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HEADLINE: Laos' unfounded phobia of Thailand

BANGKOK POST June 16, 2000

It was bound to happen. Since the spate of terrorist bombings in Laos erupted two months ago, sooner or later someone there was bound to point an accusing finger at Thailand. Sure enough an unnamed senior Laotian official this week charged that Thai officials were supporting anti-government Hmong activists who were supposedly responsible for the half a dozen or so bombings in Vientiane.

In spite of the fact that little evidence has ever been shown to support such an allegation, the accusation underscores the point that old suspicions indeed die hard. And if it were to be shared by the Laotian leadership, as it may very well be since they also brought it up at a recent Thai-Lao committee meeting in Bangkok, the suspicion could undermine the hard-earned trust between the two countries if left unresolved.

During the Vietnam War the CIA armed ethnic Hmong fighters who fought alongside covert Thai and US forces against communist forces in Laos before the communist victory there in 1975. But even in those days Thailand had no record of sponsoring acts of terrorism in another state. And in the year 2000, when Laos is a fellow Asean member, Thailand certainly has nothing to gain and everything to lose from any involvement in the bombings.

The Hmong themselves are also unlikely perpetrators of all of the indiscriminate bombings, which occurred not only in Vientiane but also in Pakse. Though they have kept up small-scale resistance in northern Laos, the Hmong have never previously launched terrorist attacks in the capital, much less in southern Pakse where there are no Hmong at all. It would be very hard indeed for a Hmong fighter to be operating in Vientiane or Pakse, since he would stick out like a sore thumb. The Lao Human Rights Council, a US-based group representing Hmong in exile, have also denied that the minority group was involved, inspite of reports to the contrary.

To allay fears of alleged Thai involvement or complicity, Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai has ordered the Foreign Ministry to ask Laos for the names of Thai individuals it suspects of being linked to anti-government groups so that legal action can be taken against them. Vientiane should oblige so that the suspicion can be dealt with in the open.

But being a secretive and closed communist state, Laos is not likely to take up the challenge. The Laotian Interior Ministry yesterday said that two bombing suspects, a Laotian and a Hmong, have been arrested with explosive devices. It said the Hmong sneaked into Laos from Thailand but would not say much beyond that. Analysts, however, doubt that Hmong groups were responsible for all the bombings, if any. In fact the Laotian authorities earlier blamed it on a small group of "hooligans" and "bad elements". Observers pointed out that internal Laotian groups, ranging from the Lao Students Movement for Democracy (whose uprising was suppressed last October) to enemies within the Laotian government and communist party, could be the masterminds.

As leader of one of the poorest countries in the region, the Laotian government is facing growing dissatisfaction among the young and well-educated officials who are unhappy with its handling of the economy. The communist party is also facing power struggles among key members and policy makers who can not agree on an appropriate path to steer the country into the next millennium. There is also a power play between northerners and southerners competing for a greater say on policy matters. Laos should address these internal conflicts that are more likely to be the causes of the bombings. Opening up the country a bit more rather than opting for less because of the bombing, would go a long way towards this. Then Laos will see that her phobia of Thailand is rather unfounded.