Laos: In The International Spotlight

2000

Nick Enfield

Laos has recently received more international attention than usual, as it approaches a significant milestone in modern history. On 2 December 2000, the nation celebrates the 25th anniversary of the revolution which put its ruling single-party government in power. This year, Laos has experienced security problems more widespread and at a more public level than at any other time since the current regime’s ‘perestroika’ of the mid 1980’s. Over the last two months in the capital Vientiane, a number of bombs have been laid in public locations including Wattay airport, the morning market, the central post office, and on public buses (both local and inter-provincial). Some of these bombs have exploded, injuring over a dozen people in all. Despite reports that arrests have been made, these sporadic bombings have not ceased.

In July, a large group of armed men crossed into Southern Laos from neighbouring Thailand, attacking and occupying the Lao offices at the international border crossing of Vang Tao (Chong Mek), between Pakse (Laos) and Ubon Ratchathani (Thailand). In an ensuing battle a number of these men were killed. It is reported that the flag of the pre-1975 ‘Royal Lao Government’ regime was raised during the siege, but many details of this attack remain unclear - for example, whether the men involved were Lao or Thai, whether the act was politically motivated, and who organised it. International press reports have claimed that Lao Americans, who had been military officers in the pre-1975 Royal Lao Government, funded and organised the action as a political attack. The Lao government maintains that the incident was merely the work of bandits, attempting to rob the duty free stores at the border post.

Further security problems are reportedly being experienced in northern provinces including Xieng Khouang and Phong Saly. Many word-of-mouth reports describe Vietnamese military activity throughout the north of the country. These have been reported in regional press, but vehemently denied by the Lao government. Security problems in remote upland rural areas have persisted throughout the current government’s rule, but until lately these events have been largely ignored.

Understanding of this situation is seriously hampered by the difficulty of obtaining reliable information in Laos. The many rumours which circulate are difficult to confirm or deny, particularly since the government is so evasive, and keeps such a tight rein on information flow. The foreign press often exacerbates the problem by reporting unconfirmed stories. For example, Thai newspapers recently reported a large explosion in the main tourist hotel in the southern Lao centre of Pakse, in which several people were killed. While other foreign press agents reported this story in turn, it was never confirmed at the source. In fact, nobody in Pakse had heard anything about this alleged blast. With no way to verify what is going on, wild and not-so-wild theories behind the current unrest in Laos abound, and sometimes the lack of knowledge can be capitalised upon for political purposes.

For example, it has been common in recent reporting of events in Laos to mention the Hmong minority group in connection with both the reported troubles in upland Laos, and the bombs in lowland towns. The Hmong are a familiar and convenient scapegoat, yet none of these reports are confirmed. The Hmong are certainly not the only group who may have cause for grievance with the government. Various upland minorities are coming under more pressure in their own territory, while lowland urban people are experiencing a range of frustrations associated with economic desperation, lack of political freedom, absence of tangible progress, and disillusionment with blatant and widespread corruption. Nobody is really sure whether all these current security incidents - bombings, border post attack, upland fighting - are related, or whether they are the general outcome of a whole variety of people expressing their discontent in this time of political sensitivity.

WATCHPOINT: The 25th anniversary celebrations of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic may provide a catalyst for the expression of discontent by a range of different groups in Lao society. Keep an eye on the response of the Lao government, which to date has remained non-progressive.

 

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