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COMMENT / REPORTING EVENTS IN LAOS: Are things really as they appear?

September 26, 2000

Laos is not the most open of states and this often has led to ill-informed guesswork among those reporting events there. There is a lack of objectivity among some reporters and this could be creating a false impression of the country among many people.

Laos is a country generating no news for decades. There are whole generations of people elsewhere who don't know if it is in Africa or Asia. And yet sometimes news from Laos occupies the front pages and fills TV screens before the country eases back into obscurity for another long nap.

There is always a reason for waking the sleeping beauty: the CIA "secret war", a short period of activity on the part of armed Hmong groups, the opening of the Friendship Bridge, an Asean conference, the capture of a white elephant.

My life has been linked closely to Laos. After university I worked on short-term and post-graduate study programmes for Lao officials in Moscow, translated and taught the Lao language, and worked as an interpreter with late prime minister Kaysone Phomvihane. Later, I spent time as a journalist first in Vientiane and then working out of Bangkok. Laos has never been "asleep" for me; my attention has been focussed on the country for the past 15 years.

The recent three-month burst of international media attention on Laos, the most sustained since the Indochina war, surprises me greatly.

What has happened in Laos these past three months? There have been explosions in and around Vientiane and in the south; there have been reports of Hmong rebel raids on villages and supposed Vietnamese military activity in the north; and there was a raid on the immigration checkpoint opposite Chong Mek in Thailand. These are the only "facts" available for analysis.

A series of blasts carefully planned to draw a lot of attention while causing the least possible damage to life and property does not look like the work of amateur anarchists, distressed by the impact of the economic crisis and worsening living conditions in Lao cities. It surely doesn't look like sabotage by the Hmong armed resistance: explosions set by them in Vientiane in the late-'80s were far more devastating.

But what grounds are there for the theory that the blasts are the result of a clash between pro-Chinese and pro-Vietnamese factions in the Lao government, if even the existence of such clear-cut factions and agendas is not supported by fact? And yet this theory has been rubber-stamped into credibility by a respected regional publication, and later repeated by others _ with a due amount of scepticism, I admit.

Armed Hmong groups have repeatedly gone on the warpath over the years: shooting randomly at vehicles on the road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang (foreigners, regardless of nationality, have always been as good a target as state officials), capturing villages and killing people in the way so colourfully described by a recent AFP report from the Lao north. It's hard to grasp what sort of political gains this movement is after with such methods. It is beyond doubt though that this movement is anything but news.

It also is quite clear for those familiar with the terrain where the supposed major Hmong rebellion is taking place that it is impossible to sustain guerrilla activities without sufficient air support. The last time there was massive air activity in these parts was during the Indochina war, and then the CIA-funded Hmong units depended heavily on air support by Air America and forward air control by the Ravens. There is no air force in Southeast Asia that would support the militant Hmong groups, and small aircraft private aviation in the region is next to non-existent.

The raid on the border checkpoint, on the other hand, was certainly news. And that appears to have been its sole purpose. The Thai media were absolutely right to defend the freedom of the press within the borders of the realm, but the fact that TV crews were on location before events began doesn't have much to do with press freedom. It gives the whole thing the look of a badly arranged movie shoot. And it would have been just that if not for the six people who paid with their lives for their stupidity and their leaders' ambitions.

Some reports point to the Asian economic crisis as the reason for a "growing dissent" in Laos. It probably hasn't occurred to the analysts that the very impact of the crisis on Lao city dwellers proves that Laos is part of the regional free market. And so it has always been _ first of all, through its border trade with Thailand and the acceptance by the Lao market of US dollars and Thai baht as "parallel" currencies.

Initial market reforms came easily in the late-'80s because, unlike what was happening in the Soviet Union or other Eastern bloc countries, the market economy was not something abstract or new to Laos.

Of those who have suffered as a result of the crisis, the majority are the owners of small to medium-sized businesses (people who would suffer in any capitalist market crisis), party and government officials and functionaries, and military and police officers _ that is, those who live off the market or are paid government salaries.

The situation for these city people is tough but not as desperate as the media would have us believe.

These two social groups are closely interlinked as the government has been promoting the "family economy" as a means for wage earners to earn supplementary income through agricultural activities and small private businesses for the past 15 years _ and the vast majority of the families of government employees operate these businesses in their spare time or delegate the work to close relatives not employed in government service. Also, many families in these social groups receive money from relatives abroad _ mainly from those who left the country in the late-'70s and have since become citizens of the United States, Australia or France.

At the same time, 80% of the population _ farmers largely untouched by capitalism and living by the rules of self-sufficient natural economy _ have not been hurt by the crisis in any significant way. Rural life in Laos is still extremely poor by modern standards, there is still is a lack of clean water and the diet in the north is still not very rich in protein and vitamin A. But there is enough food and shelter, and living and working conditions are slightly worse than in 1997 but better than in 1989.

I don't believe the recent explosions, the Hmong activity and the attacks on the media _ it looks like a sequence of related events to me _ are part of a conspiracy by any nation-state _ not America or Australia, Vietnam, China or Thailand.

Most probably, it is all the work of exiled Lao politicians who have been smelling the wind and reading it wrong. They probably decided that with tensions around Burma somehow easing, with Vietnam signing a brand-new trade agreement with the US, with North Korea "coming out of the cold" and with China untouchable, the West needed another "oppressive dictatorship" to oppose in Asia, and Laos was the "perfect" candidate. Prince Sulivong's fund-raising trips to the United States and the US Congressional Forum on Laos organised by his supporters in the legislative branch obviously have something to do with this miscalculation.

The government of Laos is obviously not democratic and has never pretended to be in the Western sense _ but the government is very far from oppressive. It has been changing things gradually over the past decade.

I understand the Lao leaders perfectly well when they look at the Russian experience of the past 10 years and conclude that slow but sure change has to be the only possible mode of transition.

As a direct result of lightning democratic reforms, none of which have been accomplished fully, Russians gained the freedom to travel and to engage in private businesses. Citizens of Laos possessed these things 15 years ago.

On the other hand, the negative impact of the reforms and of the way in which they were implemented has pushed over 60% of the Russian population below the poverty line, and allowed a bunch of ex-communist crooks to out-crook by a thousand-fold their communist predecessors, ruin the economy in the process and make the country look like a naked old man bleeding oil into west-bound pipelines and using a nuclear missile for a cane to support himself.

Laos doesn't have missiles. Or oil and natural gas. It has copper and gold. But these deposits are already partly incorporated into the international market system.

The recent media activity around Laos may probably be explained by the theory of "activist journalism".

During the past three decades we have seen the birth and flourishing of investigative reporting. A trade for the brave and the just, it has lately branched out onto a new path which I would call "activist journalism".

The difference is that with activist journalism a reporter takes sides, usually the side of the oppressed, and produces images of a struggle for the cause. This has become the perfect tool for attracting world attention to the plight of the oppressed and it has created great examples of journalism. It is now a very attractive path for any journalist to follow.

The thing that is usually not seen so clearly is that activist journalism, even when it is a crusade for a just cause, has very little to do with objective reporting. Activist-produced reports and documentaries focus solely on one side of a conflict, leaving only blame and no chance of an objective portrait of the other side. It engages a journalist in an investigation that goes just as far as a certain political movement takes him _ and never further. As supplements to the general news produced by an objective reporter it can work wonders.

Usually, journalists who make these films or articles don't pretend to be objective _ their task is to get the message across. But when "activist" reports replace actual news or are disguised as general news on a major radio and TV network, they are simply misleading.

The majority of the public don't have the time or resources to make their own analysis of events in a foreign country. They rely on a reporter to spell things out for them. They also have active imaginations. And when a reporter of a major and well-accredited network turns "activist", people start to believe the half-truths they are fed on the screen.

What Laos really needs now is international aid, and it's getting less of it every year. It needs crusaders too, but of a different breed: people like Lee Thorn of Project Hearts and Minds _ Laos, who loaded his share of Laos-bound bombs into B-52-s at U-tapao in the war and is now raising $1 million in donations a year from private citizens, charities, war veterans and the US air force to bring container-loads of medical supplies to a hospital in Vientiane province.

It would be best if activists remained activists and reporters remained reporters. As long as there is no clear distinction between them, part of what we see in the news will always be a storm in a teacup intentionally or unintentionally blown up to full-screen size.

Evgeni Belenky

- Evgeni Belenky is a Bangkok-based Russian Southeast Asiacorrespondent.