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