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Laos' hidden rebellion in the mountains

BY: Steve Kirby - August 6, 2000, Sunday

Charred timbers litter the main street of this former royal capital in the Laotian mountains in a daily reminder of a worsening insurgency the communist authorities are struggling to hide.

Residents say five people were killed, two of them children, and 14 wounded the night the rebels came. Ashes are all that remain of the 17 homes that once faced the central market in a town which residents say was previously untouched by a rebellion by the province's 30 percent Hmong minority that has simmered since the end of the Vietnam War.

Western diplomats have expressed mounting concern about the escalating violence and last month the US embassy slapped a travel advisory on the whole of the surrounding province of Xiang Khouang.

But the killings here are the only ones provincial authorities are prepared to acknowledge this year.

"Around 20 of them came into town firing their guns in the air and shouting," said Chai, 18, as she tended a makeshift tea stall in the charred remains of her home.

"We all just ran out and hid while they ransacked and burned our homes," said Chai, who like most people in the mountains has no family name.

Xiang Khouang has long been prey to sporadic attacks which have made travel on some roads dangerous.

An anti-communist militia which the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruited from among the Hmong was never completely eliminated by a massive Vietnamese military intervention in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

But Muang Khun is a district capital, home to several government offices, and residents say January's attack was unprecedented and created an atmosphere of insecurity throughout the district.

"It was a real shock -- nothing like this had ever happaened in our town until this year," said Thitbounpan, who runs the town's biggest cafe.

"There are two army garrisons near the town, but they didn't stop the attack. Now we've got our own armed guards but people are still too scared to leave their homes at night.

"We used to get a steady stream of tourists but we've hardly seen any since the attack," he said.

The secretive Lao authorities require all overseas journalists to be accompanied by a foreign ministry minder, making people reluctant to speak out.

But residents told AFP the pattern of killings and insecurity had been repeated elsewhere in the province this year.

Just a few weeks a go, rebels killed three people in a village on the main road to Vientiane, one resident said, and travellers said the Lao army had been preventing foreigners from using the road in recent weeks.

Even the provincial capital of Phonsavan, a town of some 30,000 people with a nearby military air base, is ringed by checkpoints at night which prevent the dozen or so expatriate aid staff and small trickle of foreign tourists from travelling aftar dark.

Western diplomats say the mountain attacks on valley communities are the result of a sharp escalation in fighting this year in the Hmongs' traditional home in the high mountains.

They say they have credible reports from Lao forces that a major rebel offensive this spring forced the Lao army to call in Vietnamese combat troops for the first time since the 1980s.

But provincial officials insist the warnings of Western embassies are unjustified.

"There's no security threat in Xiang Khouang province, just a few isolated acts of banditry in which hardly anyone has been killed," said provincial cabinet secretary Khampao.

The communist authorities here dismiss all opposition to their rule as the work of bandits and robbers.

But in an oddly inconsistent line, Khampao said these robbers operated over large distances and attracted foreign support.

"The robbers in Xaysamboun special zone (a military-controlled zone between Xiang Khoung and the capital) are the same as here," he said.

"This group receives some foreign support -- sometimes they come down the hills into Phonsavan to telephone overseas."

Diplomats believe there are as many as 4,000 Hmong rebels in the northern mountains, divided between two main groups, who continue to draw support from the tens of thousands of Hmong who were given asylum in the United States after the Vietnam War.

Analysts say their numbers have been swelled by the Lao government's policy of resettling mountain peoples in the valleys, which has sparked opposition among Hmong reluctant to abandon their traditional livelihood of shifting cultivation and opium production.

A major road improvement programme in the province funded by the Asian Development Bank has helped the government intensify the policy in the past two years, and a string of newly resettled Hmong villages now lines the road from Phonsavan to Muang Khoun.

Khampao acknowledged that the resetlement policy was creating outlaws who often resorted to joining the robbers.

"Some people don't like the government's policy and resist it by taking to the forests and joining the robbers.

"But it's government policy -- every country has its laws," he said.