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An Indochina Flashback: Old Tremors Rock Laos

BY: SETH MYDANS - VIENTIANE, Laos - July 20, 2000, Thursday

The Asian economic crisis has claimed this tiny Communist nation as its last, its poorest and its most obscure victim, and -- perhaps as a result -- Laos has suddenly been hit by an unaccustomed shudder of unrest.

A series of unexplained bomb blasts, an improbable cross-border raid by a hapless band of insurgents and a brief political demonstration -- the first in decades -- have raised the political temperature in this quiet and tightly controlled nation.

  And now, in the one place the Indochina war never ended, reports have surfaced that Vietnamese security forces have become active again, if only in a supporting role, in tamping down a flare-up of fighting by ethnic rebels.

In this land of secrets and strongmen, no one outside the inner circle seems to know what is going on, and indeed there may be no one explanation for this troubled moment.

But some analysts say that, as in some other Asian nations, the economic squeeze may have heightened a variety of grievances. Last year inflation hit 150 percent and the currency, the kip, fell to a tenth of its value, the steepest collapse in the region.

The exception may be the ethnic insurgency, which never quite died after the Communist victories in Indochina in 1975. It mostly involves the Hmong hill tribesmen, descendants of the anti-Communist fighters who helped carry out America's "secret war" in Laos, still stirred to action by local grievances as well as by wartime commanders who fled to the United States two decades ago.

The Hmong (pronounced mung) still operate in the mountains of northern Laos, where the North Vietnamese built most of their supply line, the Ho Chi Minh trail, and where American bombers dropped more tonnage than in all of Vietnam.

"This is a leftover of the Indochina war, which everyone tries to forget," said Sunai Phasuk, a Thai expert on Laos at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. "There are those who left for foreign countries who still have their relatives in Laos and are supporting them with every possible means."

The reports of Vietnamese military involvement are sketchy, unconfirmed and hotly debated by analysts here and abroad. But they are supported by eyewitness accounts from foreigners who work in the mountains that border Vietnam, along with official reports of stepped-up government and military contacts between the two nations.

The Vietnamese are currently building a military hospital in the area of conflict.

Dr. Sunai said military analysts in neighboring Thailand estimated that a Vietnamese troop presence rose to 10,000 or more late last year.

But Carlyle A. Thayer, an Australian expert on the Vietnamese military, said any Vietnamese presence probably involves a long-standing deployment of troops from the Interior Ministry rather than an incursion by the armed forces. "At most it is advice and supplies and equipment and people on the ground to observe and report back to Vietnam," he said, noting that Vietnam has its own concerns in keeping its mountain tribes quiet along the porous border.

"Since late last year, or earlier, the Hmong armed groups have been giving the Lao Army hell," he said. "They've raided and grabbed payrolls and grabbed weapons. They've ambushed columns and shot down a helicopter."

The Laotian government also blames the Hmong for at least five small explosions here in Vientiane and elsewhere -- at a restaurant, a bus station, a marketplace, a hotel and on a bus -- that caused a number of injuries.

But most foreign analysts doubt that the Hmong were involved, seeing the recent unrest as diffuse and without central coordination. No one has claimed responsibility for any of the bombs, and some of them may be copycat affairs involving personal or business disputes.

One event reported by an Asian diplomat did seem intended to send a message. Gunmen are said to have stopped a rural bus, removed its passengers, set it alight, photographed it and disappeared.

A cross-border raid on July 3 seemed to be the clearest attempt to capitalize on the political uncertainties of the moment. About 60 rebels armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers crossed the border from Thailand, attacked a customs post, took hostages, released them and were gunned down by government forces. At least 5 were killed and 28 were captured when they retreated into Thailand.

According to Thai reports, the raiders had a document linking them to Crown Prince Soulivong Savang, the heir to the now-defunct Laotian throne, who fled across the Mekong River after the Communist victory and is now lobbying for support in the United States and Europe.

"I suspect that this was an attempt to exploit the general level of unhappiness in Laos," said Martin Stuart-Fox, a professor of history at the University of Queensland in Australia who has written a history of Laos. "It's the old network of resistance that was being supported by the Thai military and by an expatriate Lao network in the United States and France and Australia and is trying to resuscitate itself."

More than 250,000 Hmong now live in the United States, as well as tens of thousands of lowland Lao.

If the economic crisis is the underlying theme to these various incidents, it may have sharpened a variety of agendas.

According to one theory, the bomb blasts could be an attempt by a faction of the ruling clique to discredit another in advance of a party congress expected early next year.

Another theory is that anyone with a point to make may want to be heard before Dec. 2, which is the 25th anniversary of the end of the war in Laos and the takeover by the Communist Pathet Lao government.

That relatively low-key end to the war -- the American Embassy shut down for just one day -- came half a year after the traumatic Communist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia in April 1975.

Laos has since reverted to its role as a buffer state between Communist Vietnam and China and the surging capitalist economies of Southeast Asia. If Laos becomes unstable, one diplomat said, "the most frightening thing would be the reviving of some cold war traditions, with China and Vietnam backing Vientiane, hoping to keep away the stronger influence of the Thais."

Laos, one of the world's 10 poorest countries, has become a little brother to Vietnam, following its failed Communist policies for a decade and then, like Vietnam, opening up its economy at the start of the 1990's.

When the economic crisis struck the region in 1997, Laos was at first insulated by its isolation and poverty. But with its economy heavily dependent on Thailand, it soon lost most of the investment and markets it did have.

Just about the time Thailand was beginning to recover, Laos crashed. The 80 percent of its five million people who live on the edge of poverty in the countryside remained relatively untouched -- as poor as ever.

But civil servants, like teachers, nurses and bureaucrats, saw their pay shrink to almost nothing and many abandoned their jobs.

Among these people, said a European diplomat, "there is growing unhappiness. There were hopes a couple of years ago that people's lives were going to improve and that their children would have a better future. That's just not here anymore."

A leading foreign expert on Laos saw this as the major source of potential unrest and, possibly, of change. "There was a social contract in the early 90's," he said. "That contract depended on people's lives getting better. I think the theme is what I call the undoing of the social contract, and the question is whether the government can knit it back together, and it doesn't look as though they're doing a very good job of it."

He added: "When there is an economic contraction like this, and the pie at the top starts getting smaller, the possibility is that members of the elite start getting fed up. The only way things will come apart is when particular groups get squeezed out of the action."

But outside the power structure, the European diplomat said, "there is nothing here to take its place, no civil society, no democratic opposition, nothing. This country is totally repressed."

Thus, to diplomats and aid workers who live in Laos, the most astonishing -- and poignant -- event was an aborted demonstration last October that involved at least 50 university students and teachers, of whom at least five remain in detention.

This was the one echo Laos has seen of the pro-democracy movements that have swept the region. In an open letter, the protesters called for respect for human rights, the release of political prisoners, a multiparty political system and elections for a new National Assembly.

Little more is known about the demonstrators or their fate. More than in any other Communist nation, even the Soviet Union of the past, diplomats here throw up their hands in confusion over the nation they are observing.

"It's still vague and murky," said one of them. "That's my best assessment."

In a peculiar headline the other day, the government newspaper Vientiane Times seemed to be similarly at a loss. "The truth is out there . . ." read the headline, and stopped. The article beneath it offered little clue.

Recent unrest in Laos may be linked to an economic crisis, but no one seems quite sure. Laotian insurgents retreat to Thailand after a raid this month on Wang Tao, Laos, 300 miles southwest of Vientiane, the capital. (Associated Press) Map of Vientiane shows the location of Laos: In Laos, a quiet land of secrets, recent unrest mystifies experts.