Malayvieng Sakonhninhom : Ambassador of Lao PDR to the Philippines

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Experiencing the World

MALAYVIENG Sakonhninhom, Ambassador of Laos to the Philippines, is a woman ahead of her time.
Malayvieng wanted to become a journalist in a communist country—where journalism is seen as a ticket to experience the world. But her path took a different turn at the age of 19. Her Journalism scholarship to a French university—which she had kept secret from her parents—was accepted. However, she had to give up her dreams of being a journalist at the behest of her mother.

“[I] cried…very frustrated. But in our society at that time, that’s ok,” Malayvieng said in a newspaper interview at the parlor of the Lao PDR Embassy in the exclusive Magallanes Village in Makati City. Malayvieng said their society was very conservative during that time and mothers kept their daughters close to home where they could be protected adequately. With no local universities offering Journalism, Malayvieng took up Law and Administration instead. She specialized in administration, negotiation and diplomacy, and satisfied her writing bug by contributing to the school newspaper, focusing on women’s rights.

malayviet

After university, she won a scholarship to the Soviet Union with Southam Sakonhninhom, a good college friend—who would later become her husband. This time Malayvieng took the trip Russia. “We studied together, we were in the same class, we shared notes and books…but no copying [during exams],” recalled Malayvieng. “The scholarship was six years, we helped each other. The Russian language is very difficult and it’s very cold there.”

Romance blossomed despite the severe Russian winters, perhaps because of the warmth Malayvieng and Southam drew from each other. They joined the Foreign Ministry in 1982 and, a year later, they had their first daughter, Souridahak. The baby was barely a year old when Southam was posted to Paris, and then to New York, and then Belgium.

Meanwhile, Malayvieng served in the MFA’s Home Office in Vientiane while he was away and served as mother and father to their girls—Souridahak and Sourignahak. “As diplomats we have to learn to live separately,” Malayvieng said. She saw Southam in February when he came over from Brussels and accompanied her on her official rounds within the Philippines. The life of a diplomat is exciting because of all the traveling, but it’s a life for which her daughters seem to have no interest.

“Ok, that’s interesting to travel, but they don’t like,” Malayvieng said with a chuckle. Souridahak now works for the World Bank in Laos, while Sourignahak is studying in De La Salle University. Distance hadn’t hampered their family ties, though. “There was no discussion to leave the MFA. We love our work,” Malayvieng said. Until five years ago in Laos, if both the husband and wife are serving with the Foreign Ministry, only one of them could get posted overseas. With the growing number of diplomat couples, the practice was abandoned so that both husband and wife would have an equal opportunity to get a foreign assignment.

First Posting

In 2011, the Philippines became Malayvieng’s first posting.
Malayvieng acknowledged with quiet laughter that her husband’s gender was a factor in his promotion before hers: “Because he’s a man, because I’m woman…We [came from] the same school, same university, after that he has been promoted. Finally, we are in the level of ambassador. Same.”

“He went abroad three times…I just been posted for first time and straight to be ambassador,” she added.
There’s no real competition between the couple. They co-authored a book on international law in 2007, and wrote another on protocol. The second book’s cover shows a photo of her presenting her credentials to Malacañang. Malayvieng is now working on a third book about extradition. She recognizes that she is a far cry from the young girl who dreamt of becoming a journalist, the same one who occasionally lied to her parents so she could go out with her friends. Malayvieng recognizes she is also quite unlike her own mother.

Her daughters were born into a society that is now different from hers, and she has adjusted to this more modern society: “When I was little, at that time, the parents very conservative. My daughters’ time is different so I had to modernize. What I could not get, I give to my daughters.”

Asked if there is anything more she wants to achieve at this point, Malayvieng candidly acknowledged that her goal is to finalize President Benigno S. Aquino’s visit to Laos: “As ambassador, that’s what we all want [to achieve].”

PH-Lao PDR Relations

In a speech delivered during the Eight Ambassador’s Forum at the Asian Institute of Management last May 31, Malayvieng provided insights on the economic development trends in Lao PDR, and developments on the Lao PDR-Philippines relations. She opened her speech with background information on Lao PDR and its foreign policies. “Laos has been fighting for liberation and peace since the 18th century.  After a long civil war that ended the constitutional monarchy under Sisavang Vong, the country established a single-party socialist republic in 1975.  In 1986, the country undertook an open-door policy which aimed at improving the country’s economic condition.  Being a landlocked country bordered by Myanmar and China to the northwest, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia to the south, and Thailand to the west, Laos PDR has always pursued the ‘foreign policy of peace, independence, friendship and cooperation.’ Laos PDR has desires to be a land-linked nation by connecting to its neighboring countries and enhancing regional and international integration.”

Although the Philippines and Laos have little history of cooperation, there are initiatives to change this. The visit of the Prime Minister of Laos in May 2012 was seen by many as a critical initial step towards improving Laos-Philippines relations. There are planned activities and programs that will help build closer friendship and cooperation. Laos will soon host the first Joint Commission on bilateral cooperation in 2013; and is also arranging for the visit of President Choummaly Sayasone to the Philippines.

Bilateral Consultative Mechanisms

A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Philippines and Laos was signed on May 6, 2008 establishing the Philippines-Lao PDR Joint Commission for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC).
Laos offered to host the inaugural JCBC in Luang Prabang. The inaugural JCBC, however, has yet to be convened.

The Philippine Embassy in Vientiane recommends support of the establishment of the Philippines-Laos Parliamentarians’ Friendship Association as this will facilitate a dynamic and proactive parliamentarians’ dialogue between the two countries and contribute to strengthening cooperative relations.
It may be noted that the Philippines is among the countries listed in the Lao National Assembly website as having an existing Lao-Philippines Parliamentarians’ Association.

The Association was established by Resolution No. 156/ST of 14 November 2011 (Resolution of the Standing Member of the National Assembly on an Appointment of the implementation of the Lao-Philippines and Brunei Parliamentarians’ Friendship Association.

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