THE expansive figure of Prince Sauryavong Savang - patriarch of the Lao royal family - sighs as he starts his long wait for a taxi. On a hot Washington evening, he could be any middle-aged man sweating in a suit and tie at rush hour.
It was all very different nearly 40 years ago. Then his family was greeted in the glamorous court of Camelot - the Kennedy White House of 1962 - on a lush state visit, as his father's mysterious Southeast Asian kingdom of mountains, forests and elephants found itself at the epicentre of Cold War geo-politics.
Now, 25 years after Communist Party rule brought to an end the 600-year Lao royal dynasty, Prince Sauryavong, 63, is long used to the anonymity of exile. He has lived in France since fleeing his home country in the early 1980s. But he has never lost his desire to return. Together with his nephew, Crown Prince Soulivong Savang, he is visiting Washington again to seek United States support for a new dialogue with the party, officially called the People's Revolutionary Party - a drive given new urgency amid a spate of bombings in the Laos capital, Vientiane, as well as an intensifying insurgency from minority groups, particularly Hmong, in the mountains. On Tuesday, another bomb exploded in a Vietnamese workers' camp on the outskirts of Vientiane.
The violence comes amid a swirl of unprecedented pressures and dissent in Laos, a strategic land-locked nation of just five million people surrounded by giant neighbours - China, Thailand and its political patron, Vietnam. The currency, the kip, collapsed far more dramatically than any other in the regional crisis of 1997 and 1998 and has yet to recover, sparking inflation in what was already one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. International donors are getting restive at the communist regime's continued secrecy, while last October saw unprecedented - and quickly suppressed - student demonstrations. Just how organised and united is the opposition is not yet clear, but the uncertainty is enough to be raising concerns in Hanoi, Bangkok and Beijing as Laos struggles with market reforms. "We are all starting to wonder quite what is happening," one Asian diplomat said last week. "Laos may often be ignored, but is strategic, and being so closely tied to Vietnam we are all taking note of any potential for real trouble."
Expressing fears over the recent violence, Prince Sauryavong says he worries that once again his nation will become hostage to wider interests - "a battleground for foreign nations that will finally destroy our nation state. After 25 years of oppression by the communist regime, the people cannot continue to accept the situation . . . they are now standing up," he says, speaking softly in quiet, steady tones. "We want peace, human rights and democracy . . . and we want to give the king a proper burial."
Now retired from a job in a Citroen car factory in suburban Paris, he says he is working full time acting as a self-declared "Prince Regent" to Prince Soulivong. Prince Soulivong, 37, was just 12 when the Pathet Lao forces took over his homeland. Their victory followed a secret but brutal conflict that saw Hanoi and Washington, through the CIA, intensify action in the country in direct contravention of international treaties securing Laotian neutrality - a fight largely depicted as a sideshow to the war raging across the border in Vietnam.
After agreeing to a peaceful abdication, his grandparents, King Vatthana and Queen Khamphoui, were eventually sent with his father, Prince Vong Savang, to re-education camps in the mountains.The Lao authorities say they have died but have never explained how they met their deaths. No remains have been produced. Other family members fled around the world or stayed to live quietly as ordinary citizens.
As Laos, like Vietnam, started to open up in the late 1980s, the Crown Prince's mother, Manilay, returned home. She lives quietly without any title or position as an ordinary citizen in Luang Prabang, the tiny former royal capital on the Mekong River in the northern mountains, and a favourite site for tourists from around the region for its pristine lanes and temples. An old family villa has been returned to her and she runs a guest house for tourists.
Immediately after the communist takeover, Prince Soulivong stayed too in Luang Prabang, where he says he was forced to toil in rice paddies and dig irrigation trenches. At 18, he went to Vientiane and fled one night in 1981 by boat across the Mekong to Thailand. From there he went to France. Now, after studying law and public administration at the University of Clermont-Ferrand, he says he feels his "duty" is to try to serve to "unite the Lao people", both lowland ethnic Lao and mountain-dwelling minorities, such as the fiercely independent Hmong. He acknowledges, however, that the Lao authorities seem happy to "ignore that we are alive".
Reserved and seemingly a little uncertain, Prince Soulivong talks with considerable sadness about the treatment of his family. He claims it is too dangerous for him to talk to his mother. "I have lost my father . . . my family is now scattered across the world and all for nothing . . . all in spite of the fact that we never did anything wrong or made mistakes."
He is aware of reports that in Laos, images of the Thai royal family are now popular in private homes - and seemingly tolerated by the authorities. "It is a good thing. I see it as a symbol. It means people are still thinking of the Lao royal family."
Thailand, like the rest of the world, acknowledges the sovereignty of current Laos President Khantai Siphandon as head of state, but the prince claims Bangkok would much prefer the communist party out of power. Ethnically, Lao people are far closer to the Thais than the Vietnamese, sharing a similar language and traditions, but politics is another matter. The mix is a classic example of the continuation of the nation's ability to play one large power off against another to avoid being swallowed up.
The prince brightens as he talks of his visions - an independent Laos at peace under democracy and the rule of law - and, of course, with a constitutional monarchy. "I think a constitutional monarchy like Spain would work very well. I would reign but not govern."
Whether he will ever get his chance remains highly debatable for a host of reasons. The current regime has shown no interest in dignifying any calls for dialogue, and solid international support remains elusive, even among former allies such as Thailand and the US. Laos remains aid-dependent and several Western diplomats note that on-going pressure from donors for more openness and transparency has a far better chance of success.
Observers note that the family is also limiting its chances by demanding a return only under multi-party reforms - the Prince Regent insists anything else would be too "dangerous". Then there is the fact that Lao opposition and exile groups have long proved highly fractious - a reflection of the elitist and ideological nuances that marked internal politics during the civil war.
However, there are claims that the situation is changing more quickly than the regime can control. Influences such as the Internet and Radio Free Asia's Lao broadcasts are starting to link previously disparate groups. Several estimates suggest that the renewed armed struggle by minority factions, including Hmong and Kmu, is the most intensive since 1986.
Under the intensely charismatic leadership of General Vang Pao, the Hmong - a band of slash-and-burn opium cultivators considered among the most primitive minorities in Laos - served as mercenaries in the CIA's secret war against Vietnamese incursions. They have constantly resisted attempts at control by the new regime, but lack any significant support from one-time allies in Bangkok or Washington. Sporadic fighting in pockets of several provinces bordering Vietnam has led to Hmong claims that more than 10,000 Hmong villagers are under threat from a combined Hanoi-Vientiane crackdown involving troops and helicopter gunships. Two high-level Lao security delegations have visited Hanoi, but Vietnam has repeatedly disputed direct involvement.
Philip Smith, the Washington-based director of Lao Veterans of America and a personal spokesman for Vang Pao, who continues to play a prominent role as the Hmong struggle to settle in America, said the general was deeply disturbed at the current events. He was now doing what he could to drum up support for change within the US and is expected to meet with the princes during their US tour.
Mr Smith has met leaders of the resistance. He claims it remains a poorly -funded affair lumbered with "piecemeal" organisation. They have no radio communication, no anti-aircraft weapons and rely only on small arms and whatever they can seize from the regime's forces.
More significant than the military threat of the resistance is its place in the "growing bonds" between a widening group of opponents, ranging from dissidents inside the regime to students in Vientiane and minorities in the hills. "The bombs and the insurgents, to a large degree, reflect the regime's lack of openness and its on-going relationship with Hanoi," Mr Smith said. "We have never seen circumstances quite like this. I think there is an ideological link between the bombings in the urban centres and the insurgencies in the hills . . . and the greatest threat is the power of ideas. Whether it is inside the party, the royal family or Hmong and Lao groups in Thailand or America, this is a real threat . . . and the regime is very well aware of this."
Greg Torode is the Post's Washington correspondent. He was the Post's representative in Hanoi and Bangkok for five years until last year GRAPHIC: (Photo: AGENCIES AND CHRIS KLEPONIS); Changing times-A Hmong farmer (top), whose people form part of an insurgency led by Vang Pao (above, top right) against the communists. Exiled Crown Prince Soulivong and his uncle Prince Sauryavong (centre), want to discuss returning. The Crown Prince's father, (left, in 1962 with his wife), and the former king, Vatthana (bottom right), are believed dead, but remains have never been found