Laos has unveiled plans to build statues to honor two unnamed Soviet pilots who died while serving in the Southeast Asian country, raising eyebrows among citizens who say the $775,000 earmarked for the project could be better spent on recovering from the COVID-19 epidemic.
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’s Lao Service that the pilots were killed in a crash over Xieng Khouang province while on a practice mission.
RFA was unable to confirm the identities of the two pilots and when exactly their planes crashed after repeated inquiries to relevant officials.
A Lao People’s Army Newspaper report on June 7 said the National Defense Ministry would foot the entire construction costs, estimated to be more than 7 billion kip (U.S. $777,000), to build statues either in the capital Vientiane or in Xieng Khouang province where the crash occurred.
At such a hefty price tag, some Lao citizens say that a memorial’s construction should be put off until the country deals with its more immediate problems, such as reviving an economy shuttered to combat the coronavirus pandemic for the past four months.
“This is not the time to build those monuments. Our people are trying to survive,” a man living in the capital, who requested anonymity to speak freely, told RFA’s Lao Service June 11.
“Building those monuments can be done at any time. Right now, we want the government to improve our living conditions first,” he said.
Another resident of Vientiane, who requested anonymity for safety reasons expressed similar concerns to RFA.
“Our soldiers and police officers have not received their salaries for three or four months since the COVID-19 outbreak. The defense ministry should pay their salaries first,” the second resident said.
Laos had only 19 confirmed coronavirus cases within its borders as of Friday, but joined much of the world in closing international borders and shutting down industry, tourism and commerce to flatten the curve.
Many Lao migrant workers who had been working in Thailand also lost their jobs, resulting in a sudden halt in remittances to their families in Laos.
Vientiane likely site
While Vientiane and Xieng Khouang have been mentioned as potential locations for the monument, a defense ministry official told RFA that the capital is a more likely choice for the statues.
“The contract has been signed. A committee has been set up and we are now discussing the location. Chances are it’s going to be in Vientiane, but the committee will announce their decision soon,” the official, who requested anonymity for professional reasons, said.
An official in Xieng Khouang, who declined to be named for professional reasons, told RFA that the decision “depends on the central government. The province really doesn’t have a say.”
According to the army newspaper report, the statues are meant to commemorate the 70th anniversary of ties between Vientiane and Moscow, including the time when Russia was part of the Soviet Union.
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.
In April 2019, the defense ministries of Laos and Russia agreed to expand military cooperation on the sidelines of the Moscow International Conference on International Security.
The two countries conducted joint military exercises in December last year, and Moscow has transferred military equipment to Vientiane in several rounds, including a shipment of tanks and armored vehicles in January.
According to a January report in The Diplomat, the transfers with Laos highlight the country’s importance in Russia’s desire for broader defense cooperation in Southeast Asia.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Eugene Whong.