By Sun Guangyong
Sweet and friendly students of Sino-Lao Friendship Nongbing Primary School (SLFNPS) greeted China Report ASEAN with “Hello!” and “Thank you!” upon our arrival in Chantaburi of Vientiane, Laos.
A white education building set off the blue sky. Inside, the sun lit up the national flags of China and Laos adorning the wall of a bright and clean classroom. At the school entrance is a stone tablet engraved with “Jointly Built by China Foundation for Peace and Development (CFPD) and Lao Committee for Peace and Solidarity (LCPS)” in both Chinese and Lao. When we entered, we could hear loud reading and smell duang champa faintly.
A Thank-you Letter
SLFNPS Headmaster Benni quickly escorted us into her office and took out a letter. “Receiving a personal reply letter from Chinese President Xi Jinping was really beyond our expectations,” she beamed. “The whole school is extremely delighted and proud. We are so happy!”
Before representatives of the SLFNPS’ teachers and students attended a sub-forum on people-to-people bonds at the 2nd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation (BRF), the students and faculty of the school wrote a letter to PresidentXi, also general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), to thank him for China’s aid in building the SLFNPS and express Laos’ enthusiasm about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
President Xi personally replied to the teachers and students of the SLFNPS. He wrote in the letter that he had learned that the BRI has brought many positive changes to their hometown and their school, improving their learning environment and living conditions. The original goal when the BRI was devised was to facilitate common development in the countries along the Belt and Road and help people seize better living standards. President Xi said he welcomes the students and faculty of the SLFNPS to visit Beijing via the China-Laos Railway at an early date and encouraged the students to pass on China-Laos friendship to the next generation.
“We were compelled to share our feelings with President Xi Jinping through a letter,” Benni said, showing us the original four-page draft. “China has always helped our school, and we have a lot of gratitude in our hearts. The long letter expressed our sincere thanks to China and enthusiasm about participating in Belt and Road construction.”
As direct beneficiaries of China-Laos friendship and the BRI, the students and faculty of SLFNPS are full of gratitude to China. They hoped to present a gift to President Xi Jinping, who proposed the BRI, when their representatives attended the sub-forum on people-to-people bonds at the 2nd BRF.
The school asked students to draw pictures of the changes to the SLFNPS, their hometowns and the world at large brought by the BRI.
“We selected 58 works from students to mark the 58th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Laos and China and compiled a book of paintings titled Our Stories on the Silk Road, ” illustrated Benni. “But just the album was still insufficient to express the feelings in our hearts. So we wrote out our thoughts in the letter to President Xi Jinping.”
“We drew the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the winding Mekong River and pagodas,” recounted fifth-grader Vilapen. “Our Chinese teacher told us that the Mekong River is known as the Lancang River in China, and that if she put a wish in a bottle in the Lancang River, I could catch it in the Mekong. It’s amazing to imagine!” In the eyes of the students, the fact that the Lancang and Mekong are the same river under different names hearkens to how China and Laos are a community of shared future linked by mountains and rivers.
Third-grader Putasen drew a picture of the Great Wall that was included in the book. He also attended the sub-forum at the 2nd BRF in Beijing as a representative of SLFNPS. A dream of his came true when he climbed the Great Wall.
“I want to be a teacher when I grow up to teach both Lao and Chinese so the people of our two countries better communicate to further consolidate our friendship,” Putasen declared.
“In his reply letter, President Xi encouraged us to visit Beijing on the China-Laos Railway,” noted fifth-grader Welakuan. “When the railway opens in 2021, I will be sure to visit Beijing by train to see my good friends.”
Welakuan’s friends in Beijing are Chinese students he met at BJZZ School.
“We wrote and drew together,” Welakuan recounted. “My Chinese friends told us about their dreams, and I shared my dreams with them. I think our dreams have a lot in common. I am really looking forward to exploring the outside world by train.”
Khampheuy Vongsakhamphoui, Laos National Assembly Member VIII, said that China’s assistance has been of great significance to the SLFNPS and even the development of education in Laos as a whole, as the concrete embodiment of the traditional friendship between Laos and China.
“BRI has greatly promoted the development of countries and regions along the route,” Vongsakhamphoui stressed. “Strengthening cooperation between Laos and China will bring more tangible benefits to the two peoples.”
“President Xi Jinping’s reply helped Lao people learn more about China and understand the goals of Chinese leaders,” said Nouamkham Chanthabouly, deputy director general of the Department of External Relations of Ministry of Education and Sports (MOES) of Laos. Laos and China conduct extensive cooperation in education. In 2018, Lao students made 14,600 trips to China for study, the eighth highest-represented nationality among international students in China. They not only learn about China’s long history and culture, but also soak up modern Chinese technology to help them better contribute to Laos when they return.
“As the students noted in the letter to President Xi, the BRI is also our dream,” said Nouamkham Chanthabouly. “As Belt and Road construction advances, Laos is embracing more and more new changes that are making our lives better and better.”
A senior official with the Laos- China Friendship Association once visited the SLFNPS and was impressed by its gleaming new education building and modern facilities. He promptly translated President Xi Jinping’s reply into Lao so that more people could read it.
“Children are the future of Laos, but they are also the inheritors and builders of friendly relations between Laos and China,” he opined. “Alongside Vientiane, Pakse, Luang Prabang and Udomxai are also homes to Lao-Chinese friendship schools, which evidence the heritage of friendship between Laos and China and the power of Belt and Road construction.”
As she talked to China Report ASEAN, Benni rounded up scraps of paper and threw them into the trash can. “Our school has been rated a model primary school and beautiful campus of Vientiane,” she revealed. “Teachers from China and Laos are very kind to their students.”
The SLFNPS is the best school in Chantaburi thanks to its spacious, bright and clean classrooms, and parents from nearby villages are envious, she added.
Previously, the school had only one humble teaching building, which was funded by local villagers in 1965. Six classrooms and six teachers could only accommodate 125 children, which was far from enough for the enrollment demands of the local population. Due to the limited government budget, a planned expansion of the teaching building never came to fruition. Many children who attended were forced to transfer to private schools. The school was facing a crisis with plummeting enrollment and poor sustainability.
“We tried everything we could to expand the school building, but nothing worked,” Benni recalled. “Then we met some Chinese friends who said they would help Laos build new school facilities. I will never forget the excitement and gratitude I felt at that moment.”
After many field visits and feasibility studies, in February 2012 CFPD pledged to help build a new school building with a total floor space of 800 square meters. “The education building reflects the profound friendship of Chinese people and has important historical significance for the SLFNPS and the development of education in Vientiane,” said Khampheuy Vongsakhamphoui. “It is the physical embodiment of the traditional friendship between China and Laos.”
In less than a year, a brand-new cutting-edge education building opened, flanked by a playground and children’s entertainment facilities. The students bid farewell to the dilapidated, dark classrooms. “The new campus has a two-story education building and two dormitory buildings for teachers,” illustrated Benni. “It has tables, chairs, blackboards and electric fans. The education building can accommodate more than 500 students. Children were so excited to move to the new campus. We renamed the school ‘SLFNPS’ to commemorate the friendship between Laos and China.”
“The old building lacked bright lights and fans and was brutally hot,” said teacher Letao. “The new classrooms have fluorescent lights and electric fans that ensure a bright and comfortable environment for children to study hard.”
“The SLFNPS is a symbol of friendship between Laos and China,” declared Benni. “I suggested to MOES and the Chinese Embassy in Laos that they launch a Chinese course, which was quickly approved by the MOES, and China sent Chinese teachers here. Now each student gets two hours of Chinese every week, which makes us the envy of other schools.”
In one classroom, fifth graders were attending a Chinese class. Yao Changhua, a Chinese volunteer teacher, taped up cards with “world,” “Asia,” “Laos,” and “China” written in Chinese on the blackboard. Students read the words attentively even though most had hardly traveled outside Vientiane. After reading the words “Laos” and “China,” they exclaimed, “Laos and China are good friends, we want to go to China!”