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Rebels, internal dissent threaten Laos

BY: By DENIS D. GRAY, Associated Press Writer - August 7, 2000, Monday

Bombs rip through a popular restaurant, a fancy hotel, an outdoor market. Hmong tribesmen, who once fought in a CIA-marshalled army, stage raids from mountain hideouts. Rebels seize a frontier post.

A quarter-century after Laos' victory over a U.S.-backed government, one of the world's last communist regimes is in the gunsights of insurgents. The recent incidents have offered glimpses of seething discontent beneath a superficially placid political scene and battered the cliche about Laos being more merry than Marxist.

The first known anti-government demonstration in 25 years was staged last October outside the presidential palace in the capital, Vientiane. Some protesters, mainly pro-democracy students, were arrested.

In March, a bomb blows up in a Vientiane restaurant; some half-dozen explosions follow in the ensuing months - hitting a market, a hotel and other public places.

The violence, in which dozens have been injured, shows no signs of abating. Meanwhile, rebels groups have been fighting - and talking.

Authorities have blamed the bombings on the Hmong or other "bad elements," and accused Thailand of harboring Laotian expatriates determined to undermine the regime. And the officials deny there's internal foment.

But Sunai Phasuk, a Laos expert at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, says serious rifts are fraying the power structure, and one or more of these have ignited the bombings.

"Radical change, if any, will come from inside the Communist Party," Sunai said in an interview. "Insurgents? It's mostly a lot of talk."

There's conflict in high places between those siding with the two countries jockeying for position in Laos - China and Vietnam.

President Khamtay Siphandone, 76, and others of his generation who fought alongside the Vietnamese are known to side with Hanoi. Others favor a greater economic opening to the outside world, which old-line communists oppose.

Anti-Vietnamese feeling appears to be rising, and some bombings seem to target the ethnic Vietnamese community. And there's resentment by the poor against comrades who have used recent economic loosening to become rich.

The strongest groups are unquestionably remnants of the Hmong guerrillas, with fresh recruits, who fought communist forces during the Vietnam War under the direction of the CIA.

Remarkably, they have been able to hang on in remote mountain regions despite little recent outside help. They are said to enjoy support of a local population angry at government tactics toward ethnic minorities like the Hmong.

There are two main Hmong groups. The weaker owes allegiance to Vang Pao, the wartime leader exiled in the United States. More potent is the Chao Faa movement headed by a former major in Vang Pao's army, Pa Kao Her.

The only other known armed resistance group inside Laos is a nameless band of no more than 200 fighters surviving in the jungle triangle where the borders of Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia converge.

"They can't mount a movement inside Laos... . They have no role in the world," says Col. Bouasieng Champapanh, a senior Laotian military official. Analysts agree.

The biggest attack staged by any group in Laos in recent years would have been comic opera if not for the six people killed as insurgents briefly seized a Laotian-Thai customs post July 3 and raised the old royalist flag.

The group, which included a 54-year-old taxi driver and others who could barely fire their weapons, were largely recruited among ethnic Laotians living in Thailand and promised money and land in a liberated Laos.

Their leader was Sisouk Sayseng, whose brother in California told The Associated Press that funds for anti-communist rebels was being collected from Laotian exiles in the United States, Canada and Europe.

A dozen or more organizations in these countries have formed to fight Laos' regime. But there's little evidence they've done anything but make declarations and squabble.

Hoping to rally the disparate elements are royalists, mostly exiled in France and headed by Prince Soulivong Savang, the eldest grandson of the last king of Laos and heir to the throne.

The prince, 37, whose grandfather King Savang Vatthana died in a communist re-education camp, has visited the United States twice this year to lobby political figures. The heir to a 600-year-old monarchy says he's willing to return home as a constitutional ruler - something the communists vow will never happen.

"Even though they lost the game, the royalists still have their dream," said Bouasieng, a Ministry of Defense official visiting this southern provincial capital near the site of the recent border attack.

He described a royal family of "ugly and barbarous people" who evoke no sympathy or support from the population.

The recent upswing of resistance activity caught many by surprise. Armed Laotians, backed by the Thais and some right-wing American organizations, operated along the Thai-Laotian border in the 1970s and '80s but failed to unite and penetrate the country.

Sunai believes there is no concerted, united effort under way by the various anti-government forces, but that all heightened their profiles when they sensed the regime was weakening, especially in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

"It lost much of its claim to monopoly on power," the analyst says. "So a lot of groups took the opportunity to lather up opposition against it."