Thailand and Laos

Not Quite Neighborly

Thailand’s border troubles have dominated the local press as tensions with Laos grow. Most dramatically, a cross-border raid into southern Laos from Thailand brought fragile relations between the impoverished communist nation and its increasingly democratic, economically revived neighbor to the fore, though recent flare-ups also occurred over other incidents.

The July 3 attack on a border checkpoint by about 60 men near the southern Laos town of Pakse left at least five raiders dead. It also stirred confusion about motives for the incursion, first ascribed to fighters supporting remnants of the Lao royal family, deposed in 1975 by communist Pathet Lao guerrillas.

The independent Bangkok Post said July 9 that some raiders were Thais, paid US$10 a day with offers of “land in Laos if the resistance movement succeeded in gaining political power.”

"Motives aside, security officials and academics…were concerned about the wider implications of the incident."

"Diplomatically, the incident was a setback for Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai, who paid an official visit to Laos…to convince Vientiane that opposition elements were not using Thailand as a base for their activities."

The next edition of the Post cited military chief General Surayud Chulanont as saying the raiders were not royalists, but drug dealers. This was possibly a face-saving gesture, allowing the Thais some distance from any Lao dissident groups.

Internal dissent in Laos is not confined to royalists. The Hmong people of the north have engaged in sporadic guerrilla activity for some time, but Bangkok’s independent Matichon’s gave neither movement much chance of success in a July 10 analysis: “The resistance movement will ultimately fail because of the lack of weapons and efficient coordination. Besides, most Laotians are farmers who are already in deep trouble with the economic crisis and will not join the resistance. Vietnamese military assistance also is a deterrent. Thus, the ruling Lao Communist Party will stay in power for many years to come.”

Thai forces captured 28 of the raiders, but their fate remained uncertain. Bangkok’s independent Krungthep Turakij Daily said July 6 that Thailand was in a difficult position following Laos’s extradition request.

“The Thai government has no part in any resistance in Laos. Yet the Thai-Lao border in Ubon Ratchathani province is geopolitically fragile. Whenever there has been fighting inside Laos, the border is seen as a haven,” an editorial said. “The Thai Foreign Ministry must maintain its neutrality toward this internal problem of Laos. In line with international law and the principles of human rights, the government must take a nonpartisan stance toward the rebels and reject  Laos’s deportation request.”

Bangkok’s independent National Sudsabda Weekly pointed out the mix of poverty and politics in Laos was increasing internal tension in the country. “Apparently the only way [for the ruling communists] to stay in power and restore the people’s faith in the party is to improve economic conditions,” Songrith Ponengern wrote. “It must find results from its ‘Renovation Policy,’ which promises to raise...per-capita income to US$500 a year and lift the country from poverty by 2020. However, the government admitted early this year that this increase was not possible. The [1997] economic crisis has instead driven the average per-capita annual income from $380 in 1997 to $290.…Any unexpected ‘political accident’ could happen in such an environment.”