Right after I came back from Poland, I had to lead another TSU delegation. This time, we went to the Lao People's Democratic Republic. In May 2016, two Vice-Presidents of National University of Laos (NUOL) visited TSU to celebrate its 137th anniversary. They were very impressed with everything they saw here. They invited us to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their university, which is almost the age of the whole system of higher education in Laos. Therefore, the anniversary was going to be a big occasion for the Republic, which has a total population of 7 million people.
Our universities first collaborated about a year and a half ago, when Professor Tatyana Demeshkina, Dean of the TSU Faculty of Philology, and Associate Professor Natalya Nesterova, Head of the Centre for Learning Russian as a Foreign Language, visited the NUOL Department of Philology and presented the opportunities with which TSU could provide its international students. The purpose of our visit was to know the University better and to establish new contacts for a fruitful joint work in the future. We wanted to find new areas of collaboration. That is why our delegation was composed of Artem Rykun, Vice-Rector for International Affairs, Professor Vladimir Siryamkin, Head of the International Laboratory for Systems of Technical Vision of the Faculty of Innovation Technologies, Professor Lyudmila Borilo, Executive Director of the research centre Trans-Siberian Scientific Way (TSSW), and myself.
We had a very eventful programme. It included meetings with the Rectorate and the staff of NUOL, as well as meetings with Professor Boviengkham Vongdara, Minister of Science and Technology; Sengdian Lachantkhabun, Minister of Education and Sports; Mikhail Baranov, Russian Ambassador in Laos; and Lyudmila Kuntish, Counsellor of the Russian Embassy in Laos. We achieved all the goals we had, including signing several collaboration agreements with the Ministry of Science and Technologies, a memorandum of understanding and an agreement on information services with NUOL. We discussed the issues of future collaboration in management, robotics technologies, biological diversity, and geosciences. We also articulated the idea of creating a research station for climate studies and a technology transfer centre.
Now I want to talk about National University of Laos. It was established in 1996 by merging the higher education institutes that were under the supervision of several ministries. Today there are 11 faculties. Over the years, the number of students has increased from 8,000 to 30,000. 2,000 staff members work at the university, 800 of them are women. The management is particularly proud of the latter fact. There is no division into teaching and administrative staff. Each employee works in both areas in different proportions.
The most relevant problem for the system of education in Laos today is the relatively small number of staff members with PhD degrees. At some universities there is only 1% of them, the rest are Bachelors and Masters. The situation is a little better at NUOL. People of Laos have to go abroad to obtain PhD and even Master’s diplomas. To do that, they have to learn foreign languages. Unfortunately, the government is not ready to pay for foreign language training. The most acceptable option is to receive scholarships from foreign universities. At present, universities in China, Japan, and Vietnam offer the most scholarships.
Russia has not shown much interest in this issue so far, despite the fact that Laos is a communist country and for years, it had remained a sphere of political influence for the USSR. One can still witness the results of that influence. Fifteen out of twenty ministers of the Lao cabinet understand and speak Russian, because they studied in Russia. Lao parents find Russian universities a good place to send their children to. Businesspeople and state employees are ready to pay money for their children’s education. Russian universities are attractive for them because of the quality of education and comparatively low prices.
Lao parents like the security we provide in our dormitories and Russian laws that are strict enough to make sure drugs are not easily reachable for the kids. In Laos, drugs are illegal too; however, growing drug-containing crops is one of the most popular types of business. As a result, one can see people smoking weed at every corner. That is why parents are so worried about their children. The most responsible parents come to visit universities along with their kids to see the conditions of studying and living in Russia. We have only four Lao students at present. Almost all of their parents came to Tomsk to see the University and the Parus dormitory. They really liked everything they saw and they are ready to share their good impressions with other Lao parents. They told us about that at the meeting at the Lao Russian Office. This made us seriously consider developing this area of collaboration with Laos.
Laos is a country with a very long and tragic history.
Vientiane, the capital of the Republic, was founded in the 13th century. Its strategic geographic location caused many wars. It was invaded by the Siamese, Burmese, Thai, Chinese, and Japanese conquerors, as well as by the French colonizers. During the Second Indochina War, Americans dropped so many bombs on Laos that the country suffered from the damages for a long time, trying to rebuild the environment and the economy. The Vietnamese used the territory of Laos to attack Americans. There are still numerous mined areas where hundreds of people trip mines every year. In 1975, Vietnam and the USSR helped to establish a one-party Lao People's Democratic Republic. The only legal political party there is the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP), which is communist in nature.
All the geopolitical events affected the mentality and the culture of the people of Laos, especially their language. Until 1953, France remained in de facto control over the country, so the population spoke French, though the Lao language has been a national language for many centuries. After the French left the country, their language was fully replaced by Lao. Over the last ten years, the people of Laos have tried to rehabilitate French. They translated all the street signs into French. But today only a few people and those who are over 70 understand French. The interest in the French language can be explained by the new policies of the LPRP that are aimed at establishing communication with the international community.
The attitude towards private property has been re-evaluated as well. Small entrepreneurship is developing and making the capital a city of contrasts: red communist symbols can be seen next to the signs of luxury boutiques and the logos of transnational corporations. Tuk-tuks are stuck in traffic along with Lexuses and Range Rovers. Imagine all that with the Buddhist chapels in the background and monks dressed in bright orange robes and you will understand what an outstanding picture one sees on the streets of Laos.
Religion plays a very important role in the life of the Lao people. Buddhism with all its beliefs in spirit is a main confession there. Animistic views exist in all religions but they are especially important for Buddhism. There are small wooden boxes that look like birdhouses on every building in Laos, including state institutions and hotels. Holy spirits live in them. It is believed that if you are going to build something, first, you have to arrange an agreement with the spirit of that place and make them a present. And to live at that place happily ever after, you have to remember to please them from time to time with treats and flowers. Interesting fact: any man (not a woman!) can come to a monastery and stay overnight or even for several days there. One does not have to become a monk for that. As a rule, people come there when they have trouble. It is fair to say that Lao monasteries are places to have therapy. They say that Russian tourists come there sometimes too, when they do not have any other place to stay.
Laos is an Asian country, so the clan system and the hierarchy are traditional ways to establish relationships. The hierarchy of relationships influences how people show obedience and shake hands (downward, upward, or on the same level). People love to celebrate holidays and respect their traditions. Certain elements of traditional costumes can be seen even in uniforms.
Laos does not have access to the sea but nature there is very beautiful. There are many rivers, waterfalls, mountains, hills, and exotic plants. The climate can be described as tropical monsoon. The annual temperature ranges from 16°C to 35°C year-round. When it is very hot, the risk of being food poisoned is very high. That is why despite the fact that we ate at nice places only, the members of the Russian Embassy gave us a piece of advice: to take a sip or two of whiskey or wine ten minutes before every meal. Only those beverages can prevent one from catching any dangerous bacteria. The main sightseeing in Vientiane is a floating market in the Mekong Delta. All tourists come here when they visit the capital.
I could write more about this friendly and interesting country. The main thing we realized during our visit was that we have started recreating relationships between our countries. After a lapse of 15 years, the Centre for Russian Science and Culture was reopened in Vientiane. Dmitry Medvedev visited Laos in September 2016 to attend the 11th East Asia Summit. Several agreements on collaboration between Russia and the LPDR in the economy and science were signed.
What else we realized was that new countries and universities are getting involved in competing for the attention of the people of Laos. For example, Barac Obama visited Laos in September 2016 too. He became the first American president who ever visited this East Asian country. Ambassadors from China, Japan, and Vietnam came to the 20th anniversary of NUOL and brought very special presents for the Rectorate, which was a sign of hope for future collaboration. We also met our Russian colleagues from Vladivostok State University of Economics and Service. We are aware of the joint work between NUOL and Altay State University. As we can see, many people want to establish contacts with Laos. TSU has good chances to become the leading partner of NUOL in research and education. Our Lao colleagues are expecting certain moves from us in this direction. And we cannot lose this chance from the point of the geopolitical and cultural missions of Tomsk State University.
After having visited Poland and Laos, we realized how many people from other social and cultural environments still understand and like the Russian language. European and Asian universities are highly interested in collaboration with us as with a Siberian university. Siberia is a key word to establish any constructive relationships. Despite differences between European and Asian universities, we have common history and desire to build the future of science and education. And this fact is very inspiring!