Luang Prabang, Laos — Inside the ornate, guided, former Royal Palace there are constant reminders of Laos's precarious international position. Behind one glass-fronted cabinet is an embroidered banner of friendship from China; behind another is one from Vietnam. But perhaps most significantly, behind still another is a model space capsule presented by the United States.
These are relics of the 1960s, when American aid and advisers dominated the politics of Laos. Today the US aid is gone.Unlikely many other Western countries, the United States shuns any aid or cultural exchange with Laos. It treats the tiny landlocked nation as though it is merely an appendage of Vietnam.
The American approach is a controversial one. Many Western diplomats in Laos dispute as simplistic the notion that Laos is a Vietnamese puppet. West Germany , Australia, Sweden, and others provide active aid programs. And even though Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has sharply cut aid to Vietnam, Australia continues to deal on a separate basis with Laos.
Historically the American cold shoulder stems from a dispute over US airmen missing in Laos and from a dispute over compensation for confiscated property of the Agency for International Development (AID).
But analysts in Vientianae say passage of time plus Laotian concessions on the "miss" ing in action" have made these frictions largely academic.
Washington's hardened stance toward Vietnam following the early 1979 invasion of Cambodia and the outpouring of Vietnamese "boat people" are seen as the main barriers to better relations with Laos. "It appears to be a function of US policy toward Vietnam," notes one source in Bangkok, Thailand.
Reinforcing American caution is alleged Laotian mistreatment of Hmong tribesmen. Widespread charges by refugees that the Laotian- Vietnamese troops are using chemical warfare to resettle these people in the lowlands led to a strong congressional condemnation of Laos in December. This makes it politically more difficult for the Carter administration, even if so inclined, to be more flexible toward Laos.
Those who favor changing US policy say this would reduce Laotian dependece on Vietnam and give Laos greater freedom to maneuver Union, and the US. "If other countries isolate Laos, that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of Vietnamese dominance," notes one analyst. pponents of a change fell better US ties with Laos would send Vietnam the "signal" that Washington is weakening its opposition to unacceptable Vietnamese actions.