THE LOOT OF WAR
by staff of FREE LAO ALLIANCE (Aug. 2000)
Year after year, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the IMF, and the UN admonish the world that Lao is still one of the poorest countries.This bleak picture is not worth the paper on which it is printed. What should peak the world’s interest are those communist leaders in Lao who painted this sad picture for the world to see and feel pity for Lao. The communist leaders in Vientiane eliminated all beggars from the streets, but it kept for itself the most coveted skills of begging. When the street beggar presents himself in rag to the passerby, he hopes to appeal to the latter’s pity. This appeal to human emotion is most basic and fundamental in the running of government in Lao. The communist leaders had all the skills and tactics of the street beggars. They know how to ask, when to ask and who to ask. After thirty years of starving in the jungle and 25 years of begging around the world, the communist leadership in Lao takes the art of panhandling to another level; it went global. Lao is poor; its people are impoverished, but the princes of poverty in Lao are not at all living hands to mouth. The multimillion dollars houses, luxury cars, owning night clubs and enjoying all amenities of modern comfort are only some of the perks for leading one of the world’s poorest nations.
We could not help but swallow our pride to hear that our beloved country is berated for failing to succeed. Each time the facts and figures on Lao government's annual budget is published, we still see that the national budget, the cost of running out country, still depends on foreign assistance. We hear from many corners, in the academia and government offices, that donors are fatigue. Those who used to help Lao are now tired of seeing endless problems waiting to be resolved by foreign money and expertise. Those who helped finance our infrastructure are sick of seeing endless parade of corrupt officials. Be it communist or noncommunist, be it pre- or post-1975, the faces changed but the conduct is the same; the tone of the rhetoric may change but the motive is the same. This model of governance by the communist leadership in Lao is too simple. It may not explain the historical significance of the communist revolution in Lao. Such reluctance to embrace the proposed model is understandable for it breaks tradition with the mainstream perception of Lao. After all, the communist leadership in Lao came to power as a result of a thirty-year long revolutionary struggle. Is it really?
To govern our poor Lao means, above all else, to live in paradise blessed with unfettered discretion in siphoning foreign aids, NGO assistance, private donation, bilateral aids, multilateral assistance, and interest free loans. The names are endless. To those who have genuine concerns for the well being of the people and the general health of the nation understand that the more foreign aids flows into Lao, the richer the power holders become. The more loans extended to Lao, the more bleak the prospect of economic independence Lao has. Those in power see the bounty as their rewards for the thirty-years long fight against the old regime. "We farm, because we want to eat," so goes the old saying in Lao. The governing of Lao is nothing more than gorging the loot of war. Harvesting the fruit of the revolution for the current regime in Lao means nothing more than cropping the nation's resources.
After all the communist leadership came to power in Lao after a thirty years long effort of the so-called revolutionary war. However, communism in Lao is not really guided by the ideological tenets of what Marx, Engels, Lenin or Mao had envisioned. Lao became communist not by choice, nor was it propelled into a class warfare that ultimately brought communism to Lao; communism entered the life of the Lao people as a historical accident. The infighting among members of the royal household over political control of the country forced members of the royal household to break ranks.
Prince Souphanouvong purportedly embraced communism in hope of seeking outside assistance . Other underlings, such as Kaysone and Khamtay may have found euphoric ideological comfort in communism but were truly amateur politicians, limited in both education and experience. They might have fallen prey to dynastic struggle of the house of Luang Prabang. During those thirty years of their struggle, they had studied and learned to accept that Lao is an agricultural society; a society that stood in stark contrast to what the doctrinal master Karl Marx had prescribed as prerequisite for a communist revolution. Moreover, Lao is a society not in par with what was required by Lenin for a socialist utopia. This understanding might have twisted and turned the mind set of the then fledgling ragtag revolutionaries, who later toppled a government, to adopt a perception that their fight was a struggle for economic and political gains. Such a struggle was guided by personal greed and hunger for glory than by ideological guidance. Communism then, under the proposed model, is a an instrument used to achieve personal ambitions of those who called themselves revolutionaries. These opportunists see in Lao a boundless loot more than no other commercial enterprise can conceivably offer. They looked at the ideological foundation and the fundamental flaw of the core communist leadership in Lao, it can safely be said that the present government in Lao conducts the affairs of the State as if it is guarding the loot of war.
Further evidence for the looting mentality model is supported by the fact that the octogenarian communist leadership are now more than ever tightly safeguarding their control of the country. They know deep down that unlike other communist regimes, such as those found in Korea, China, and the former Soviet Unions, there is no ideological or political legacy of any communist leaders in Lao. The experience of Kaysone Phomvihane taught the surviving octogenarians too clearly. After the death of Kaysone, power was divided out among the surviving core members of the leadership. Kaysone’s wife became embroiled in scandalous accusations---unimaginable during the rule of her husband. Every communist leader seem to have been more happier than ever to share the bounty increased with Kaysone’s death. The lack of a political legacy further render credence to the idea that governing Lao is more of protecting and devouring the loot of war.
The interests of the country and people always took a back seat. Foreign debts sky rocketed and are increasing by the minute, but who is counting. The country becomes an asset that the communist leadership pawns for money. Every Lao politician cringes in fear when the communist government in Lao borrows money in the name of a sovereign Lao. Although in the last twenty five years, Lao had seen numerous developmental projects dotted throughout the countryside; hydro electric dams here and bridges there. Few roads here and some school buildings there. Without having dug deeper unto highly protected wall of corruption and shady dealings, no one can see that what truly goes on behind close doors in Vientiane. Development and construction contracts are funneled through shell companies owned and controlled by party members. Relatives of communist leaders are strategically placed in various offices throughout the country. Foreign debt today stands at an impressively fearful height of $120 billion. How much of that amount was funneled into pockets of party members, we could only fancy.
It is not the lack of money that makes Lao a poor country. When the world talks about Lao's poverty, it points to the poor or absence of adequate infrastructure in the country, i.e., roads, hospitals, schools, mortality rates among infants and adults, and so on. If the world truly looks at the figures and the amount of money flowing into Lao, it would be astonished to learn that Lao gains quite handsomely as a nation of beggar. During the Vietnam war, Lao was the largest aid recipient from the US when a per capita inflow is used. The amount of money that flowed into Lao could have been used to build rockets to send every adventurous soul in Lao to the moon and come back to tell about it. However, like the Lao of today under communist rule, the Lao of yester-year was also corrupt. Only the elite had access to the good things in life while the rest of the country drowned in poverty.
The communist leaders in Lao today is fast becoming like its predecessor, but only with more tenacity and arrogance. Members of the communist party live a life of excessive comfort. In a country boasting an annual per capita income of less than one thousand dollars, communist elite in Vientiane sport expensive import cars and multimillion dollars homes equipped with satellite dishes, indoor toilets and all modern conveniences that money can buy. Hospitals, roads, schools and all major physical infrastructure of the country remains in dilapidated condition. When field representatives from the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, the IMF and the United Nations visited Lao could not help but being impressed by the facade of poverty.
Maintaining the facade of poverty in Vientiane is a skillful task for the communist leaders. This is a case of a professional beggars on the street getting smarter day-by-day. The more impoverished a condition the communist regime can impressed upon the donors, the larger a prospect of receiving more aid and financial assistance. With each dollar flowing into Lao, be it funds earmarked for building roads, hospitals or schools, the "invisible hands" of the state always has its share of the bounty.
To understand the present predicament, it is only prudent to understand the mind set of these bearers of the fruit of the revolution. The ruling elite which come to power through revolutionary effort tends to see the acquired power no more than the loot of war. This perception is consistent with the fundamental tenet of the revolutionary tunnel vision of society. The paramount objective of the Lao Communist Party is to destroy all that has been part of the old regime. In place of the old, it builds a facade of permanency while preparing for the demise of the very regime that propelled it to power. Governing Lao then, to these communist leaders, is nothing more than using the statehood of Lao as a ticket to richness. As Jiang Qing, the wife of the helmsman Mao Tse-Tung, once said 'the revolution must be dynamic and continue without end,' because the period of peace is merely an interruption of warfare. Thus, while peace so last, no matter how brief such an interruption may be, the country as a whole and all its people and resources are seen as the loot of war. Conduct that would otherwise be seen as corrupt, dishonest and morally repugnant in a more civil and permanent government can be seen as normal and tolerable. Tolerance under such circumstance can easily be achieved and maintained especially when ideological dissent is meted out with brutal suppression. The only contention left to the communist leaders is nothing more than to devy out the loot of war. The recent bombings in Vientiane might not have been differences in political colors after all, but more of internal pecking of vultures of the same flock.
Analysts throughout the quarters contend and claim that it is the result of internal power struggle between the pro-China and pro-Vietnam factions. True, but that is only a scratch on the surface. No matter which master the communist leaders in Lao chose to follow, those who advocate for such an intimacy is guided by the very perception of maintaining power in Lao as controlling the loot of war. Sisavat Lengsavat made one trip to Beijing kowtowing to the communist leaders in China and returned home with millions of dollars interest free loan. This illustrates that no matter how poor a country, ruling Lao remains the most lucrative enterprise any self-styled political dare devil can fancy. If China becomes the hegemon over the communist leaders in Lao, those who had depended on Vietnam for the past 25 years will soon fall out of favor. Such a loss of power will result in the loss of influence and income. The bounty is moved to the other camp. This tug of war between the so-called pro-China and pro-Vietnam factions may also be seen as a fight over the loot of war. Foreign aids, international contracts, government programs, and so forth, how lucrative it is to rule a poor nation. The people are poor, yes, but look at the ruling elite who, not too long ago when they came to power embraced poverty, now gorge themselves to the max. A few bombs exploding here and there, giving an impression of a political struggle, is worth the try really when one considers the potential loot promised with the changing of the guards. Even for the diehard communists, such a perception and practice are indeed a betrayal to the cause and spirit of the revolution. This is not to say that there are not people who genuinely want to work for the return of the rule of law to Lao. Surely, political activism has been in the blood of the Lao people. No matter what political color a Lao person may have, nationalist sentiments always find fertile ground among some Lao politicians, intellectuals and workers. This prospect of genuine political movement is particularly noteworthy for many of us to ponder. Some Lao activists might be itchy to test the Lao Constitution's guaranty of political freedom and all other good things found in a liberal democracy.
The described perception of the country---as the loot of war---and its governance by the communist elite in Lao is stable, but tends to be transient. Stability is maintained through brutality and strength is achieved by dependency on outside assistance, be it economic, political or military.
No one can say with a straight face that Lao is unstable, if stability is defined as absence of change. For 19 years, the communist leadership in Lao ruled the country without a working constitution. Governing was guided by murky ideological tenets; at times, they are vague and other times arbitrary. The communist leaders in Vientiane, with the help and under constant watchful eyes of its masters in Hanoi, former Soviet Union and China, reigned the country with unquestioned authority. Despite thousands have been carted off to death camps and many thousands more fled the country, no international outcry had been heard. Even with pockets of armed resistance here and there, now and then, Lao was relatively peaceful and stable under the communist rule in its 25 years of lawlessness. This stability is achieved through brutal suppression of all dissent
The revolutionary vanguard, after having achieved its prime objective, learned to groove itself into the mantel of conservatism. The fruit of the revolution can now be shared among those who fought to supplant the old society. As the loot is divided out among comrades in arms, peace and stability are assured. The country’s development suffer, and the people find the regime oppressive. The communist leadership can always reason their ways out of their tight spot. The country is poor, but people are used to it. The people are oppressed, but to have been born in a country that never knew peace in its history; they will learn to accept it and suffer in silence.
For a quarter of a century, the communist leadership in Lao succeeded in fooling the world that peace and stability are assured in Lao. However, those who have been blessed with larger share of the loot seems to have their fill and refuse to pass the bucket. Not only those in power enjoys the bounty, but their relatives and friends also have been invited to partake. Many comrades who no longer can survive by ideology alone cannot help but feel left out. They call into question the fair share of the revolutionary bounty. Within its fold malcontent among party members surfaced. Those who are outside the core elite of the octagenarian club threatens to tear asunder the bonds that hold them. The faithful tune of The Internationale is now replaced with the melancholy cry of envy. What the communist leaders can boast as a crowning achievement in holding all members of its flock together is now under threat of self destruction.
No one can deny that the communist government in Lao is strong. Its strength is achieved through dependency on outside assistance. With a force of merely 30,000 people among its armed forces, the communist leadership in Lao was able to carry out a military campaign against Thailand----a country priding itself with an armed forces of 160,000 men---in 1987 and came out on top. The strength of the communist leadership in Lao lies in the willingness of the Vietnamese government to sacrifice its troop on behalf of Lao in exchange for territory, natural resources and a share of the loot of war in Lao. For a small nation like Lao to enter into a mutual defense treaty, Lao can always count on having more advantage in using the army of a foreign state to perform its dirty work. That might be true, but at what price?