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Political Dissent in Laos

Political turmoil comes to one of the most isolated communist ruled countries in Southeast Asia.

By Bertil Lintner

The current political unrest and economic meltdown in Laos are symptoms of the country's worst crisis in decades and the challenges come at a time when donor countries have linked further assistance to economic and political reforms. Small and insignificant as they may seem, recent events in Laos are considered important in a country which unlike its neighbours Burma and Vietnam has never had a pro-democracy movement. So far, Laos has also been shielded from the kind of political turmoil that has engulfed another neighbour, Cambodia.

The crisis appears to be the outcome of Laos' severe economic problems that began three years ago with the Asian crisis. Until then, Laos has benefited from free-market reforms and foreign investment mainly from Thailand and the country has remained socialist in name only. But the political system was never liberalised, and lack of transparency and accountability exacerbated Laos' difficulties.

Foreign investors began to pull out and the Laotian currency, the kip, fell from 1,080 to the dollar in early 1997 to as low as 10,000 the biggest depreciation in the region. Laos also became the only member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to suffer triple digit inflation. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in Vientiane, annual inflation rose from 26% in December 1997 to 142% a year later, before peaking at 167% in March 1999. Private savings were wiped out, and government employees lost up to 80% of their purchasing power.

The situation was brought under control in late 1999 by a range of austerity measures, including salary caps and high interest rates. The exchange rate has bottomed out at 7,500 kip to the dollar, and inflation is down to a manageable 10%. But all the fundamental problems still remain, and the donors, who meet every few years in Geneva to discuss various aid projects, have announced that their next round-table discussions will be held in Laos itself at the end of the year.

"The meeting should not be perceived as a pledging conference, but rather as a forum for exchange of government-donors views," says a survey of donor attitudes released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The survey continues: "There is a need to move out of the niceties and to get some clear answers from the government."

The World Bank has also announced that future assistance would depend on changes in Laos' authoritarian political system. World Bank guarantees are needed to get private loans for Laos' most important development project ever, a billion-dollar dam and hydroelectric power project called Nam Theun-II.

The facility was to be built by a consortium comprising Australia's Transfield, Electricite de France, Italian-Thai Development, Thai financier Phatra Thanakit and Thai telecoms firm Jasmine International, and most of the electricity had been ear-marked for export to Thailand to earn badly needed foreign exchange for Laos. But in February, the World Bank stated that no such guarantees would be forthcoming unless the government commits itself to substantial reforms and political liberalisation.

According to a Vientiane-based Western analyst, the dilemma Laos' communist government is facing is obvious and insoluble: "If they change their policies, they fear they'll lose power. But if they don't change, the economy will get even worse, and they may lose support from within their own ranks."

On October 26 last year, a group of teachers and students from Dongdok University in Vientiane, led by a local lecturer, Thongpaseuth Keuakhone, staged a demonstration against the government the first such incident since the communist takeover nearly 25 years ago. The demonstration was quickly suppressed, and Thongpaseuth and several other protesters rounded up by the authorities. The swift reaction of the authorities meant that few in Vientiane were aware of the protest, but soon there was a marked increase in the number of political seminars, where officials and others had to study the doctrines of the ruling communist party. Young people were summoned by local community leaders and told not to listen to "counter revolutionaries."

A leaflet, which was distributed by the protesters before they were apprehended, outlines the basic demands of Laos' fledgling pro-democracy movement: political reform; the release of all political prisoners; and a return to the 1974 coalition government, which included communist as well as neutralist forces. The last demand, which is far more conciliatory than the usual "crush-the-communists" approach of Lao political exiles, is a clear indication that Thongpaseuth's protest was a genuinely indigenous movement, and not orchestrated from abroad.

Dissent within the lowland Lao, the country's ethnic majority, is seen as even more threatening than insurgent activities among the tribal population, but even in the hills, conflict is brewing. In late January, Hmong hilltribe insurgents attacked the town of Khoun on the Plain of Jars, killing six people and burning several buildings. Skirmishes have also been reported from the Saysomboun area just south of the Plain of Jars, and around Udomxay in the northwest. Eyewitnesses have observed military cargo planes and convoys of ground troops head for the affected areas.

Many Hmongs sided with the Americans during the Indochina war in the 1960s and 1970s, and scattered bands of guerrillas have continued their resistance even after the 1975 communists seizure of power. Their old leader, Gen Vang Pao, lives in the United States, but keeps contacts with the remnants of his forces in the mountains of Laos.

The recent fighting is the heaviest since June 1999, when Lao government troops clashed with the Hmongs around Nong Het, a mountainous area between the Plain of Jars and the Vietnamese border. Shortly before that fighting broke out, two Americans of Hmong descent Vang Pao's nephew Michael Vang and his companion Hua Ly went missing in Laos. They reportedly disappeared in late April 1999 after illegally crossing into Laos from Chiang Khong in Thailand with several automatic rifles and a backpack of money.

According to intelligence sources in Thailand, Vang and Ly had intended to foment a rebellion in Laos by "buying" the governor of Bo Keo province opposite Chiang Khong. From their "liberated zone" in Bo Keo, the rebels then hoped to push down towards Vientiane. Both men were robbed, killed and dumped in the Mekong river, sources assert.

The Hmongs, who are largely animist, believe that the new millennium adds a symbolic value to their struggle and the events of 1999 as well as the skirmishes this year should be seen in the context of a coordinated effort to step up the long simmering insurgency in the hills.

But, as grant Evans, a Hong Kong-based academic and Lao specialist points out, it would be wrong to conclude that the resurgence of resistance among the Hmongs has been initiated solely by "outside agitators." The greievances of Hmongs and others, Evens argues, include corruption within the government, poorly executed resettlement programmes, ethnic marginaluzation and the absence of democratic structures through which such grievances can be expressed. "In the absence of the latter, taking up guns is a next best option," Evans says.

However, for the Hmongs to succeed, they would have to link their struggle with the small but not totally insignificant pro-democracy movement in the lowlands. There are few signs that any such alliance could become a possibility. Ethnic and linguistic differences have resulted in centuries of mutual distrust between the highlanders and the lowlanders, and occasional alliances of convenience between the two groups have throughout Laos' history been shaky and short-lived.

Nevertheless, among Lao exiles in Europe, North America and Australia, such an alliance is emerging.

Over the past few years, several meetings have taken place between Vang Pao and his men and a rising star among the lowland Lao in exile: Prince Soulivong Savang, the eldest grandson of the last king, Savang Vatthana, who was deposed by the communists in 1975 and later died in a prison camp in Houa Phanh. That alliance is also gaining sympathy from US congressmen and anti-communist politicians. On February 25, prince Soulivong appealed to the United States to "negotiate a transition to democracy" in Laos. The 36-year-old prince also declared that he would be willing to head a "constitutional monarchy," if the people of Laos wished.

The role of the prince goes back to August 1981, when he, then only 18, swam across the Mekong river to Thailand together with his younger brother Thayavong. The two young princes went on to France, where Soulivong obtained a law degree in Clermont-Ferrand. On September 6-7, 1997 the princes initiated a "Royal Lao Conference" in Seattle, USA, which brought together over 300 lowland Lao exiles and representatives of the Hmongs abroad. The resolution from the meeting stated that the common goal was to change "the totalitarian regime to a genuine democratic system," and "the reunification of the Lao people."

It is almost impossible to ascertain the degree of support this movement has inside Laos or if pro-democracy activists such as Thongpaseuth are even aware of its existence but with communism fading as the national ideology in everything but name, and with the country having joined ASEAN in 1997, the question of a more suitable political system is being discussed among many Lao in exile as well as at home. In the northern city of Luang Prabang, the old royal capital before 1975, a curious cult is emerging among many local residents.

Posters and badges bearing the portrait of the late prince Phetsarath Ratanavongsa are circulating and worshipped in the same way as many Thais cousins of the Lao who still have a kingdom revere their old king Chulalongkorn as a national reformer. Like king Chulalongkorn, prince Phetsarath was deeply influenced by Western values and believed in modernising their respective feudal societies.

This clearly shows that, for the first time in years, some Lao are seriously rediscovering their past, and that the thought of restoring the centuries-old monarchy is not entirely dead. In a statement dated February 27, 1998, prince Soulivong also said: "I fulfill the destiny given me as the eldest grandson of the last king of Laos and to meet my grandfather's expectations of me, to emulate the best constitutional monarchy which I have observed in Thailand, in England and in Japan. Laos, like Thailand, has a Theravada Buddhist culture and society."

In February this year, hundreds of lowland Lao and Hmongs -- followers of prince Soulivong and Vang Pao converged on Washington DC to demand that the US government initiates talks between the authorities in Vientiane and the opposition. The authorities in Vientiane may be able to dismiss such movements among exiles and even growing public dissent at home but it will find it harder to ignore the frustration of foreign donors such as Japan, Sweden and Australia which for years have contributed to the country's development.

Without foreign aid, the present Lao government would never survive; assistance from abroad accounted for 16% of Laos' gross domestic product in 1997. Current events and pressures in Laos therefore indicate that, at long last, change may be coming to one of the world's most isolated and last remaining communist countries.

This article first appeared in The Irrawaddy, June 01, 2000

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