29 August 2000


Economic pressures along with political dissent from both within and outside of the country may force government reforms, says Bertil Lintner in the "Irrawaddy" (Vol. 8, No. 6, June 2000), a publication of the Irrawaddy Publishing group (IPG), formerly known as the Burma Information Group. Increasingly, groups within Laos have been openly challenging the current regime's authoritarian political system. On 26 October 1999, the government moved quickly to quash a pro-democracy demonstration by teachers and students in Vientiane - the first of its kind in the regime's 25 years of power, says Lintner. Protesters were demanding "political reform, the release of all political prisoners; and a return to the 1974 coalition government, which included communist as well as neutralist forces," reports the "Irrawaddy". Authorities followed the protests with a series of political seminars, where participants were required to review the ruling communist party's doctrines. In addition, local community leaders gathered young people to advise them against the counter revolutionaries' messages and ideas.

These protests are not the only opposition that the current regime has faced in recent years, says the "Irrawaddy". The tribal Hmongs, who have engaged in resistance fighting since the communist party seized power, have also clashed with government forces in recent months, reports Lintner. The goals of the Hmongs include fighting "corruption within the government, poorly executed resettlement programmes, ethnic marginalisation and the absence of democratic structures through which such grievances can be expressed." Lintner notes that the success of the Hmongs may only be achieved should the group ally themselves with the low lands pro-democracy movements. While such an alliance is unlikely within the country due to ethnic and linguistic differences, Lintner points to the growing bond between these movements' exiled counterparts. In February, hundreds of exiled Lao pro-democracy activists and Hmongs rallied around ex-Hmong leader Vang Pao and Prince Soulivong Savang, grandson of the deposed King Savang Vatthana, in Washington DC. They urged the United States government to initiate talks between the Lao government and the opposition, in a bid to make a transition to democracy.

In addition, the Lao government is also facing pressure from donor countries and aid institutions such as the World Bank to engage in political reform. "The authorities in Vientiane may be able to dismiss such movements among exiles and even growing public dissent at home but it will find it harder to ignore the frustration of foreign donors such as Japan, Sweden and Australia which for years have contributed to the country's development." To obtain a copy of the "Irrawaddy", contact E-mail: waddy@cm.ksc.co.th; waddy2@chmai.loxinfo.co.th.

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