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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 'Little Brothers' Close Ranks

'Little Brothers' Close Ranks

'Little Brothers' Close Ranks

The cliché that there is always more than meets the eye in the mercurial world

of Indochinese politics was never truer than during the recent visit to Laos by the

heads of Cambodia's provisional government in late July.

Most commentators were content to describe the event as simply a diplomatic courtesy

call: a chance to begin anew decades of cold war during which Laos and Cambodia were

reluctant participants in Vietnam's conflict with China and the West. It was billed

as "a strictly Lao-Cambodian affair", with no other countries officially

included in the discussion.

But the visit did more than highlight the low-profile relationship between Laos and

Cambodia. With economic and political change breaking up old relationships among

the Indochina states, it supplied a vital part of the answer to the question of what

comes next.

Lao perception of Cambodia over the last two years have been marked by a great deal

of uncertainty. While supporting the implementation of the Paris Accords, the ruling

Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) made little secret of the fact it viewed

Cambodia under UNTAC as a model of the dangers of unrestricted opening up to the

outside world: economic chaos, a steep rise in crime, and the arrival of large numbers

of foreigners, many with dubious intentions and connections.

There was little detailed coverage of the U.N. sponsored May election in the Lao

press, and the distribution of foreign newspapers, strictly controlled at the best

of times, was cut off completely during the week of voting. These restrictions were

seen by many as proof that the Lao were not keen on publishing yet another erstwhile

ally's lurch towards a multi-party system-a trend that the LPRP has made patent it

will not be following.

Privately, hard-liners in the LPRP have also been critical of the apparent lack of

indigenous sovereignty over Cambodian affairs in the lead-up to the elections, and

of what they perceive as the real purpose of UNTAC" to remove Phnom Penh from

the political orbit of Hanoi.

Until recently Vietnam was Laos' number one ally in the region, to the point where

many foreign Lao observers did not differentiate between the interests of the two.

There were several reasons for the importance Laos placed on the 'special relationship'

with Vietnam.

Laos' aging leadership harbor strong memories of the crucial role played by Vietnamese

support in the Pathet Lao's thirty year struggle against the U.S.-backed Royalist

regime. Vietnam was also the country's main source of foreign aid during the early

post-war years of drought and economic blockade by Thailand, and before large-scale

Soviet assistance began in the late 'seventies.

Throughout the 'seventies and early 'eighties, Vietnamese troops helped Vientiane

crush remnants of the CIA-trained Homing insurgency. Until 1985 Vietnam still had

50,000 troops stationed in Laos, mainly along the country's border with China and

Thailand.

Laos paid dearly for this assistance, especially in December 1978 when, after initial

hesitations, it backed Vietnam's invasion of Cambodia. In retaliation for Vientiane's

position, Thailand and Beijing cooperated in training several thousand insurgents

against the LPRP rule. Covert support was also given by China and Washington to the

Khmer Rouge for training anti-government forces in camps along the border between

Laos and Cambodia.

In reality, relations between Laos and Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea had degenerated

long before Vietnam's attack-the result of several unpublicised raids conducted by

the Khmer Rouge into Lao territory in 1976-77. And while relations with the post-1978

Cambodian government improved considerably, the watchful eye of Vietnam precluded

any independent fraternizing between the two.

It is still illegal to publicly express anti-Vietnamese sentiments in Laos but despite

a flood of official pronouncements to the contrary, the 'special relationship' has

been in trouble for some time.

The Lao are increasingly resentful of the activities of illegal Vietnamese logging

companies along the its eastern border. And although the attitude in Laos towards

Vietnamese immigrants comes nowhere near the outright xenophobia evident throughout

Cambodia, many are critical of what they believes is Vietnam's 'big brother' attitude

toward them.

The recent Cambodian visit must be seen in this context. As one Vientiane-based foreign

diplomat, who did not wish to be named, put it: "It was a part of a policy of

diversifying their external relationships which the Lao have being trying to implement

for many years." He cited Laos' push to join ASEAN as another example.

Dr. Grant Evans, an Australian academic based in Hong Kong who has written extensively

on relations between the Indochinese states, believed that "Despite all the

hype, the Lao were essentially very pragmatic about their relationship with Vietnam.

During the Cold War they needed Vietnamese support to survive," he said.

"But in the present international climate the Lao realize that ideological solidarity

won't pay their bills, and that the Vietnamese are either hesitant or incapable of

providing the kind of economic support they need. Thus the search for new allies."

According to Dr. Evans, the Vietnamese are still reticent to relinquish the bargaining

power provided by their control over Laos, and previously Cambodia. This was demonstrated

in the aftermath of the October 1991 Congress when the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary

Party's changed its name and dumped any pretensions to Marxism. Within 24 hours of

the decision, a high-ranking delegation from the Vietnamese Communist Party arrived

in Vientiane, where they held a week-long series of meetings with Lao Foreign Affairs

to ensure the LPRP did not follow suit.

Historically Laos and Cambodia have a number of things in common. Most obviously,

both countries are Buddhist, a fact that was stressed many times during the July

visit. Historically, both emerged as the poor cousins of French colonialism in Indochina,

and have been used a battle grounds for the designs of larger powers.

But most importantly in the present situation, both are economically and politically

weak countries surrounded by powerful neighbors-Vietnam and Thailand. Cut-throat

international financial conditions threaten to strip away any pretense of implementing

a more equitable regional order.

Laos and Cambodia face a classic dilemma: how to develop their rich resources without

coming under foreign domination.

Although 'alliance' is too strong a word to describe what to describe what Laos and

Cambodia established in late July, few people in Vientiane doubt that this is precisely

what they have in mind. The basis, while not strictly ideological, is an attempt

to assert a form of economic nationalism. For the Lao, this is part of a long-standing

effort to unify a geographically fragmented and ethnically diverse state.

"The Lao and Khmer live in the real world. Neither want to endanger relations

with Thailand and Vietnam, but they do want a counter-balance," said one foreign

resident in Vientiane, who has also spent several years in Cambodia. As an example

of this, she highlighted Cambodia's offer to give land-locked Laos access to the

sea through its territory.

For Laos, the offer couldn't come at a better time. The Lao government has come under

a lot of pressure to upgrade Highway 9-to provide a land link between Thailand and

the port of Da Nang in central Vietnam, via a second bridge across the Mekong between

Mukdahan in Thailand and the Lao town of Savannakhet.

The Lao are extremely wary of agreeing to a second bridge without having studied

the economic and social impact of the Australian government funded bridge over the

Mekong near Vientiane, due for completion in April 1994.

The entire episode has been proof for many in the Lao government that Vietnam and

Thailand want to create an unfavorable balance of trade with Laos, siphoning out

precious raw materials in return for a flood of domestic goods. There is also concern

that any link will simply act provide a conduit for thousands of unemployed Vietnamese

escaping poverty in their own country.

Lao-Khmer relations are not without problems. The territory near Cambodia is one

of the most underdeveloped and sparsely populated of Laos' border areas. The Lao

would like Khmer assistance to prevent the activities of illegal Khmer loggers.

A plentiful supply of munitions has also led to many Khmer to engage in widespread

dynamite fishing along the Mekong, with disastrous environmental and economic effects

for communities on the Lao side of the river.

Most worrying for the Lao is the prospect of continued Cambodian instability once

UNTAC leaves.

There have been reports of Khmer Rouge incursions across the border into Laos. And

many Western analysts predict that the thinly populated provinces of Stung Treng

and Preah Vihear bordering Laos will become key targets for Khmer Rouge operations,

should the guerrilla faction be pushed out of its present northwestern stronghold.

Regardless of these issues, however, Laos and Cambodia have nothing to lose and a

lot to gain from promoting their version of a post-communist Indochina. How successful

they will be will become clearer as Cambodia takes its diplomacy to Vietnam, Thailand

and the ASEAN countries in the coming months.

Beijing cooperated in training several thousand insurgents against the LPRP rule.

Covert support was also given by China and Washington to the Khmer Rouge for training

anti-government forces in camps along the border between Laos and Cambodia.

In reality, relations between Laos and Pol Pot's Democratic Kampuchea had degenerated

long before Vietnam's attack-the result of several unpublicised raids conducted by

the Khmer Rouge into Lao territory in 1976-77. And while relations with the post-1978

Cambodian government improved considerably, the watchful eye of Vietnam precluded

any independent fraternizing between the two.

It is still illegal to publicly express anti-Vietnamese sentiments in Laos but despite

a flood of official pronouncements to the contrary, the 'special relationship' has

been in trouble for some time.

The Lao are increasingly resentful of the activities of illegal Vietnamese logging

companies along the its eastern border. And although the attitude in Laos towards

Vietnamese immigrants comes nowhere near the outright xenophobia evident throughout

Cambodia, many are critical of what they believes is Vietnam's 'big brother' attitude

towards them.

The recent Cambodian visit must be seen in this context. As one Vientiane-based foreign

diplomat, who did not wish to be named, put it: "It was a part of a policy of

diversifying their external relationships which the Lao have been trying to implement

for many years." He cited Laos' push to join ASEAN as another example.

Dr. Grant Evans, an Australian academic based in Hong Kong who has written extensively

on relations between the Indochinese states, believed that "Despite all the

hype, the Lao were essentially very pragmatic about their relationship with Vietnam.

During the Cold War they needed Vietnamese support to survive," he said.

"But in the present international climate the Lao realize that ideological solidarity

won't pay their bills, and that the Vietnamese are either hesitant or incapable of

providing the kind of economic support they need. Thus the search for new allies."

According to Dr. Evans, the Vietnamese are still reticent to relinquish the bargaining

power provided by their control over Laos, and previously Cambodia. This was demonstrated

in the aftermath of the October 1991 Congress when the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary

Party's changed its name and dumped any pretensions to Marxism. Within 24 hours of

the decision, a high-ranking delegation from the Vietnamese Communist Party arrived

in Vientiane, where they held a week-long series of meetings with Lao Foreign Affairs

to ensure the LPRP did not follow suit.

Historically Laos and Cambodia have a number of things in common. Most obviously,

both countries are Buddhist, a fact that was stressed many times during the July

visit. Historically, both emerged as the poor cousins of French colonialism in Indochina,

and have been used a battle grounds for the designs of larger powers.

But most importantly in the present situation, both are economically and politically

weak countries surrounded by powerful neighbors-Vietnam and Thailand.

Cut-throat international financial conditions threaten to strip away any pretense

of implementing a more equitable regional order.

Laos and Cambodia face a classic dilemma: how to develop their rich resources without

coming under foreign domination.

Although 'alliance' is too strong a word to describe what Laos and Cambodia established

in late July, few people in Vientiane doubt that this is precisely what they have

in mind. The basis, while not strictly ideological, is an attempt to assert a form

of economic nationalism. For the Lao, this is part of a long-standing effort to unify

a geographically fragmented and ethnically diverse state.

"The Lao and Khmer live in the real world. Neither want to endanger relations

with Thailand and Vietnam, but they do want a counter-balance," said one foreign

resident in Vientiane, who has also spent several years in Cambodia. As an example

of this, she highlighted Cambodia's offer to give land-locked Laos access to the

sea through its territory.

For Laos, the offer couldn't come at a better time. The Lao government has come under

a lot of pressure to upgrade Highway 9-to provide a land link between Thailand and

the port of Da Nang in central Vietnam, via a second bridge across the Mekong between

Mukdahan in Thailand and the Lao town of Savannakhet.

The Lao are extremely wary of agreeing to a second bridge without having studied

the economic and social impact of the Australian government funded bridge over the

Mekong near Vientiane, due for completion in April 1994.

The entire episode has been proof for many in the Lao government that Vietnam and

Thailand want to create an unfavorable balance of trade with Laos, siphoning out

precious raw materials in return for a flood of domestic goods. There is also concern

that any link will simply provide a conduit for thousands of unemployed Vietnamese

escaping poverty in their own country.

Lao-Khmer relations are not without problems. The territory near Cambodia is one

of the most underdeveloped and sparsely populated of Laos' border areas. The Lao

would like Khmer assistance to prevent the activities of illegal Khmer loggers.

A plentiful supply of munitions has also led to many Khmer to engage in widespread

dynamite fishing along the Mekong, with disastrous environmental and economic effects

for communities on the Lao side of the river.

Most worrying for the Lao is the prospect of continued Cambodian instability once

UNTAC leaves.

There have been reports of Khmer Rouge incursions across the border into Laos. And

many Western analysts predict that the thinly populated provinces of Stung Treng

and Preah Vihear bordering Laos will become key targets for Khmer Rouge operations,

should the guerrilla faction be pushed out of its present northwestern stronghold.

Regardless of these issues, however, Laos and Cambodia have nothing to lose and a

lot to gain from promoting their version of a post-communist Indochina.

How successful they will be will become clearer as Cambodia takes its diplomacy to

Vietnam, Thailand and the ASEAN countries in the coming months.

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