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Building trust between contentious brothers

by Pavin Chachavalpongpun

SINGAPORE — Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya recently announced that Thailand would facilitate resettlement in third countries for 158 Hmong refugees detained in Nong Khai province.

“They are regarded as political- asylum seekers, so they have the right to request resettlement in the United States and other countries,” Kasit told reporters after his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during his visit to the U.S. on April 23, 2008.

Kasit said Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. has so far expressed a willingness to absorb eligible political-asylum seekers for resettlement. He hoped that resettlement would help improve Thai-Lao relations, which have long been plagued by lingering suspicions of Thai exploitation.

The issue of refugees and overlapping borders have obstructed further development in this bilateral relationship. Border disputes led to a military wrangle in three villages between Thailand’s Uttaradit province and the central Lao province of Sayabouri in 1984, and more serious clashes three years later at Ban Rom Klao in Pitsanulok, which Laos claimed was part of Sayabouri. Also known as the battle for Hill 1428, the Thai-Lao armed clashes resulted in more than 1,000 casualties on both sides.

Bilateral tensions gradually subsided, following the implementation of a new business-oriented policy under Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan in the late 1980s. Thailand’s “Lao marketplace” policy was reciprocated by Laotian Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane, who paid a visit to Thailand in 1989. Although Chatichai successfully opened up the Lao economy for Thai investors, contentious political issues continued to damp the strengthening of bilateral friendship.

One issue concerned Laotian migrants and refugees residing in temporary Thai camps. Moreover, Lao and Hmong resistance groups used the camps as a base to launch attacks against the Lao government, acts that further deepened suspicions between the two countries. Thailand made clear its intention to repatriate these refugees back to their homeland, settle them in third countries, or classify them as illegal immigrants facing deportation.

In the meantime, Laos was reluctant to welcome back the resistance. As for the refugees who were fighting for national autonomy, they avoided repatriation out of fear of reprisals from Lao authorities. The refugee camps in Thailand were finally closed in the late 1990s, with the final 15,000 Hmong refugees at Tham Krabok Temple granted resettlement in the U.S. in 2003. Both sides expected that this resettlement would lead to the end of the problem. They were wrong.

In 2004, several thousand more Hmong fled from inside Laos to Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai and Petchaboon provinces. The Thai and Lao governments claimed that they were illegal economic migrants seeking work in more prosperous Thailand. The refugees claimed they were fleeing continued persecution at the hands of the Lao government. These problems hassled the Thaksin government and spoiled his economic policy toward Laos. Attention was paid to the fact that Laos represented long-term economic opportunities because of its traditional policy of economic dependence on Thailand.

Thailand’s foreign policy strategy of penetrating Laos with its capitalist state of mind has occasionally been perceived as a hegemonic attempt to cement Thai domination of Lao economy and society. Already the Thai impact has been highly perceptible in Lao society, ranging from the omnipresence of Thai language to Thai television programs and music as well as wide circulation of Thai currency.

In turn, Laos has walked a careful path, avoiding subservience to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s rule while utilizing its economic potential and its close relations with Vietnam and China as leverage against Thai monopoly.

No longer vulnerable, Laos has stepped up the game of bilateral politics, taking advantage of contentious issues — such as the problem of Hmong refugees and economic migrants, Thai cultural domination of Laos, Thailand’s economically exploitative attitude and the conflict of interests among Thai leaders in their dealings with Laos — as a bargaining chip. This explained Laos’ outright refusal to take back Hmong refugees who had been in political limbo in Thailand. The Hmong therefore remained a major diplomatic sticking point in the burgeoning economic relationship between Thailand and Laos.

The current Thai policy of facilitating the resettlement of Hmong refugees has therefore served multiple purposes. Certainly, this would greatly reduce the sense of mutual mistrust that has increased since the departure of Thaksin from Thai politics.

Although Thaksin used his political power to extract benefits from his relationship with Laos, he was a close friend of Laos’ Communist regime. In concert, Laos seemed to adopt a better- to-know-the-devil-attitude when looking up to the Thai leadership. For Kasit to regain the trust of his Lao counterpart, his government has to start with a clean slate. The Hmong issue must be resolved.

Thailand’s next step is to address the corrupt practices pursued by Thai politicians as well as greedy conglomerates in their economic activities with Laos. True, Lao generals have been winners in acquiring profits through Thai corruption, but they must realize that such profits are unsustainable and have the potential to cause long-term damage to bilateral relations.

Kasit made the first move in setting the record straight in his dealings with Lao issues. Now, it is Laos’ turn to exhibit its commitment to further advance its partnership with Thailand, because, at the end of the day, Thailand and Laos, according to an old saying in these parts, are inseparable brothers.

Pavin Chachavalpongpun is a visiting research fellow at the ASEAN Studies Center, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. © 2009 OpinionAsia 2006-2008 (www.opinionasia.org)