Laotians cloak their socialism with US T-shirts

Advisers from Vietnam, sneakers from Thailand, and young men still wearing T-shirts marked "US Coast Guard." These are just a few of the paradoxes a visiting correspondent quickly encounters in the "land of a million elephants."

Despite the continuing reports of rising Vietnamese influence, Laos today is a country of growing "liberalization," clearly intent on pursuing its own domestic line.

A quick path to orthodox communism has been decisively rejected. Any visitor can easily spot the signs.

Compared to a year and a half ago, Vientiane's free markets are bustling with sales of jeans, sneakers, electrical appliances, and cassette recorders from Thailand. Import restrictions on goods from across the Mekong River have been eased.

Agriculture authorities are no longer talking of pushing collectivization Vietnamese-style. That possibility was once a concern of some foreign aid officials here. But in December restrictions on free sales of animals and other farm goods were relaxed. Farm trade between provinces was permitted. And last summer a drastic slowdown in the rate of collectivization was announced.

Compared to a year and a half ago, more privately owned shops are open in Vientiane -- another sign of greater tolerance for private enterprise.

There are changes, too, in the city's nightclubs, where singers croon socialist lyrics to the twang of electric guitars. Young men and women now sit together at the same table where once they sat segregated across the room from each other. And nonpolitical pantomimes and slapstick parodies now supplement the socialist lyrics.

Paradoxically much of this is happening amid reports of growing Laotian repressiveness circulating in the West. The underlying causes for most of these reports are the continuing flow of refugees to Thailand, the ongoing military campaign against Hmong hill tribes, and what is thought to be increased Vietnamese influence in the country.

Some of the refugees who have gone to Thailand describe what they see as Vietnam's growing influence in their country as one reason they have left. But conversations with refugees in Thailand and with Laotians contemplating leaving Laos indicate that a major motivation is often economic.

With relatively few consumer goods and a host of economic problems, Laos offers a bleak, uncertain future to those who stay. Many foreign observers believe an important factor behind recent liberalizations is to reduce the incentive for Laotians to join in the exodus which has already cost Laos many, if not most, of its skilled workers.

The campaign against the Hmong has produced its own straggling lines of refugees, as the defeated onetime CIA-supported army of Vang Pao retreats into Thailand. The Laotian government has sought to resettle many of these people in lowland or plateau areas -- both for security reasons and to end the ecological damage to mountain tops caused by "slash and burn" agriculture.

Controversial charges by Hmong refugees that Vietnamese and Laotian forces have used poison gas against them have brought international attention, even though many experts say conclusive proof is lacking.

Most diplomats and foreign observers here say the degree of Vietnamese influence is extremely difficult to assess.

They generally agree it is greatest in defense, internal security, and transport, with at least a slight increase since the China-Vietnam war early last year. Still both Western and Vietnamese sources agree Vietnamese troop strength in Laos has stayed about the same -- some 30,000 to 40,000 men.

Many observers agree that in spite of Vietnamese advisers, in most internal economic and social matters the Laotians run the show.

Reports that Laotian rice is being drained to feed Vietnam meet skepticism here from observers who say the fuel cost to the Vietnamese would make any such operation uneconomic.

Still many Laotian students are studying in Vietnam. Laotians say Vietnamese methods are carefully observed for usefulness in their own country. But the Soviet Union has more prestige, and many students would rather study there because it is more "modern," says one Laotian high school student.

Clearly Vietnam seeks to avoid offending the Laotians.At the one hotel this correspondent saw the chief of a visiting economic mission from Hanoi graciously shake hands with and thank the head waiter after their stay. "Laotians and Vietnamese get along better now than two years ago," said one storekeeper.

Still, Westerners who work in the countryside report strong anti- Vietnamese feeling there. This is partly because Vietnamese military teams sometimes patrol the rural areas and partly because country people are suspicious of all foreigners, one source concludes.

The Laotian government has also moved closer to Vietnam in its foreign policy pronouncements on everything from Iran and Afghanistan to the United States. Some observers see this as a sign of Vietnamese dominance. Others say it is simply a polite gesture to Vietnam that Laos can afford to make at no great cost.

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