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Monday, 27 August, 2001, 13:49 GMT 14:49 UK
Laos: Caught between its neighbours
That Luang - the national symbol of Laos
Laos needs more than symbols to cement its identity
By Tim Luard in Laos

At the height of its powers in the 14th century, Laos was more than able to hold its own against neighbours like Siam, Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam.

But internal divisions and the weakness that followed French colonisation left Laos vulnerable to the might of the various surrounding states that cut it off from the sea and continue to dominate it to this day.

In many respects Laos is a client state of communist Vietnam's.


Competition between the two Big Brothers is hotting up

The two ruling parties have a common founder, Ho Chi Minh. Many of Laos' leaders were trained in Vietnam. And during its war against the US, North Vietnam's main supply line, the Ho Chi Minh Trail, ran almost entirely through communist-held Lao territory.

Having brought the Lao revolutionaries to power, Hanoi has been protecting them ever since from insurgencies. Vietnamese troops have recently been in Xieng Khuang province in north-eastern Laos suppressing the latest rebellion by the once CIA-backed Hmong ethnic group.

Sour dream

Vietnam also has thousands of advisers in Laos - political as well as military. Officially, the relationship is described by Vietnam as "closer than lips and teeth" - and by Laos as "deeper than the waters of the Mekong".

But just across the Mekong River from Laos to the west is Thailand. It is much more accessible from the major towns of Laos than Vietnam is. It is also culturally closer and of far more potential use economically.

Map
When Laos began reforming its socialist economy in the early 1990s, following the Vietnamese and Chinese examples, it looked to Thai businessmen to come across the newly opened Friendship Bridge and help make it rich.

But that dream has turned sour, whether because of the Asian financial crisis, Thai greed or simply the Lao Government's mistrust of global capitalism and all that comes with it.

Laos suspects Thailand of having a hand in attempts by exiled opposition groups to destabilise its government, such as a series of bomb attacks and an attack on a border post last year. The latest quarrel is over a Thai historical film that Laos says it finds "insulting".

Having had second thoughts about opening up on its western side to Thailand, Laos is not only turning back to Vietnam in the east but also to its northern neighbour, China.

While cutting the number of Thai trucks allowed to come in, it has granted both Vietnam and China preferential trade treatment. Corruption has become increasingly blatant as the various ruling communist parties do deals together.

The Lao military have been given economic control of the country's huge timber industry - but their Vietnamese colleagues are also heavily involved. The forests that cover much of Laos are reputedly full of soldiers chopping down trees and hunting rare animals - and most of them are said to be Vietnamese.

Intense competition

Chinese meanwhile are to be seen almost everywhere in the north, engaged in trade and construction.

Monk sweeping
Laos' culture is in danger of being squeezed out
Competition between the two Big Brothers is hotting up. Many believe China is no longer content to see Laos as being within Vietnam's sphere of influence.

Earlier this year the Vietnamese and Chinese defence ministers visited Laos within a week of each other. The two countries' communist party bosses have also both included Laos in their travel plans.

A Vietnamese cultural centre used to be the dominant building in the centre of Vientiane. China has now built an even more dominant building there. It claims to be devoted to Lao culture but it looks very Chinese in style.

Beijing is also funding hospitals and roads, and is said to have stepped in to prop up the ailing Lao currency, the kip.

String-pullers

According to many analysts, the recent series of bomb attack in Laos was connected to a factional dispute between those in the leadership favouring continued reliance on Vietnam and a younger group more inclined towards China. They say it was the pro-China group that finally won out in a showdown at the Lao communist party Congress this spring.

Officially, Laos continues its policy of economic reform. It is now a member of Asean, after all - and does not want to scare off Western aid donors.

But behind the scenes it is the less-than-liberal old guard who are still pulling the strings. And even they are looking over their shoulders at other, more powerful string-pullers in Hanoi and Beijing.

The only question is, whether Laos can succeed in playing off one of its patrons against the other and thereby give itself room to have at least some say in running its own affairs. Unless it can come out from the shadow of its neighbours and establish an identity of its own, its very survival as a nation could be at risk.

Tim Luard was in Laos reporting for the BBC World Service current affairs programme, The World Today

See also:

23 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Mekong: 'Mother of rivers'
21 Aug 01 | Asia-Pacific
Laos' crippled economy
27 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Laos
12 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Pledge to treble Laos incomes
02 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
Laos marks 25 years of Communism
20 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
Laos' battle with poverty
03 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
'Australians held over Laos gems'
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