Thailand

Thailand

In some respects, Thailand can be seen as a greater threat to the country's independence than Vietnam because of its closer cultural affinity (Theravada Buddhism), its easier access, and its control over the railroad and highway routes to the sea. The Mekong River, which both sides have an interest in making a "river of true peace and friendship"--as their respective prime ministers called for in 1976--also provides a north-south artery during the rainy season.

Relations with Thailand have been uneven. An alarming patrol boat shooting incident occurred in 1980, but this brief encounter was overshadowed by the border disputes and military clashes of 1984 and 1987 in Xaignabouri Province west of the Mekong. These conflicts originated in rival claims to forest resources based on maps from the early days of the French protectorate.

The determination in 1988 of Thai prime minister Chatichai Choonhaven to open up the Indochina market abruptly turned a deadly conflict into a wave of goodwill gestures and business ventures. Kaysone paid an official visit to Bangkok in 1989, his first since the brief 1979 rapprochement with Prime Minister General Kriangsak Chomanand. These gestures were followed by official visits by Princess Maha Chakkri in March 1990 and Crown Prince Maha Wachirolongkon in June 1992. An irony of this process of reacquaintance was the dropping from the Politburo in 1992 of Army Chief of Staff General Sisavat Keobounphan, who had dealt closely and effectively with the Thai military command in restoring neighborly relations but who apparently was considered by his party colleagues to have indulged in personal gains. Indeed, this corruption of a senior party leader symbolizes the fear among some Laotian leaders that Thailand, with its materialism and business strength and greed, "want to eat us."

Two political issues slowed rapprochement during the 1980s: first, the continuing issue of Laotian migrants and refugees remaining in temporary camps--whom Thailand had no desire to accept as immigrants--and second, Laotian and Hmong resistance groups who used the camps as a base. The Hmong constituted half of the camp dwellers and were expected to avoid repatriation the longest, out of fear of reprisal and hope for national autonomy. Thailand announced in July 1992, however, that Laotian refugees who have not returned home or found third-country resettlement by 1995 will be classified as illegal immigrants and face deportation.

In the first few years of rapprochement, Thai businesspersons have not threatened to buy up long-term economic opportunities in Laos because they seem to seek shorter-term commercial ventures. Yet the possibility of heavy interdependence generated by Thai investors remains. A Thai business presence in Laos will probably depend on the continuing demonstration of Laos's independence from Vietnam.

The persistence of a resistance movement since 1975 is attributable to permissive policies on the part of Thailand on behalf of their former Laotian cohorts. With the demise of the Cold War, the motivation to harass the LPDR and its Vietnamese military partners has dwindled. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will continue to press the Thai military command to live up to its March 1991 agreement to disarm rebels and discourage Laotian sabotage operations. At the same time, Thailand has made clear its unwillingness to assimilate Hmong refugees.

The threat of a return of Vietnamese troops remains as a cautionary note to the Thai military, who prefer to keep Laos as a buffer rather than the military line of contact with the Vietnamese. The Friendship Bridge should open the interior to more foreign trucking and commerce and more openly reveal any foreign military presence in Laos.

Future Laotian-Thai relations have a clear path visible toward mutually beneficial trade and investment, which need not be obscured by refugees or economic migrants, by one-sided economic dealings of an exploitative kind, or by inflamed border disputes. The exodus of tens of thousands of middle-class lowland Lao and mountain dwelling Hmong across the Mekong into Thailand created a tense border that Thailand preferred to close off to commerce of any kind. An improved trade relationship has been achieved in spite of past feelings of superiority or victimization, and growing interdependence may make the path easier to follow.

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