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At Siam's Gate

Few in the outside world know about it, but Pratu Siam in Thailand was a once key frontier in a secret war.

By Bertil Lintner

It must be one of the most ruggedly beautiful places in Southeast Asia--Pratu Siam, the Gate of Siam. Surrounded by steep limestone cliffs, this mountain pass on the border of Thailand and Laos looks like a scene from a Chinese painting. In the canyon far below, mist and clouds drift along the Mekong.

Picturesque it may be, but Pratu Siam and the nearby village of Phatang are unknown to tourists. Until well into the 1990s the area was off limits to outsiders. Up to just a few years ago, even local maps didn't show Phatang or the Gate of Siam. Getting here is not easy: The 15-kilometre road from the lowlands is steep and potholed, and almost impassable.

All that is a legacy of the past, when Phatang preferred to keep visitors out. That's because this area was once a vital frontier of the Cold War in Asia. In the 1960s and 1970s, United States forces used it as a base for their "secret war" aimed at countering Lao support for communist Vietnamese forces. In later years, fighters based here helped the Thai army defeat communist insurgents.

It is only now, as time eases the tensions of the past, that people who took part in those operations are willing to talk more openly, even if they refuse to be named. "We want to live in peace now," says one veteran of the secret war who lives in northern Thailand. "The past is history." Indeed, today's Phatang is a showcase of tranquillity. Its 3,000 inhabitants grow vegetables, fruits and tea, and make cherry and plum wine to earn cash. Visitors who do make it up may even be invited to share a bottle of wine.

Phatang's role in Southeast Asia's geopolitics dates from the early 1960s. At the time, Laos had been internationally recognized as neutral in the war raging in neighbouring Vietnam, and no foreign troops were supposed to be in the country. The reality was different: In the north, North Vietnamese soldiers were fighting alongside their Lao communist allies. Elsewhere, the U.S., or, more precisely, its Central Intelligence Agency, had built up a 30,000-strong "secret" army, whose number included a battalion of Nationalist Chinese soldiers.

Disguised as a Lao regiment and codenamed "Bataillon Spéciale 111" it was made up mainly of Chinese soldiers captured by the U.S. and its allies in the Korean War, and who had transferred their loyalties from Beijing to Taipei. About 1,600 wound up in Laos fighting for the Americans and conducting forays into China.

According to another veteran of the war, heavy fighting around their main base in northern Laos forced an evacuation across the border into Thailand. Phatang, which was already an established Nationalist-Chinese settlement, was the ideal choice for a rear base. From the vantage point of the Gate of Siam, a watch could be kept as Kuomintang troops infiltrated Laos.

After the end of the Vietnam War, battle-hardened Chinese troops from Phatang played a crucial role in the battle of Khao Ya, a Communist Party of Thailand stronghold in the Khao Khor mountains east of Thailand's central plains. Those who took part in that operation were granted Thai citizenship. Few, seemingly, chose to settle in Phatang.

In recent years, another group of Chinese has descended on Phatang: dissidents from the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. "They had heard about Phatang, and thought it was a Taiwanese base from where they could continue to the West," says a Westerner who helped some of these dissidents escape from China. Many are still stuck here.

The road to Phatang may be steep, but it is an even steeper climb up to the actual Gate of Siam. Few outsiders make it to the top, but that, too, will change now that Thai tourists are beginning to discover the area.

It's doubtful that many will ever make it to the most important Nationalist Chinese memorial in northern Thailand. Hidden behind trees off a small dirt track outside the town of Chiang Khong, a huge arch commemorates soldiers who died in the secret war, mainly in Laos. Two hundred of them now rest in a cluster of tombs, all facing towards China. Their war, after all, was secret, and they weren't supposed to be here.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, September 16, 2004

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