The Journey To Promote New Records In Indochina (P.117) – Keo Viphakone (Laos): The first person in Indochina to be awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for dedication to government service

( Henri Boucharon (August 15, 1917- April 13, 2006), better known by his adopted Lao name Keo Viphakone, was a Laotian diplomat, nationalist and public servant who demonstrated exemplary performance in his various government posts. For his achievements, he garnered several awards including Commander grade of the Order of the Million Elephants and the White Parasol, Chevalier of the Legion of Honour (1953), and Ramon Magsaysay Award for government service in 1967.


The eldest of seven children, Keo belonged to an upper-middle-class family in Luang Prabang. His father was a French soldier and for this, he could have been a French citizen. When Keo’s father returned to France after suffering an illness, he had attempted to take Keo with him but Keo’s grandmother refused to let her favorite grandson go. The same grandmother almost succeeded in keeping Keo away from school until a teacher found him playing by a Mekong River tributary and brought him back to school.

Finishing at the top of his class at the Lycee in Vientiane where he learned French and English, he went on to enroll in Sisawat College in 1939. At the onset of the Japanese occupation of Cambodia, Keo entered the Training Center for Indochina Inspectors of Water and Forests of Phnom Penh where he graduated with distinction in 1941.

After his studies in Cambodia, Keo returned to Laos to work at the Water and Forest Service. With Japan’s defeat in World War II, Keo’s nationalistic sentiments grew and he joined the Lao Issara movement. It was at this point in time when he decided to stop using his birth name.

Keo was appointed as chief of Cabinet by Prince Phetsarath Ratanavongsa when the latter established his government in October 1945. In 1946, French troops entered Laos and Lao Issara leaders including Keo were forced to flee to Thailand. While exiled, Keo started a charcoal-making and marketing project in order to raise funds for the Issara government. In 1949, Keo returned to Laos following the establishment of the Royal Lao Government and was named chief of the Forest and Land Division in the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

From 1951 to 1958, Keo lived as a diplomat, first at the French High Commission as representative of Laos. He was posted in Paris as First Secretary of the Lao Embassy in 1953 where he was made a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor for promoting friendship and understanding between Laos and France. At that time, he also served as Secretary-General of the High Council of the French Union. He then served as counselor of the Royal Lao Embassy in Washington, D.C.. From 1955 to 1958 he was part of the Permanent Mission of Laos to the United Nations.

Keo returned to Laos in 1958 and took on the responsibility of improving the rural areas in Laos as administrator of the Rural Development Program. Challenges faced during those days were insufficient roads and bridges, schools, teachers, wells, sanitary facilities, dispensaries, and health workers. Obtaining foreign aid, Keo was able to pull off the Rural Development Plan with the construction of 701 schools; 153 dispensaries, markets, training centers, crematories and warehouses; 203.5 kilometers of roads; 72 bridges and 10 airstrips; 14 irrigation systems, 44 water storage and flood control dams; and 15 fishponds.

Under the 11th Royal Lao Government, Keo served as Minister of Economics and Rural Development Affairs from April 5, 1960 to August 9, 1960. From March 23, 1962 to June 1974, under the 14th Lao Three-Party Government, he was Vice-Minister of Social Welfare. He kept this post even after the government reshuffle under Souvanna Phouma’s 14th government.

Later on, as Secretary of State for Social Welfare, Keo gained the support of the Filipino organization Operation Brotherhood to train workers needed in the programs that he developed. As Laos’s demand for skilled labor increased, Keo initiated studies on labor laws in Laos which led to the creation of the Labor Department which shall focus on developing skilled manpower.

Throughout his career as a public servant, Keo lived in integrity and simplicity, having a simple house and without even a car of his own.

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