Meet the bookish students drafted to protect Asean summit ministers ... from the media

The students from the National University of Laos are armed with little more than walkie talkies and patience

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2016, 3:51pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 July, 2016, 10:01pm

It is a secretive communist state with a sprawling security apparatus, but Laos has turned to a less menacing demographic to protect visiting dignitaries this week: bookish students.

The authoritarian nation, which rarely allows in foreign media, has been thrust into the international spotlight as a Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summit brings a coterie of top diplomats to its dusty capital Vientiane.

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As ministers hustle through the wide corridors of the Chinese-built National Convention Centre, lines of students, mostly petite women in traditional sinh wrap skirts, link arms to keep the hordes of reporters back.

That is in stark contrast to the unseemly scenes that accompanied one of the more robust delegations.

North Korean heavies had a bust-up with a journalist from the South who got too close to Pyongyang’s envoy Ri Yong-ho on the airport tarmac as he landed on Sunday.

The journalist apparently came off worst, suffering injuries to his face, according to his Seoul-based employer news agency Yonhap.

Students from the National University of Laos - armed with little more than walkie talkies and patience - have been drafted in as volunteer security guards to keep the peace elsewhere.

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“We have to prevent the media (from getting) close to the ministers. The media want to do their job very much so we have to do our job intensely also,” one 20-year-old student said.

For many, it is a rare opportunity to socialise with foreigners who are not backpackers, the most frequent western visitor to tropical Laos.

Many of the students, who were all wary of giving their names in the closely-controlled country, said they were hoping to one day swap places with those they are assigned to protect.

One said she dreamed of being a future ambassador to South Korea - and was currently working part-time in a Korean restaurant to brush up her language skills - while another had her eye on a Europe posting.

“I want to work for the ministry of foreign affairs if I have the chance,” said one student who had just finished her third year studying international relations.

But possibly because of the runway run-in, the students weren’t called on to provide security at a meeting on Monday between North Korea’s newly minted Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and his Chinese counterpart.

Instead menacing plain-clothed security and helmeted military police armed with stun-batons and handguns stood guard.

As the diplomatic big hitters such as US Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived the professionals appeared to take over, with burly men dressed in dark suits flanking their guys as they swept between meetings.

That left the diminutive student minders feeling a little out of their depth.

“We have no experience of this so it has been difficult,” said one twenty-year-old man.