“In the year Sakalat 185, year of the Horse, the Thai came to tattoo all the inhabitants of the Lao cities.” — Oden Meeker, “The Little World of Laos”

The Lao government doesn’t like tattooing. It doesn’t like Laos’ illegal yet flourishing spirit cults either, but its aversion to the tattooists’ art represents more than just a modern campaign against backwardness and superstition. As one-time subjects of the Siamese, all Lao males living in Thai vassal states along the Mekong River used to be tattooed, like Jews in concentration camps, as a form of easy identification. No wonder the practice still rankles.

An Ahka girl in traditional dress.

Thai-Lao relations have never been easy. But grievances over foreign control and intervention came to a violent head in 1826, when the Lao king, Chao Anou, a former advocate of Siamese rule and loyal paymaster of annual tribute in the form of gold flowers and silver, suddenly declared war on Siam. Chao Anou’s rebellion was short-lived. After being captured by the Siamese Army, he was dragged to Bangkok, where he was displayed in a cage before a gleeful public, while his people were decimated as a punitive measure.

Resentment against the Thais is particularly strong in Vientiane, the Lao capital. Over 6,000 wooden houses and temples were razed in the fighting, and almost the entire population of the region was forcibly removed to Bangkok and put to building waterways such as the Saensaep Canal, which runs on an east-west course through the Thai capital to this day.

In an effort to populate sparsely inhabited areas of northeastern Thailand, thousands more Lao were resettled on the west bank of the Mekong. A similar fate awaited many of the people inhabiting the riverine provinces of Luang Prabang and Champassak.

The Mekong River, which flows between Laos and Thailand.

Under the skin, of course, the Thai and Lao peoples have more in common than meets the eye. Migrant twins formed from the same gene pool in southwest China, they constitute almost identical ethnic groups — blood brothers, divided by history, who are now trying to patch up past differences and boost each other’s economies at the same time. The new, pragmatic mood on both sides of the Mekong was neatly captured in a former Thai prime minister’s slogan, “From battlefield to marketplace” — an rally cry that has been enthusiastically taken up all over Indochina. The most conspicuous recent sign of the change in relations has been the completion of a Thai-Lao bridge across the Mekong. The 1,174-meter bridge connects the northeastern Thai city of Nong Khai with the Lao port of Tha Nalaeng, 19 km southeast of Vientiane.

Despite their common ethnicity and virtually indistinguishable languages, the two countries have been at loggerheads for years. Thai mercenaries were among the ranks of a secret army planted by the CIA in Laos; American B-52s took off on their bombing runs over Laos from bases in Thailand; and in the late 1980s a bitter border dispute unleashed fresh animosity between the two neighbors. The Lao resent the common assumption among Thais that their country is merely an extension of northern Thailand’s Isan Province and the Lao younger siblings of the Thai. There is a tendency, stemming from superficial research and a preference for simplicity, for even informed outsiders to dismiss Lao culture as a byproduct of Siamese achievements. Art historian Philip Rawson, for example, stated in his book “The Art of Southeast Asia” that “the art of Laos is a provincial version of the art of Siam.” This is not quite true. Those who bother to take a firsthand look will find many striking deviations between Thai and Lao art and architecture. It is hardly surprising to learn that one of the slogans of the revolution was “Laos pen Lao” — “Laos for the Lao.”

With a population of under 5 million, as against Thailand’s 58 million, many Lao continue to be skeptical about the ambitions of their larger neighbor. “Having failed to destroy our country through military might,” a 1989 Radio Vientiane broadcast asserted, “the enemy has now employed a new strategy, attacking us through the so-called attempt to turn the Indochinese battlefield into a marketplace.” Although the government promptly repudiated the speech, there can be no doubt that the words struck a sympathetic chord among many Lao and still do. One Western diplomat put it more bluntly. The Lao-Thai bridge, he was quoted as saying, would now “make it much easier for the Thais to rape and devastate Laos.”

In several respects, 1989 was a watershed. Earlier that same year, Thailand imposed a long-overdue ban on the logging of its remaining, much-depleted forests. No sooner had the ban been enacted than Thai logging companies began casting covetous eyes across the border to Laos. Canadian forestry consultant Richard Salter explained that “when Thailand banned logging, the Thais were over here literally the next day. They said, ‘We’ll pay anything.’ “

To the credit of the Lao government, the loggers were rebuffed. For an underdeveloped, cash-strapped country like Laos, such an attitude is rare.

A combination of cautious diplomacy and plain stalling have helped at various times in Lao history to stay the threat of disintegration or cannibalization at the hands of aggressive neighbors. But Laos’ porous borders are easily penetrated, especially economically. Along the newly resurfaced stretch of Route 13, south of Vientiane, the villagers of Pakxan and Pakkading have consented to do contract farming for the Thai food industry. Mechanized production of cash crops clearly ties the Lao hinterlands closely to Thailand and, with improved transportation systems, exposes them to the risk of economic exploitation as well as the uncontrolled use of herbicides and pesticides.

Thailand, however, remains the largest foreign investor in Laos, even with the slowdown in its own economy. The majority of logging contracts have been awarded to Thai companies, and traders over the river provide most of Laos’ processed food and consumer goods. The bulk of the country’s foreign earnings now come from Thailand, and the lion’s share of foreign exports, like electricity from Lao dams on tributaries of the Mekong, goes to the Thai market. Several Thai banks have branches in Vientiane, and many contracts, such as telecommunications concessions, have been awarded to Thai firms. In tourism, too, Thailand is likely to remain the main gateway to Laos. Laos is seen by many Thai businessmen as a useful place to transplant some of Thailand’s own labor-intensive industries, especially from the agricultural and textile sectors.

The country’s political stability — recently somewhat threatened by a spate of antigovernment bombings in Vientiane — is an attractive asset in this respect. Although landlocked and underpopulated Laos is seen as a keystone to the success of any schemes to develop the massive potential of the Mekong Basin region, the country is acutely aware of the risks this would pose to its own sovereignty. In a bleak vision of the future, journalist Robert Kaplan has written that “Laos will become a river valley civilization . . . where almost all Laotians will live in crowded conditions along the border with Thailand, and be dominated by it.”

For many Lao, especially the more hopeful young, Western-style progress has become synonymous with Thailand. Lao youths are dazzled by Thai pop culture and its immensely popular commercial TV programs, which can be picked up all along the Lao side of the Mekong. Thai books and magazines are readily available and widely read. Older Lao may be uneasy about the country’s changing relationship with its closest neighbor, and about the new economic and cultural attitudes slowly infiltrating Vientiane, but they accept that a significant Thai business presence in their country is inevitable if Laos’ open-door economic policies are to continue. A modest foreign-aid program run by the Thai government has gone some way to diffusing tensions. So, too, has the interest shown in Laos and its people by Thailand’s King Bhumibol Ayulyadej, a popular figure in Laos, and members of his family. Their genuine efforts to bridge the gap between the two countries have been deeply appreciated.

Old enmities still simmer just below the surface, though. One incident that remains fresh in minds on both sides of the river was a border dispute that flared up after a Thai patrol boat pulled rank on a Lao vessel suspected of the trifling offense of smuggling a few crates of beer. The confrontation left four Lao men dead, six immigration officers on the Lao side of the Friendship Bridge in detention, and the boat and beer impounded on the Thai side of the river. It will clearly be some time before the two rival siblings are fully reconciled.

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