Laos - the long, troubled decade

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 September, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 September, 2003, 12:00am

Five people were shot dead when a battered bus trundling through rugged northeastern Laos was ambushed two weekends ago. For once, not all the raiders escaped scot-free: five of them were killed by security forces shortly after. It was the fourth bus attack this year.

Over the past decade or so, gunmen have sporadically shot up buses along Route 13. The official reaction is far more interesting than the attacks themselves. It is a well-rehearsed play: as usual, Laos blames the attack on bandits. Diplomats stick to their lines, shrug their shoulders and point fingers at disgruntled hill peoples. Neither explanation makes much sense.

Such incidents seem like brief awakenings for a nation in deep slumber. They give the outside world a momentary, if unclear, glimpse of a secretive nation where all, evidently, is not well. Laos's monolithic, Brezhnevist regime has not launched a big push to eliminate the attackers, whoever they are. It has no money. Few currencies have sunk as low as the kip, and the economy shows no signs of rising out of the doldrums.

But sporadic attacks are likely to continue disrupting this sleep as long as inequalities continue to fester unattended. Bus passengers were killed on the highway in southern Laos in June. In February and April more buses were hit in Kasi, north of the capital Vientiane. Kasi is near the Saisomboun Special Zone, where Laotian troops are reportedly trying to crush a few thousand rebellious Hmong, descendants of an army that fought for the CIA during the 1960s and 1970s.

After each ambush, troops beef up security along this high and twisting road, while scouring the bamboo forests and villages for the perpetrators. But no arrests have ever been announced in this secretive country, Southeast Asia's greatest enigma.

The blame cannot easily be attached to bandits or rebel ethnic groups for last month's ambush near Sam Neua, in the remote northeast, or for the previous bus bombing. They occurred far from the Hmong holdout. Besides, what kind of bandits steal nothing? - as in June's attack.

So the guessing game continues. One diplomat suggested the Sam Neua attack might have been a botched scheme to bring opium poppy farmers from the mountains down into the valleys to grow less entertaining crops. This explanation has greater credence than the convenient rebel story. Raiding the occasional bus is unlikely to topple the communist regime. In July the Lao Students' Movement for Democracy, a shadowy US-based group, claimed it made attacks across Laos against government and military posts. A few shoot-outs took place, producing little more than whispers and raised eyebrows in the markets.

Perhaps such pinpricks are a prelude to blowing up ministries and telephone exchanges, assassinating politicians and generals. But with no discernible, organised opposition, either inside or outside the country, it seems the leaders are losing little sleep worrying about it.

There seems to be little political impulse pushing ethnic minorities into a David and Goliath battle to topple the government. Most ethnic minority groups, such as the Hmong, live on the steep, craggy mountains that dominate the country. Though poor by some measures, they are self-sufficient, so not at the mercy of the economy's ups and - mostly - downs.

Ethnic minorities are equal citizens - at least on paper. Many work in lowland towns, and hold posts at all levels of the Communist Party, military and government.

Easing poverty might lessen the banditry. Slow economic reform, tourism campaigns and the foreign aid drip could be interpreted as well-meaning sallies in this direction. But expect a long, long wait for results.

Some wealth is flowing into the country. Tired old taxis, motorcycles and cyclists are increasingly being pushed aside by expensive four-wheel drives and sporty pick-up trucks in Vientiane and the few other large towns. Anecdotal evidence suggests what wealth the country has is flowing into the hands of a small, privileged group.

Some comrades, particularly those close to party bigwigs, are benefiting from the dribs and drabs of foreign investment, chainsawing of the forests and tourist dollars. No doubt a few also have their sticky fingers in the booming narcotics trade.

The occasional bombing or bus attack may reflect squabbles among cliques in the regime, the military and darker corners of the economy. Accounts are thus promptly settled and calm returns until the next dispute over the spoils. If the country does fall apart, true to form the world will express shock and surprise, only because it was easier to ignore the enigma than engage or unlock it.

David Fullbrook is a freelance writer and political analyst based in Bangkok