A River Runs Through It

The incumbent Laotian Ambassador to Thailand is a worried man. He's worried about consumer culture, globalisation, maintaining financial aid from overseas, being put down by Thais, finding new markets, keeping on an equal footing, and resolving a longstanding border dispute. He reveals his hopes and fears to In Residence.

Thailand's relations with its border neighbours are among its most important. The three-month border war of 1987-88 between Thai and Laos forces - which claimed the lives of over a hundred soldiers (the Thai government denies Lao reports that over 500 Thais were slain) - illustrated what can happen when local relations sour.

As His Excellency Hiem Phommachanh points out, the people of Thailand and Laos (and Cambodia) are "brothers and sisters" - literally: 10,000 years ago virtually all ethnic groups in the region of the Mekong River valley and Khorat plateau belonged to the Austro-Thai ethno-language family.

Even before his ambassadorial posting, Mr Phommachanh was well qualified to assess Laos-Thai diplomatic relations. A former academic and governor of Vientiane College, he secured his place in posterity by becoming the first Lao Ambassador to America. After that, he resumed his studies, writing a Master's thesis on "the Thai-Laos relationship.

"I looked at the causes of the problems, and I even tried to solve them phase-by-phase."

While Mr Phommachanh is keen to point out that Lao-Thai relations are currently at "a very good phase" - since the 1990s the two countries have been closer than ever - he also lingers on the various hindrances to diplomatic harmony. His central concern is with the unresolved border demarcation - he's preoccupied with this niggling piece of bureaucracy; and the topic crops up frequently, casting a shadow over his discourse.

The country's present boundaries took shape in 1896-97 with a succession of treaties between Siam and Laos' then-colonial rulers, France. They used the deepest point of the Mekong River as a notional diving line; but the problem with rivers is they're made of water - and "sometimes the deepest point is on our side, sometimes the Thai side."

In 1997 the two countries agreed to settle their differences, setting the end of 2005 as the deadline for completion of the border demarcation - and an end to "a lot of misunderstanding about where the real border is". Mr Phommachanh can't see why they can't just do it now; he frets that it "cannot" happen this year if the two foreign ministries stick to their original step-by-step plan.

He sees the process as symbolic of the ideological conflict - Communism versus Capitalism - that mottles two countries' history. Its resolution is of vital significance to diplomatic relations "because once it's done," he emphasises. "It's forever; and we wouldn't have any more border problems".

He's optimistic about Laos and Thailand's future, citing their annual bilateral meeting and shared membership in ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations), the region's premier club, as "a commitment of the Thai government" to resolve this "misunderstanding" - and as assurance that the two counties will cooperate to narrow the gaping prosperity chasm.

"We want to see acts not words. It's easy to say very nice words but in practise it's different.

"If we say we like each other, we love each other, we will help each other, we have to do that and not do something else. We have look to the future; how to cooperate; how to live together; and how to grow-up together."

Mr Phommachanh says one of the biggest everyday problems he's faced as Laos' Ambassador to Thailand is snobbery: "The Lao people are looked at as very low class - not for all Thais but for a few. I have to explain to them we are both born equal. You [Thailand] are rich; we are poor, because we have our own problems."

Persuading people as class conscious as the Thais that Lao folk are their equals must be difficult; finance has always been the major defining principle behind social stratification - and impoverished Laos, as one of East Asia's poorest countries, is an economic minnow.

The Asian currency crisis of 1997 caused the national currency, the kip, to lose more than nine-tenths of its value.

Indeed, history has been uniquely unkind to Laos. In enduring 300 years of war with Ammam, China, Siam, France and the USA, it holds the dubious distinction of being the most heavily bombed nation, on a per capita basis, in the history of warfare. Most bombs dropped between 1964 and 1973 in the CIA-led so-called "Secret War", when air forces dropped an average of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years.

While the current bilateral relations with Thailand may look serviceable on paper, in practice the street level reality is quite different. Expounding on the topic of Thais denigrating Laos, the ambassador cites examples of the phenomenon from recent Thai pop culture.

"In Spicy magazine," he says, "you can see the thinking of the Thai." The offending article claimed "Lao girls can be bought very easily with money - that's just one example.

"One singer, Tee, said he loved Lao girls because they were dirty.

"If you were a Lao lady what would you think? You have to consider us an equal people, not make a mockery of us."

He also grumbles that "at a policy level the two governments have agreed not to give refuge to anyone making trouble in each respective country.

"But they [Thailand] still have people living here from abroad who are making trouble for us. So far this problem is not 100% over."

As Lonely Planet author Joe Cummings points out, "For its part the Thai government is very sensitive to accusations that Thailand may be harbouring an insurgent movement, however small."

Thailand deported three US citizens and one legal resident arrested in 1992 after they were reported to have been involved in efforts to destabilize the Lao government. Thai authorities also issued an outstanding order to arrest rebel Hmong General Vang Pao - currently residing in the US - under immediate arrest if he ever comes to Thailand.

I ask Mr Phommachanh if the many Lao refuges should be repatriated. "We don't have any refugees," he tells me. "The problem has been sold by [the year] 2000." This is a strange claim, when The Associated Press ran headlines like the July 6, 2005 report: "Hmong refugees from Laos, cast out From Thai homes, face future in limbo"; and The Bangkok Post [of July 7] reported on the "6,558 Hmong refugees in Ban Nam Huay Khao in Phetchabun Province".

Representatives of the refugees, incidentally, have reported to the Lao Human Rights Council, Inc. in the US that they are political refugees who fled Laos because of the Amnesty International-reported [in September 2004] "war crimes" committed against them at home.

The Post article also stated that: "Yonglee sae Lor, 43, was among the refugees who threatened to stab themselves to death if sent back to Laos… 'If we return to Laos, all of us will die. If we have to die, me and my fellow Hmong want to die here in Thailand.'"

Mr Phommachanh brushes off any purported problems with the Hmong thus: "In Laos we don't have a Hmong problem; the issues came from abroad.

"Outside people want the Hmong to be a problem from us, otherwise we don't have a problem. In the country we unite everyone; even minorities are equal."

What have been the biggest challenges in your career?

I have my own principles: when I do something, I do my best. When the government wanted me to help in the field of official service. I said to myself: "If you want to do that job you must have your own knowledge - like if you want to do business, you must have money. I asked to do my Master's degree, so I can have some luggage for my job. I studied in Australia.

How did you feel about living in America?

Of course, history is history. We have to learn what is not good for both countries and then we must avoid it - and we must repair our feelings as well. In the past, both Thailand and Laos were victims of the war, but now we have to show our willingness; to cooperate; to help each other, on an equal footing. If you keep it [grudges] in your mind forever…

And how did you feel when you were posted here?

I thought to myself: "Ok, that's good because, firstly, I know the problems and the issues; and we speak the same language". I can use my Thai or my Lao, and it's not far from my country: I can go easily, any time I want; and also I have many friends here. "OK, I will try my best," that's what I said.

Although Laos and Thailand are very culturally similar, did you have to make any adjustments?

On the contrary: now we are confusing what is Thai and what is Lao culture? For example, the Thais claim that the lakong - our playing can - is theirs, among many other things, like dances, which sometimes we confuse. On these issues we have to find an explanation.

What are the main Lao interests here?

Firstly, the two countries are neighbouring, with a very long border together, which means we have to live harmoniously together. We can't move our land away from Thailand, we have to do it [work] together. We have to look not to compete but to cooperate; to help each other. Then the two peoples can have prosperity forever.

What are your favourite things about Thailand?

Thailand is a big country; they have what we don't: like the sea. I like to go from time to time. I've been to Koh Phi Phi, but it's a long way. If I have time I like to go to Hua Hin: it's not far.

What else do you do with your free time?

I like to visit Thai friends here in Bangkok. For my health I do sports, exercises in the morning; badminton in the evening; and I try to meditate for half-an-hour each day. I also like reading.

Have the problems in southern Thailand affected Laos at all?

No, not directly, because it's far from us. It's an internal problem in Thailand - we don't want to interfere with that - but we of course express our regret that that happened to our neighbour.

What have you learnt from Thailand?

I try to learn the best kind of system in society. Personally, I am afraid of how the society of Laos is going forward. Consumer society is about chasing new brands all the while, wanting more and more - that's fine if you have [a sufficient] economic situation, but [not] otherwise. Materialism is [spreading] so fast: I see lots of businesses. We are basically now living in a global situation: we cannot live apart from other people. What happens in one country affects other countries.

Are you satisfied with your relationship with PM Thaksin?

I can say yes, because he understands the situations - still, how to implement these programs…

Many expats prefer beer Laos to Thai beer. Why is it so hard to get in Thailand?

Yes, many Thai people like Lao beer, too, but our problem is we cannot import our beer directly to the entry port; we have to send to other countries. We have to negotiate this, because Thai customs have their own laws about not allowing the importation of illegal alcohol as easily as other communities.

Do you miss anything about Laos?

Not really, just, of course, my wife - she is working at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs [in Vientiane]. My children are studying, but of course they meet friends in that country. My son is studying in Thailand and my daughter in Switzerland.

-- Published by In Residence, 2006


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