Laos: Contents under pressure

SUN JOURNAL

Escalation: Hmong guerrilla fighters have turned up the level of violence in Laos of late, and conditions seem likely to produce an ugly confrontation with the Asian country's repressive Communist regime.

June 14, 2000|By Joshua Kurlantzick | Joshua Kurlantzick,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

VIENTIANE, Laos - A brutal clash is brewing between Laos' Communist rulers and ethnic Hmong insurgents over government plans to force people from mountain villages to other areas of the country.

The Hmong fighters - remnants of a guerrilla army trained by the CIA during the Vietnam War - have been battling the government since the Communists took over in 1975 and the CIA pulled out of Laos.

But the guerrillas have intensified their campaign lately as Laos' secretive regime, dominated by ethnic Lao, has tightened control of the country, partly through its unpopular transmigration policy.

What had been a low-key insurgency has given way to bombings, ambushes and attacks on officials, principally in the rural northern province of Xieng Khouang.

Until lately, Vientiane, the capital, remained unaffected.

It has consistently been one of the world's most somnolent capitals, where water buffalo thresh rice alongside the narrow dirt "highway" leading to the airport.

Downtown, business proceeds slowly. Garish Buddhist temples dominate Vientiane's low-rise skyline, and hundreds of monks wander the narrow, potholed streets in the early morning to beg for food.

Workers take long breaks to sip strong Lao coffee and munch baguettes and pate, a legacy of the French colonial years.

Commercial activity is primarily limited to small-scale banking, textile manufacturing, and import-export trading.

On March 30, Vientiane's pleasant lassitude was shattered when an explosive device detonated in a restaurant, injuring at least eight people, including several tourists. Some residents attributed the blast to a business dispute, but the government blamed Hmong insurgents for "destroying the peaceful atmosphere of the capital."

Since then, there have been at least four explosions in central Laos.

Two of them were small and did little damage, but as many as 15 people were injured May 29, when a bomb ripped through a popular indoor shopping market in Vientiane.

On June 6, an explosion at a Vientiane bus station critically wounded two Laotians.

Two of the five explosions have coincided with official visits by Thai leaders, fostering speculation that whoever is planting the bombs is seeking to embarrass the Laotian government in front of its neighbors.

The government charges that the insurgents are receiving increasing amounts of money from Hmong-Americans and using it to smuggle arms across the porous Thai-Lao border.

After the Communists took over Laos, about 300,000 Hmong fled to the United States, where they have become a growing political force.

"The insurgents' support remains limited, but they may be striking a nerve," says Sunai Phasuk, a Laos specialist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

"Though the rebels rarely espoused political beliefs in the past, they have recently challenged unpopular resettlement policies and corrupt leaders."

The guerrillas have announced that they are fighting for people ordered to move against their will from highland homes to the plains.

Others have charged that the resettlement is intended to clear people out of mountain land coveted by Vietnamese logging firms with ties to Laotian Communists.

The government counters that the policy helps to spread the benefits of growth, and that most mountain dwellers want to move to towns.

"People agree with the relocation policy ... under which many people from remote areas have come to work in more comfortable places," says Donsy Payenveu, a member of Laos' legislature.

Laos' endemic graft has become another cause for popular grumbling.

Still nominally Communist, Laos undertook an economic opening more than a decade ago, but analysts say that development has been at best limited - subsistence farming occupies 80 percent of the population - while most of the benefits have gone to members of the Communist Party and the military establishment.

The country remains one of the poorest in the world.

"The regime and the military skim a high percentage off business deals, and development hasn't improved the lives of people as much as it should," says Grant Evans, a Laos researcher at Hong Kong University.

The mismanaged, corrupt economy was poorly prepared to weather the Asian economic crisis that began in 1997.

The Laotian currency, the kip, has lost 90 percent of its value.

It has stabilized over the past year, but Bangkok-based analysts warn that it could resume its free fall at any time.

As the economic crisis wanes, foreign investors are returning to Laos' more efficient neighbors.

But few companies can stomach the red tape and graft that characterizes business here. Foreign direct investment to Laos plummeted from $1.2 billion in 1995 to less than $140 million last year.

And now major aid donors, including the World Bank, are cutting programs and reducing support that amounts to more than 50 percent of the government budget. They are tired, Sunai says, of seeing aid siphoned off by the military.

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