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Political and tribal dissent in Laos

Severe economic conditions in Laos have led to calls for political change and democracy. Bertil Lintner reports on recent anti-government demonstrations in one of the worlds few remaining communist countries.

FOR THE first time since the communist take-over in December 1975 there is mounting pressure for political change in Laos one of the world's poorest - and most authoritarian - countries. In October 1999 there was an unprecedented antigovernment protest in the capital Vientiane; in the mountainous north, the Hmong hill-tribe guerrillas have also stepped up their activities.

Laos is suffering its worst crisis in decades; donor countries have linked future aid to economic and political reforms. Such events are considered important in Laos, which - unlike its neighbours China and Vietnam - has never had a pro-democracy movement. So far, the country has also been shielded from the kind of political turmoil that has engulfed neighbouring Cambodia.

Recent developments appear to be the outcome of Laos' severe economic problems that began three years ago with the Asian crisis. Until then, Laos had benefited from free-market reforms and foreign investment - mainly from Thailand - and the country has remained socialist in name only. However, the political system was never liberalised. The lack of transparency and accountability exacerbated 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 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%. However, all the fundamental problems still remain. Donors, who meet every few years in Geneva to discuss various aid projects, have said that their next roundtable 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 UN 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 hydro-electric 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 company Jasmine International. Most of the electricity had been earmarked for export to Thailand to earn badly needed foreign exchange for Laos. However, in February, the World Bank said 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 facing Laos' communist government 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." There are already signs indicating that the support the government has long enjoyed from its citizens is rapidly eroding.

On 26 October 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 take-over 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, distributed by the protesters before they were apprehended, outlines the basic demands of Laos' fledgling prodemocracy movement: political reform; the release of all political prisoners; and a return to the 1974 coalition government, which included communist as well as neutral forces. The last demand, which is far more conciliatory than the usual 'crush-the-communists' cry of Lao political exiles, is a clear indication that Thongpaseuth's protest was an indigenous movement, not orchestrated from abroad.

In breadth and organisation - and by taking the protests to the streets Thongpaseuth's movement went much further than a group of party dissidents, who 10 years ago also demanded political reforms.

Inspired by the pro-democracy movements that swept across Eastern Europe at the time, Thongsuk Saysangkhi (a former deputy minister of science of technology), Latsami Khamphoui (a former communist party cadre and erstwhile chairman of the Association of Lao Students in Vietnam) and Feng Sakchittaphong (who once worked for the foreign-relations council of the party's central committee) met in 1990 to form a social-democratic club in Laos. They were quickly apprehended and sentenced to long prison terms. In February 1998 Thongsuk died in a remote prison camp in Houa Phanh near the Vietnamese border, where both Latsami and Feng still remain.

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 hill-tribe 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 heading 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, General Vang Pao, lives in the USA, but keeps contacts with the remnants of his forces in the mountains of Laos.

The recent fighting is the heaviest since last June, when 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. The plan failed when news of their money was leaked. 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. The events of 1999 and the skirmishes this year should be seen in the context of a co-ordinated effort to step tip the long simmering insurgency in the hills. 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 an alliance could be possible. Ethnic and linguistic differences have resulted in centuries of distrust between the highlanders and the lowlanders, and occasional alliances of convenience between the groups throughout Laos' history have been shaky and short-lived.

Nevertheless, among Lao exiles in Europe, North America and Australia, such an alliance is emerging. It has also declared its support for the urban pro-democracy movement and the guerrillas in the hills.

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 25 February Prince Soulivong appealed to the USA to "negotiate a transition to democracy" in Laos. The 36-year-old prince and pretender to the throne in Laos 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 with his younger brother Thayavong. The two young princes went on to France, where Soulivong obtained a law degree. France is also the home of Soulivong's uncle, prince Sauryavong Savang, the patriarch of the Lao royal family and self-declared 'Prince Regent of Laos'. On 6-7 September 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". In other words, a united front comprising both lowland Lao and Hmong leaders.

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 (the government has always been in Vientiane but the king resided in the north), 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 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 27 February 1998, Prince Soulivong said: "I aspire... to fulfil 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, hundreds of lowland Lao and Hmongs - followers of Prince Soulivong and Vang Pao - converged on Washington DC to demand that the US government initiate 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, who 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 Jane's Intelligence Review, April 2000

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