V IENTIANE - The lucrative timber trade on the Lao-Khmer border is continuing to
have a destablizing influence on relations between the two countries.
mid-February the Post reported that more than 100 Lao soldiers were on Cambodian
soil guarding Lao loggers illegally working in Stung Treng province. After
negotiations, the Lao military agreed to leave.
However, sources on the
Lao side admitted that while the military is involved in logging in southern
Laos, their direct participation in illegal logging in Cambodia was
They accused Cambodian timber companies of hiring Khmer army
troops, disgruntled by poor pay and conditions, to guard their illegal logging
operations on Lao soil.
The charges come in the wake of the "total" ban,
from April 30, of log exports from Laos to Cambodia. The ban was one of several
agreements brokered by Foreign Minister Ung Huot in Vientiane in
Observers in Vientiane say the visit was an attempt to improve
Lao-Khmer ties after the uncertainty following the May '93 elections, which saw
the demise of the State of Cambodia - a long-term ally of the Lao
This uncertainty culminated last May when, in an unpublicized
decision, Laos introduced strict controls on the largely unregulated traffic
across the 250-kilometer joint frontier.
Official crossing and customs
points were established, entry was forbidden to people without passports or
correct papers, and more troops were deployed along the border to police the new
The move, that could only have been done with Vientiane's
backing, was prompted by fears of the ideological threat posed by the new
Cambodian regime, especially the adoption of a multi-party system which Laos has
repeatedly said it would not be following.
It was also an attempt to
isolate Laos from Cambodia's poor law and order situation, including the easy
access to firearms and the continued use of explosives by Khmer fishermen along
the Mekong between Stung Treng and Laos' Champassak province.
1994, Vientiane heard stories of Khmer bandits crossing into Laos to rob buses
and cars. Last March Khmer police opened fire on a boatload of officials from
the Tourism Authority of Thailand when they refused to pull over after being
accused of violating Cambodian territory.
This instability is in marked
contrast to the growing economic importance of the area. International donors
have already begun work upgrading Road 13 which runs between Savannakhet - a
possible location for another Mekong River bridge - through Champassak to the
Thai interests want Champassak to become Laos' southern
business center, a conduit for Thai investment in tourism, agriculture and
Vientiane has already approved a private Thai-Lao
joint-venture to build a 500-hectare tourist resort on the Khone Praphaeng
Falls, just six kilometers from the Cambodian border. It has raised considerable
controversy over its plans to include 2,000 room hotels, two casinos, two golf
courses, a zoo, an international airport, and powered by its own 21-megawatt
Despite the border crackdown, province to province
relations are said to have improved, with Lao and Khmer authorities coordinating
prevention of illegal entry.
But as the strident accusations of illegal
logging prove, problems between the two nations remain.
business interests increase their involvement in Laos, bringing with them a
surge in road construction, loggers are now being allowed to reach pristine and
previously remote stretches of lowland tropical rainforest.
significant factor has been the Lao government's efforts to expand its
hydro-electric generating capabilities, much of it in the south.
Memorandum of Understanding was signed last April between Laos and an Australian
concern to build a dam on the Xekaman river, a tributary of the Mekong. A number
of South Korean firms, including Daewoo, have similar agreements for dams on the
Huay Haw waterfall, and the Se Piane and Se Nam Noi tributaries. Large areas of
forest are to be flooded or cleared to make way for the dams and new
Foreign embassy officials and forestry experts in Vientiane say
this has triggered an unprecedented amount of logging, exported mainly to
Thailand and Cambodia, carried out by Thai, Vietnamese, Korean and Khmer
interests. Much is in partnership with Lao companies, often with the backing of
local military and provincial authorities. The trade had been even heavier in
the last month, they claim, in the rush to meet the April 30 ban.
problem is that many people see the prospect of dam construction, no matter how
vague, as an excuse to begin logging," one said. "The rationale being that even
if in the long-term some of these dam projects do not go ahead, at least they
will profit from the logs."
The situation is even more complex with the
presence of Khmer Rouge guerrillas in Stung Treng.
Known to have been
operating close to the frontier since early last year, the KR were reported to
be key players in the timber trade, using Khmer and Lao companies as fronts to
"launder" timber to Thailand.
The KR's activities are said to be another
reason for Laos' decision to crack down on border traffic, both to stop the log
trade and to prevent Cambodia's civil war from spilling into Laos.
a bizarre twist, local residents of Champassak report that the guerrilla faction
has started a campaign against logging, including using propaganda among
While no clashes have been reported between
guerrillas and government soldiers in the pay of timber merchants, earlier this
year the KR reportedly burnt down a house and saw mill belonging to a prominent
Cambodian timber businessman who was forced to seek safety in Laos.
KR may well want to establish local support by making themselves out to be
protectors of the environment. There is also the possibility that it is part of
an ongoing attempt by the KR to wipe out competitors and take total control of
timber exports across the border, to make up for the squeezing of their business
interests on the Thai border.