Beer facts of river rumpus remain shrouded in mystery

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 29 October, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 29 October, 1997, 12:00am

Somehow it has always looked like more than a storm in a beer bottle.

Border tensions between Thailand and Laos may have eased with the release this week of six Thai immigration officials following a bizarre beer smuggling incident three weeks ago, but the whole affair remains a mystery.

Exactly what took place on the Mekong River in the early hours of October 7 has yet to be explained.

Five Lao boats were spotted in Thai waters and sparked a melee involving the Thai Navy. Three boats and one Lao were captured while two others managed to escape, beaching on a sand bar on the Lao side with the Thai officials on board.

Shots were fired by the Thai Navy and two or three Laotians were either shot or drowned. The Thais were detained.

But the only booty seized was 36,000 crates of German beer, most of which was thought to be flat. Hardly a haul worthy of border violence and renewed suspicions.

Some diplomats and observers are speculating far more sinister operatives were at work. The incident took place in Thailand's far northeast on the river coast of Chiang Rai province, at a spot growing famous for far more lucrative custom than flat Lowenbrau. It is close to the Golden Triangle and the Chinese, Burmese and Vietnamese borders and has grown into a hot-spot for trade in young women for Bangkok's brothels, heroin, amphetamines and timber.

Laos must juggle its international relations carefully and seeks always to stave off bullies while avoiding anything that could anger its giant neighbours.

Yet it held the six Thai men for 19 days - apparently sure their territory had been breached. To get the men back, the Thais also agreed to return and repair the seized boats while compensating the families of the dead Laotians.

The incident was among the most serious between the two - at war on the river just 10 years ago - for some time.

It comes amid growing disquiet in Vientiane at the stormy economic winds sweeping across the nation following the collapse of the Thai baht - its currency the kip is also struggling.

Luckily for some gangsters it is business as usual back on the river.