VIENTIANE - It was an unusually hot November day in Vientiane as 30,000 people assembled
in the capital's That Luang Square to pay their last respects to the late president
Old comrades and political foes gathered for the funeral. General-Secretary of the
Vietnamese Communist Party, Do Moui, Heng Samrin, honorary president of the Cambodian
People's Party, senior North Korean, Chinese and Cuban officials attended. Also present
were ministers from countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations, former
enemies of Kaysone's communist regime.
Kaysone had led the Lao Peo-ple's Democratic Republic since the communist victory
in 1975 toppled the 600-year-old royal dynasty. His death marked a further shift
in the Indochinese political brotherhood carved out during decades of national liberation
struggle and cold war hostility.
But despite the significance, the period following Kaysone's death appears to have
been business as usual in this small land-locked country of four million people.
Dec. 2 celebrations marking the communist takeover saw the annual crackdown in Vientiane.
Police and Lao Youth Union cadres patrolled the streets in force, stopping motorists
for identification and arresting prostitutes, pimps and other elements deemed undesirable
by the authorities.
A heavy security presence continued up to the Dec. 20 elections for the new National
Assembly, the third since the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) abolished
the old constitution in 1975.
At a press conference on election day, Kaysone's successor to the presidency, 78-year-old
Nouhak Phoumsavan ruled out any post-poll political shifts. "We will continue
to implement constantly the internal policies of the government so as to turn into
reality the policies of His Excellency President Kaysone Phomvihane," he said.
Appearances, however, can be deceptive. Despite his reputation as a hard-liner, Kaysone
was above all a pragmatist, a trait characteristic of most of the LPRP. Over the
last four years the party has engineered a gradual political retreat from Marxism
and adapted to the changed circumstances by adopting the "Chinese model"-liberalizing
the economy to buy off potential dissent, while maintaining the existing political
Laos' communists have in fact been experimenting with market reforms for many years.
With the economy in a state of near collapse following the LPRP's own "Great
Leap Forward" in the mid-seventies, as early as 1979, Soviet-style collectivization
was abandoned and limited private enterprise allowed.
This was gradually extended throughout the eighties, culminating in the introduction
of the "New Economic Mechanism" in mid-1989, a set of far-reaching reforms
including cut-backs in lending to state enterprises, greater efforts to encourage
foreign investment, and widespread privatization.
These economic reforms can claim some limited success. Foreign economists estimate
that GDP in Laos grew 3.1 percent in 1991. Productivity rose, and the exchange rate
stabilized. In the four years since Vientiane introduced its Foreign Investment Code,
the government has issued 230 investment licenses, worth about US$350 million, mainly
to Asian companies. The International Monetary Fund, Asian Development Bank, UN agencies
and other donors have stepped in to fill the gaps left by the drying up of Soviet
Now there are more motorbikes and cars on the roads in Vientiane, and many young
Lao sport foreign designer clothes and fashionable haircuts that over a decade ago
would have landed them in re-education camps. New businesses and restaurants are
opening up at a rapid rate and during the day the city hums with the noise of a multitude
of construction projects.
The adoption of the Chinese model has not been in name only. Vientiane and Beijing,
who had previously fallen out over the former's support of the Vietnamese invasion
of Cambodia, have engaged in a rapid rapprochement. Chinese technical advisors have
flooded into Laos, and the two countries have conducted a steady stream of party,
economic and military exchanges.
This shift has coincided with improvements in two other diplomatic problem areas:
relations with Thailand and with the United States.
In January last year, Kaysone, who rarely travelled outside of Laos and the Eastern
bloc, visited Thailand as a guest of the Thai King. Thailand is now Laos's single
largest foreign investor, and most commentators expect this to continue, if not increase
with the completion of the Australian-funded bridge over the Mekong river between
the two countries in April 1993.
Laos-American ties, for years derailed by on going U.S. claims of MIAs remaining
in Laos, have also improved. Last year the U.S. upgraded its relations with the Lao
Government to ambassadorial level. There are also rumors that USAID, remembered by
many senior members of the Lao government as a front for American intelligence activities
during the war, is poised to be re-admitted to the country.
The big loser in this equation is Vietnam. Despite constant Lao pronouncements of
the importance of ties with Vietnam, in reality the relationship is in deep trouble.
Given its relative weakness in the region, Laos has repeatedly found its destiny
decided by the actions of the larger countries around it. Thus with the crumbling
of the Soviet bloc, it is not surprising that the Lao leadership is moving away from
its long- standing Vietnamese ally towards China and Thailand. Lao authorities are
also said to be displeased with the number of Vietnamese migrants in Laos, and the
increase of illegal logging by Vietnamese timber companies on Lao soil.
There has also been a slight loosening up on the domestic political front. More foreigners
have been allowed into the country, and all but a few of the re-education camps into
which thousands of Lao were sent after the communist takeover have been closed down.
Consistently ruled out has been any challenge to the one-party system. Proof of this
came during the recent elections. Although the choice available to voters was greater
than previously-in Vientiane prefecture, the country's most densely populated area,
voters had to elect 11 out of a slate of 18 candidates-all candidates still had to
be vetted by the authorities, and were drawn almost totally from the higher ranks
of the civil service, the Party, and its mass organizations.
But perestroika without glasnost is a difficult balancing act to maintain. The growing
availability of consumer items such as television sets has enabled increasing numbers
of Lao households to tune into images of the outside world through Thai TV. This
is helping to create a strata of disaffected young people whose visual exposure to
the lures of consumer capitalism is frustrated by the lack of opportunities provided
by Laos' underdeveloped economy. Crime and government corruption is also increasing.
The greatest threat to the government is the gradual return of many of the Lao who
fled the country in the closing stages of the war against the Americans. 300,000
people, some 10 percent of the population, left during this time. Over half of these
went to Western countries like France and the United States. The government needs
the skills and capital they bring with them, but is worried that many returnees will
not be content to restrict their energies to the economic arena.
According to one longtime NGO worker in Laos, "These fears have been heightened
in the wake of last May's pro-democracy uprising in Bangkok, which received very
little coverage in the official Lao media, and the key role which Thailand's growing
middle class played in this and subsequent agitation."
The remaining refugees, including large numbers of Hmong tribespeople who fought
Ameri-ca's secret war against the communist guerrillas, escaped to refugee camps
in Thailand. The authorities are concerned that these people are being repatriated
only to become foot soldiers in an anti-government cause.
Remnants of the insurgency, operating under a number of organizational titles, pose
little military threat to Vientiane. Over 2,000 defected to the authorities in 1992,
and those who remain are isolated, deeply factionalized, and as much concerned with
fighting over the spoils of opium production and illegal logging as they are in organizing
a political opposition.
On the surface, the pressures pulling at LPRP's rule manifests itself in what can
best be described as a form of political schizophrenia. At the same time as economic
reforms open up the country, the party leadership is retreating into almost xenophobic
rhetoric about the danger that foreign bad elements pose to the country.
But again, the difference between rhetoric and reality needs to be examined. The
LPRP's leaders know that the process of opening up is irreversible and few expect
any replay of Eastern European-style events in the immediate future. The military
is still firmly behind the government and there is no organized opposition. Nor would
Laos's neighbors relish the possibility of political instability disrupting their
economic activities in the country.
Given the age of the country's present rulers-Nouhak is 78 and most other high ranking
LPRP members are similarly in their late seventies-a more fundamental transition
has to occur at some stage. But, as in the past, pragmatic necessity, not ideology,
will be the main factor deciding when and how this happens.