Lao PDR: Juggling Ties

In January this year, Lao PDR celebrated the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the Lao People’s Army (LPA). The event was marked by a parade that included several Russian origin military equipments. Major General Alexander Kshimovsky, the chief of Russia’s Main Directorate for International Military Cooperation attended the parade and received on behalf of the Russian government 30 vintage Soviet T-34 tanks as gifts. These World War II machines are considered symbols of Russia’s national pride and meant for display during Victory Day parades, in museum as exhibits, and for making films about the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945.

Russia is an important provider of military hardware to Lao and in 2018 it supplied T-72B ‘White Eagle’ tanks, YAK 130 fighter jets and four Mi-17 helicopters. These would be paid for by Lao through mining concessions and development projects. Prime Minister Thongloun has publicly acknowledged that “everything the Laotian Armed Forces now have is linked with Russia.” Russia has also been assisting Lao in clearing unexploded ordnance (UXO) such as ‘bomblets’ and mines.

Unlike Russia, China has sold relatively few arms to Lao; instead, it is an important partner in the Belt and Road Initiative showcased by the $6 billion Laos-China Economic Corridor (LCEC). The Corridor involves 411-kilometer long high-speed railway link between Kunming and Vientiane. The National Economic Research Institute (NERI), a Laotian government think-tank, has suggested that the12 SEZs set-up along the LCEC have attracted local and foreign companies with registered capital of more than $8.4 billion.

However, the LCEC has experienced environmental roadblocks and social concerns; nearly 4,400 people have been displaced without compensation. Besides there are fears that Lao may be running into another debt trap. For instance, Laos failed to repay to China an $ 80 million loan for the construction of a stadium for the 2009-Southeast Asian games; both governments decided on a bailout agreement under which a 300-hectare land concession was given to a Chinese company.

During 1960s and 1970s, Lao PDR was a victim of the US war in Vietnam and about 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped on Lao villages adjacent to the Vietnamese borders. Nearly 80 million cluster bombs had remained unexploded resulting in large number of civilian casualties. The US has contributed over $100 million in helping clear UXO thereby significantly reducing casualties from over 300 to fewer than 50 annually. This programme has been further supplement by a $ 90 million grant spread over three years including quality rehabilitation services such as orthotics and prosthetics. Currently, Lao PDR maintains good relations with the US, and in 2016 both sides signed the Comprehensive Partnership “opening a new era of bilateral relations based on common interests as well as a shared desire to heal the wounds of the past and build a foundation for the future.”

At the regional level, like any landlocked Asian country, Lao has challenges of demarcation of boundaries. These were left behind by the French colonial rulers who in 1837 incorporated the country into the French Indo-China union along with other colonies and protectorates in Vietnam. Cambodia was granted self-rule within the French Union in 1946, and the protectorate status was abolished in 1949.

The dispute with Thailand is over three villages and in 1984 both engaged in bitter battles. Three years later, Thai military occupied one of the disputed villages but the Laotian Army recaptured it. In 1996, Lao Joint Boundary Commission (JBC) was set up to demarcate the 1,810-kilometre boundary and settle ownership of the disputed villages.

Likewise, boundary issue has been part of the Lao and Vietnam relationship, and in 2017 they celebrated the 40th anniversary of signing Vietnam-Laos Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Issues such as implementing border agreements and measures to boost border management and protection have been their agenda. However, the porous borders have been exploited by drug syndicates and human smugglers, and both sides are reinforcing security through surveillance and monitoring.

Lao shares 540-kilometer border with Cambodia. In 2017, there was a potential conflict situation but deescalated after intervention by the respective leaderships. A number of mechanism for border management to prevent reoccurrence were instituted including border surveys, communication between border facilities on either side as also for tackling cross-border crimes. Last year, during Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s visit to Lao, both sides agreed to a ‘new status quo’ involving ‘three-point consensus’ on resolving disputes i.e. (a) no armed forces being present; (b) no business or trading activities; and (c) all patrols being done together.

It is fair to argue that Lao PDR is balancing its relations with major powers without overreliance on any one power. Its neighbourhood policy is sophisticated and there is strong evidence that as a small developing and land-locked country, it is diplomatically savoir-faire.

Dr Vijay Sakhuja is associated with the Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.

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