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Laos: Land of political mystery: Is the violent social unrest in this landlocked Asian backwater an insurgency by hill tribesmen or a Communist power struggle?

BY: Jonathan Manthorpe - July 22, 2000, Saturday

Something is happening in southeast Asia's forgotten country -- the landlocked, mountainous backwater of Laos.

However, what is happening, and why, is the stuff of inspired guesswork and speculation.

Laos is perhaps Asia's most closed society, and the geriatric eight-member Communist politburo which rules in Vientiane makes even the hermit Stalinist monarchy of North Korea seem cosmopolitan by comparison.

The country of five million people appears to be in the grip of violent social unrest. What is unclear is whether this is purely an insurgency by Hmong hill tribesmen, many of whom fought with U.S. forces during the war in neighbouring Vietnam, or if it is something wider -- perhaps a power struggle within the Lao People's Revolutionary party.

The snippets of information that are known are quickly stated. The Communists, who took power in 1975 from the last Laotian king, Sri Savang Vatthara, toyed with opening up their economy in the late 1980s, just like their neighbours China and Vietnam.

But the highly tentative and unenthusiastic reform program came to an abrupt halt when the Asian economic crisis struck in 1997. There were food shortages, inflation soared to 160 per cent a year and the bottom dropped out of the value of the currency, the kip.

The retreat has been so sharp that even Western aid agencies, many of which treasure Laos' exotic charm, have lost patience. The World Bank has halved its aid to Laos to $25 million US, Germany has cancelled a $3-million project and Japan, Sweden and Australia are all backing away from new development programs.

The Hmong began their insurgency in 1998, apparently in reaction to plans to remove them from their mountain fastness and resettle them on the plains. With the help of guns and money from U.S.-based exiled Hmong, the tribesmen have ambushed army convoys and attacked government- garrisoned towns.

There are credible reports that Vietnam has sent troops to aid the beleaguered Laotian army, although both Hanoi and Vientiane deny this.

In October last year, a remarkable thing happened in Vientiane. There was an anti-government demonstration by students.

The demonstrators were swamped by police almost before they got their banners unfurled, unceremoniously carted off and have not been heard of since. But that the protest even got to that stage in such a repressive state is a sure sign of serious discontent.

Then the bombs started going off. There have been six blasts in Vientiane in the past two months in buses, public markets and open- air restaurants. Several people have been killed and hundreds injured, tourists among them.

Exiled Hmong leaders have claimed responsibility for the bombings, but this is now in doubt.

Then, at the beginning of this month, a group of several dozen Laotian exiles in Thailand made a quixotic cross-border raid into their home country.

It was a farcical exploit by people who clearly had no military training. Six of the attackers were killed by Laotian troops, many were captured and Thai police arrested a couple of dozen who fled back across the border.

There has been speculation for a while among diplomats and observers that the bombing campaign was not a Hmong terror tactic, but a sign of discord in the Communist politburo.

This theory has been fleshed out now by Sunai Phasuk, a Laos specialist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. Sunai argues there is a tussle going on within the ruling clique.

The leadership has two main strands: the southern, pro-Vietnamese group led by president Khamtay Siphandone and prime minister Sisavat Keobounpanh, and the northern, pro-Chinese faction led by foreign minister Somsavat Lengsavad, himself an ethnic Chinese.

''Certain elements in the pro-China northern clique are mobilizing traditional anti-Vietnamese sentiment to their political advantage,'' Sunai said this week.

Certainly, some of the targets of the bombers have been overtly Vietnamese businesses, and the impression left by the bombings is that Vietnam-backed president Khamtay and prime minister Sisavat are losing control

The truth of this analysis may become evident if foreign minister Somsavat emerges with more power at the next party congress due in March.

Somsavat is the closest thing Laos has to an internationalist in its government, though that's not saying much. He is, however, credited with negotiating a loan from Beijing that has helped reduce inflation to around 30 per cent and stabilized the currency.

But there is little reason to suppose the coming to power of Somsavat would rekindle the doused reform movement.

At the same time, there are rumours in Vientiane that the president and prime minister have recognized that they have run out of ideas on how to govern Laos, and intend to retire at the party congress.

The scuttlebutt is they plan to hand power to bull-nosed, pro-Vietnamese defence minister Lieutenant-General Choummaly Sayasone.

That would not appear to carry much hope of reconciliation with foreign minister Somsavat.