Asiaweek, vol. 25, no.51
December 24, 1999
On Dec. 9 a leader of arguably ASEAN’s most repressive regime died. The demise of Oudom Khattigna, ranked fourth in the nine-member Politburo that rules Laos, was not announced in Vientiane. Instead, it was revealed by a Lao diplomat at the embassy in Hanoi (political affairs in Laos are controlled by Vietnam). Just 69, Oudom was among the younger set of the highly secretive Politburo. Others are in their 70s, with head honcho Gen. Khamtay Siphandone around since before the Communists took over in 1975. But now these geriatric ex-revolutionaries may no longer be able to hold power in the manner to which they are accustomed. “People have lost trust in the Communists,” says exiled dissident Bounthanh Thammavong. “They are ready to demonstrate against them.”
He appears to be right. The unthinkable recently occurred in Laos – so unthinkable that officially it did not occur at all. The exact sequence of events is unclear and is muddied even more by Vientiane’s deliberate dissembling and its draconian media restrictions. What seems irrefutable is that on Oct. 26 there was a demonstration of some sort, mainly by students and teachers, against the hardline dictatorship of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and its lamentable economic policies that have reduced the nation to being Southeast Asia’s basketcase.
The protest rattled the Politburo, which, after consulting Hanoi, went into full denial mode. Said a foreign ministry official: “Impossible, nothing happened, no protest.” Privately, however, other bureaucrats echo Vientiane-based diplomats who say an incident occurred and that up to 100 people were detained. The genesis of the event goes back a decade to the call for more openness that followed the demise of the Soviet Union. A crackdown ensued which led to the detention of three senior partymen; other sympathizers fled into exile or went underground. A year ago, some like-minded pro-democracy advocates met at Vientiane’s Dongkok University and deplored the regime’s brutal political oppression and woeful economic record. The following day, the meeting’s organizer was killed in an apparent traffic accident. His stunned colleagues then formed an underground cell and, calling themselves the Lao Students Movement for Democracy, planned further action.
They saw an opportunity at the end of Buddhist Lent on Oct. 26, when Vientiane’s crowded downtown would provide greater potential for the public to join in. An anti-regime leaflet was drafted by the organizing committee representative, Thongpaseuth Keuakoun. He wrote that the “uncivilized regime has killed or imprisoned hundreds of thousands of innocent Lao people.” His document demanded multiparty democracy, the release of political prisoners, freedom of expression and open elections. The demo happened at about 10.45 a.m. in front of the presidential palace, but as soon as banners were unfurled the security forces moved in and nabbed most of the protesters, though some escaped into the crowd. Five detainees have been named, including pamphleteer Thongpaseuth. They are unlikely to be treated kindly if the record of the partymen arrested in 1990 is any guide. They got 14-year sentences in a harsh labor camp, where one died and two remain.
Thoughts by exiles that the recent demonstration might herald change need to be tempered. Says Laos expert Grant Evans of the University of Hong Kong: “There are no structures for protest, so I don’t expect any sudden uprising. There is more of a civil society in Burma than there is in Laos. An Aung San Suu Kyi would be arrested immediately in Laos. In that sense, it is more repressive.”
But if nothing else, the protest has put the plight of Laotians under the spotlight. For a secretive regime that has long escaped the kind of opprobrium the Myanmar junta receives, that will be unsettling, especially as it wrestles with an economic nightmare of its own making. Foreign-exchange reserves have dropped to about $100 million. Inflation is running at 140% per annum, highest in Southeast Asia. The currency, the kip, has fallen a staggering 900% against the U.S. dollar over the past two years. Flights to Laos have been cut back (Singapore and Malaysian airlines have stopped their Vientiane services). Lao Aviation is blacklisted due to its failure to meet maintenance standards. Hotels and restaurants are empty. The upcoming Visit Laos Year is turning into a sick joke. As with political unrest, however, the regime remains in denial mode when it comes to its inept handling of the nation’s finances. Says Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavad: “Talk that the government is not managing the economy well is groundless.”
While the regime appears to have little to worry about from the dissident community, it may be concerned about the reaction of foreign governments. Donors are now becoming more wary due to the ineptitude and political repression. Germany (the second largest bilateral aid giver after Japan) has nixed a $3.1 million aid project. The IMF has not gone back in after differences with Vientiane over economic policy, and the World Bank has halved its aid to $25 million. Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the human-rights record of Laos and there were intimations of sanctions.
Religious persecution in Laos has also become an issue in the U.S. where a quarter-million Hmong expatriates are helping publicize atrocities against their Christian compatriots at home. The regime views the growing calls for change in an antagonistic rather than constructive light. Says Somsavat: “Some people are not friendly to Laos and envy [us].” More like pity for this sorriest member of ASEAN.
Call It Lao Speak
The real leaders in Laos, the Politburo members, don’t speak to the media. In fact, they are rarely seen. What these diehard Communists do is put up a nice underling with little power, like Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavad, to speak for them in meetings with foreign emissaries and journalists. But given the tough job he has trying to justify misguided policies, even the genial, well-liked Somsavat finds it hard to give a straight answer. Take this exchange from an hour-long interview during the ASEAN summit in Manila last month.
Asked if Laos might emulate Indonesia’s democratization moves, Somsavat laughs as he understands the question in English. He chats briefly in Lao with his ministry’s permanent secretary and with the head of its ASEAN desk, while waiting for his translator to relay the question to him in Lao. Somsavat then answers at length. After some time, the translator speaks: “According to ASEAN principles, ASEAN should respect the choice of every nation in its own path of development.” Does that mean you’ll open up a bit? After a similar charade, the translator says: “The leaders of countries have the right to decide on the problems relating to the nation state. ASEAN leaders understand well the principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.” So you won’t open up? “What is good we should preserve as heritage. We respect the principle of non-interference and have respect for independence and sovereignty.” Is that a yes or a no? Actually, it’s Laospeak for neither – and both.
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