Singapore — A crucial test of the ability of Laos to avoid complete economic domination by Vietnam is expected in coming weeks. The question is whether the governments of Thailand and Laos can agree to lift Thai-imposed trade barriers between the two countries. They were imposed after a Mekong River shooting clash June 15.
The trade ban seems designed to "teach Laos a lesson" for siding too closely with Vietnam and refusing to apologize for an alleged shooting attack on a Thai patrol boat. One Thai died in the skirmish. As one Thai paper put it, the closure is "to make Laos realize that it is more dependent on Thailand than on Vietnam. Although it is under the political domination of Vietnam, it cannot obtain economic relief from that country."
The Thai action also was aimed at aggravating Vietnam's economic burdens following its June 23 attack on Thailand. But the Thai action reversed an 18 -month policy of using an economic "carrot" to lure Laos away from complete support for Vietnam.
Under this approach, the amount of goods shuttled across the Mekong -- everything from food to cassette recorders -- has increased. Lao authorities have slowed their plans for socialization and relied more heavily on private markets, often stocked with Thai goods.
Laos also has earned much needed foreign exchange to finance its imports from the noncommunist world by selling hydroelectric power, financed by the Asian Development Bank, of Thailand.
Since late June, however, relations between the two countries have "polarized." Thailand, which used to make a subtle distinction between Laos and Vietnam, now tends to "paint both with the same brush." Laotian propaganda quickly follows the lead of Vietnam and the Soviet Union in accusing Thailand of colluding with China.
Thailand's supreme command is quoted in the Bangkok Post as asserting that 100 Laotian troops are operating with the Vietnamese near the Thai-Cambodian border. The Laotian patrol units are said to cross into Thailand occasionally.
Still, the Thai attempts to portray Laos as part of a monolithic, Vietnam-dominated Indochinese federation have been accompanied by hints of peace overtures between the two countries.
The Thai Foreign Ministry has dismissed reports that Kamphan Simmalawong, the new Laotian ambassador to Thailand, asked for royal help in reopening the border when he met the Thai King Aug. 20.
But the director-general of the information sectin of Thailand's foreign Ministry was quoted in Bangkok Aug. 22 as saying Thai-Lao relations may soon improve. He reportedly said it would be premature to say whether the border will be reopened.
At the same time, however, the Thai peace bids have been sprinkled with what could be interpreted as veiled threats. Thai military sources have been quoted as noting the widespread presence of antigovernment guerrilla groups in Laos. Dissatisfaction with the government could grow if Laos continues to steer too close to Vietnam, one source noted.
Laotian authorities profess concern that China and Thailand could unite to support antigovernment guerrilla forces, especially minority hill tribes.
As the stalemate continues, meanwhile, reports of food shortages and high prices trickle in from the Laotian capital of Vientiane. Smuggling reportedly persists. But there is not enough of it to relieve the city's sagging economy.
To aid the diplomatic corps, a Singapore charter company, Kris air, shuttled the first of four flights from Singapore to Vientiane Aug. 26. About 100 tons of supplies -- including food, cigarettes, liquor, and clothing -- were to be sent to a tax-free shop for sale to diplomatic missions.