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Slowly it awakens: Laos teeters on the edge of change.

Three-wheeled taxicabs bounce, splash, and clatter over the potholed streets of Vientiane. A heavy monsoon downpour ended earlier this morning, and the sidewalks are now a series of gritty islands surrounded by black puddles. I pass orange-roofed temples and peer into the few open stores. They sell schoolbooks, shirts, and packaged foods from Thailand. Newly arrived from bustling Thailand, a half mile away across the Mekong River, I feel that walking through the sleepy capital of Laos is like stepping into the past. The country is only barely emerging from a disastrous war and twenty-two years of tropical socialism.

Saeng Kue, 43, walks through the Laotian capital without concern. He is one of 125,000 Laotian Hmong refugees who fled to America after the communist victory in 1975. These days he periodically returns to his homeland for business trips. Two decades ago he fled Laos in terror, escaping war and communist repression by riding in an American plane as it bombed the enemy below. Like many Hmong Americans, Kue feared to return to Laos, but he swallowed those fears. "I was nervous," he admits, with sardonic understatement, "during my first return trip in 1991."

Traveling around the country, he had to register with the police in many towns, and some of his relatives were afraid to have him come to their homes. All that has relaxed in recent years. Since this June, Americans don't even need to apply for a visa--they just pay fifty dollars and get it at the airport in Vientiane. Kue has returned for several visits and is now trying to encourage trade between Laos and the United States. He has launched the U.S.-Laotian Chamber of Commerce in California.

Wearing a light-colored sports shirt in Vientiane's August heat, Kue seems a curious blend of American commercial eagerness and ancient Hmong culture. He ruefully admits that he has faced some threats from fellow Hmong Americans who still want to isolate Laos and shun any dealings with its communist government. But after traveling to the villages outside the capital, he's convinced he should try and help the people who stayed behind. "There's a lot of poor people, a lot of hungry people. But there's no mechanism for Lao Americans to help their families back here build a business," he says.

A wounded land

Eager to form my own opinions, I head toward Phonsavan, the capital of Xiangkhoang Province, where much of the fighting took place during the Vietnam War. I ride in a small Chinese-built Lao Aviation plane, and, as we weave through dense clouds and rain, I catch glimpses of heavily wooded peaks below. Finally, as we descend, I see the strangely neat rows of bomb craters that follow the course of the river below us.

The craters are only part of the war's terrible legacy. U.S. B-52 bombers dropped two million tons of bombs on Laos, and thousands of them failed to go off. David Stroop, coordinator of the demining office at the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane, tells me that current estimates of the number of these unexploded bombs (called UXOs) have just been tripled to 30 percent of the devices actually dropped. These hidden weapons still kill or maim several hundred hundred people each year, mostly farmers turning their fields or digging foundations for buildings. U.S. special forces troops have now begun teaching Laotians how to clear away this dreadful menace.

From Phonsavan I hire a Russian jeep to run me along the badly pitted road to the Plain of Jars, a bleak, treeless expanse that President John Kennedy told Americans back in 1961 was the cutting edge of the battle to contain communism. Mysteriously clustered in groups, hundreds of stone jars--the biggest is taller than I am--lie open to the rain and wind, mute testimony to a shattered heritage.

Little is known about the jars, which are centuries-old, but the Plain of Jars gained international infamy during the war. It was constantly traded back and forth in the savage ebb and flow of the fighting between the Hmong and the communists. On a small hill amid the jars, I see a huge bomb crater. The impact just missed destroying the biggest of the jars. Across the plain, aging MiG fighters are parked on a runway, leftovers from the time when Soviet aid still flowed to Laos.

One is never far from memories of the war. Even in the town of Phonsavan I see old metal gratings that once covered the runway where U.S. planes arrived with weapons, food, and ammo. Now, they are used to bridge ditches in front of shops. And in the Hmong villages an hour or two out of town, I observe cluster bomb casings serving as water troughs for cattle and chickens, as fence posts, and as planters for thin green onions.

At Ban Boua Kkob village, about two hours east of Phonsavan on the road to Vietnam, the thatched houses spread up the ridge toward the hillsides where fields of corn and rice are planted. Thia Cher, a mother often, sits on a low stool sewing a pink piece of cloth that will be mailed to Hmong relatives in America as part of their New Year's costumes. "The children are hungry," she sighs, adjusting the kerchief around her hair. "They want to eat rice, but we have only cornmeal. We want to clear a big field to grow rice, but in some places the government won't let us."

That's because the Hmong still clear their fields by brag patches of the forest in a method known as slash-and-burn or swidden agriculture. After a few years the fields are exhausted, so they burn another patch. European countries (such as Sweden) that give foreign aid have pushed the Laotian government to halt this practice, claiming it damages the environment. U.S. pressure also has pushed Laos to try to stop the Hmong from growing opium, a traditional crop they use for medicine and sell for cash. As a result, the Hmong are finding it harder to earn a living and thousands may be moved down to the lowlands, where they'll grow irrigated rice and be closer to roads, schools, clinics, and jobs.

The highland Hmong

The Laotian government claims to be attempting to mold a nation-state by bringing minority ethnic groups into the mainstream. Laos' population of 4.5 million people comprises more than one hundred ethnic groups, but Laotians are divided into three main groups according to where they live. The lowland ethnic Lao, or Lao Loum, have dominated the country for centuries. They are Buddhists, with a language and culture very close to that of Thailand. Other ethnic groups living on the middle slopes were subservient to the Lao Loum and were called kha, or slaves.

The Hmong, who live in the highlands, speak their own language and are animists, worshiping ancestral spirits. The Lao called them meo or barbarian, an insulting term now largely dropped from public use. In 1960, before the war, Hmong rarely attended school. Now, Hmong literacy is 46 percent, about half that of the Lao Loum.

Some Hmong, such as Somechai Mouawangyang, education director of Xiangkhoang Province, hold important government jobs. After a long day bouncing around the province in his official but ancient jeep--he was attending meetings to prepare the curriculum for the next school year--Somechai invites me to his home in Phonsavan to meet his family.

Although he may be criticized by some Hmong for collaborating with the Laos government, Somechai's rewards are meager: The home is a few rooms with cement floors. The living room is bare, lit by a single fluorescent bulb. Torn upholstered chairs face a coffee table whose glass panels are cracked. It's damp and cold in the early evening, but there is no heat.

With his neat haircut and blue dress shirt, Somechai would not be out of place in a Western bank or university classroom. He comments on the residual prejudice against the Hmong. "Hmong have a lower position than others--I work very hard but don't get advanced," he says over a meal of green vegetable soup and rice. "We must stay low, below the Lao Loum."

Officially, Laos' per capita income is $360 per year, but it's clear that the villagers scattered throughout the hinterland--often far from roads--earn far less than people in the cities and towns. The government's Sixth Party Congress in 1996 set a goal of over 8 percent growth for the next four years, hoping to bring income up to $500 per person per year. Vice-Foreign Minister Soubhan Srithirath told me that "more than tens of thousands of jobs" would be created if the United States reduced its tariffs on Laotian exports, particularly for garments. Last fall the Clinton administration asked Congress to approve most favored nation status for Laos, which would have this effect. But some Hmong veterans in the United States, supported by several congressmen, oppose MFN for Laos, asserting that the government still persecutes the Hmong and remains a communist state.

Thailand's shadow

Wandering through the temples and along the banks of the Mekong River in Vientiane, I wonder what will happen to this piece of old Asia, one of the few capitals of the region without traffic jams and skyscrapers. Finding a table in a riverbank restaurant, I sit nursing a bottle of Lao beer and watch the heat lightning flash behind monsoon stormclouds that are rushing up from the south over Thailand. I feel as if the whole country is waiting for the storm of commercialism to break.

Laos is still a sleepy place where merchants allow their half-naked children to run barefoot in the shops. Schoolchildren do their homework on tables while customers thumb through items for sale. Motorcycles converted into taxis carry six or seven people along roads badly in need of repair. Although television is popular, few people have a set or the electricity to run it. And there's little to watch other than the Thai shows broadcast across the border.

Thailand, with a population of over sixty million, casts perhaps the biggest shadow over Laos' future. Per capita income has reached $3,500 annually due to the huge expansion of industry in the past fifteen years, and Thai investors are threatening to turn Laos into a virtual economic colony. But Laotians are not happy with what they see across the Mekong: brothels, crime, elections for sale, and the military still a power behind the scenes. The Communist Party is not fond of Thailand's somewhat feisty newspapers and variety of political parties.

Crossing the bridge from Vientiane to the Thai city of Nong Khai--the first bridge across the huge Mekong, built with Australian aid a few years ago--I notice that there are no other cars on the roadway. It is empty. That's because the Laotians, afraid of Thai economic domination, won't allow Thai cars and trucks on their roads. People and goods must switch to Laotian vehicles once they enter Laos. But "the Thai disease is already here," comments a foreign economic adviser to the Lao government, speaking on condition of anonymity. He means that corruption is eating away any chances of development, eroding the benefit of foreign aid from Japan and Europe. Making money has become the new god, he says with a shrug, replacing socialism, which replaced Buddhism.

"The Lao are not achievement oriented, so the Thai come in with their `cowboy capitalism' and buy things up," he explains. "This is scary to the Lao." In reaction to this, the Communist Party has strengthened its ties to Vietnam, which remains a model of austere, one-party control even as it tries to permit capitalism to take root. But Thai influence continues to spread, and Thai banks dot Vientiane, their spotless plate-glass doors and frigid air conditioning decades away in style and efficiency from the dark, dusty Laos government offices and local businesses.

Turning to the future

The plunge in the Thai economy since July 1997, which saw the baht lose 40 percent of its value in four months, has led to a similar loss in value of the Laotian kip. At the time of my visit it was unclear how the economy would be affected by the changes in the region. The devalued Thai and Laotian currencies might actually give the two countries an edge, making their exports cheap enough to compete with those made by low-cost Chinese and Vietnamese labor.

Laotian capitalism is far from free, however. Foreigners are invited to invest and start businesses, but the army controls timber sales, a major export. Other influential people seek to make money from sales of hydropower to Thailand, but environmental concerns have made the World Bank rethink its willingness to fund the dams that could develop the potential 180,000 megawatts of electricity pouring off the mountain slopes from torrential monsoon rains.

"Tourism will be the No. 1 [source of] income in the future," says the economist. The hundreds of backpackers passing through Laos these days are just the vanguard of a tourist boom that will follow once infrastructure is developed. But for now, with roads falling apart eight months alter they're built--due to corruption, says the economist--and some places still unsafe due to bandits or holdout Hmong resistance fighters, it's an adventure and not a vacation to visit Laos.

Hmong Americans also remain concerned about the fate of the Hmong who stayed behind. Brian Thao, a program director at Hmong National Development, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization, says: "Most of us are torn about wanting Laos to develop properly, so that the Hmong community there has a chance to live in good conditions. At the same time, we are committed to opposing any actions to improve trade or aid without a dramatic change in the policies [of the Laotian government], or at least assurances for improvement for all in Laos."

Yang Dao, a Hmong leader and Southeast Asian culture specialist with the St. Paul public school system, supports American aid for education in Laos. "I don't want this generation to become the last victims of the Cold War," he said in an interview in St. Paul. "Education is the way for the future for the Hmong and for Laos. Both sides, inside and outside the country, need to forget the past and work for national development and reconciliation."

The sleepiness and underdevelopment one sees all around Laos exist in part because of the brain drain that took place when the educated class fled the communists. It's unlikely that more than a few refugees will ever return to stay, now that their children have roots in the United States, France, and other, smaller exile communities. But Laotians are not necessarily looking to others for the solution to their problems. One Hmong professional in Vientiane says the only way to improve life for his hill tribe and the country is to improve education and create a single nation by getting everyone to learn the same language. "We want to improve our condition," he says. `We love this country, and we will live here forever."

RELATED ARTICLE: Grasped by Socialism

Laos is a landlocked, mountainous nation bordered by China, Vietnam, Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand. Soon alter it gained independence from France in 1958, Laos was dragged into the Vietnam War. North Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh Trail, supplying weapons, troops, and food to the Vieteong guerrillas in South Vietnam, passed through Laotian territory.

Laos' royalist government proved unable to resist the Vietnamese and appeared vulnerable to a homegrown Pathet Lao insurgency. So the CIA, in 1960, organized forty thousand Hmong into a secret army that fought North Vietnamese troops trying to topple Laos' pro-Western government. They were defeated, and, in 1975, communists took power in Laos, South Vietnam, and Cambodia.

By 1990, as the Cold War ended and Soviet aid dried up, Laos found itself as weary of isolation, poverty, and the failure of socialism as did its two Indo-Chinese neighbors. The country opened its doors to foreign trade, visitors and tourism, and private enterprise. As in China and Vietnam, political power remains in the grasp of a monolithic single party.

Ben Barber, a foreign desk correspondent for the Washington Times, researched this article on assignment in the summer of 1997.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on socialism
Author:Barber, Ben
Publication:World and I
Date:Feb 1, 1998
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