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Lao-Thai Border Demarcation
This article was contributed to
(September 2000)
The Mano I & II islets dispute will soon become an international issue unless it is quickly resolved by the Lao and Thai governments. If Thailand refuses to recognize Lao's assertion of ownership and control over the islets, the consequences will be grave and embarrassing for Thailand. The islets are located in the Mekong River between Lao and Thailand. Under the Franco-Siam Treaty, territorial demarcation between Lao and Thailand shall lie where the river or stream is at its most deepest point. This standard of demarcation is consistent with international law even in the present day. Under this standard, Lao territory extends westward beyond the Mano islets. There is no question as to whom the islets belong. The Mano islets lie in Lao territory; they belong to Lao. The use of the islets by Thai farmers is permissive.
During the time of the Viceroy Phetsarath Ratanavongsa, border demarcation was determined by the presence of the people. It is said that in demarcating our border with Vietnam, the rule was simple. Any village inhabited by people who built their houses on stilt was considered Laos. Any village lived by people whose houses were built with dirt floor was considered Vietnamese. See THE IRON MAN OF LAOS. We seldom have any problems with border demarcation or land dispute with our northern and southern neighbors: China and Cambodia. However, our Western neighbor, Thailand, presents a constant border dispute to every government that has ever come to power in Lao.
     The source of the Lao-Thai border problem begun in the late 1800s when Prince Anouvong waged two unsuccessful military campaigns against the House of Ayuthaya in 1827 and 1827. Lao's defeat of 1828 resulted in the capitulation of Lan Xang; Lao was annexed by Siam in 1828. Both the Lao people and territory came under the control of Siam until the French intervention in 1886. There were series of treaties signed between Siam and France to restore territorial integrity to Lao, i.e., 1886, 1893, 1904, 1907 & 1945. Prior to the Anouvong's defeat, the Lan Xang territory extended as far west as the Korat plateau, and as far north as the Chiangmai-Lampang-Lampoon corridor. Lan Xang saw its great territorial expansion during Phothisarath's reign between 1520-1548. The hundred years long domination by Siam after Anouvong's defeat in 1828 has tamed Lao's nationalist assertiveness. When the French and Siamese leaders negotiate treaties, Lao leaders had no say in what was signed on papers.
     The matter was further complicated by the fact that Sayasetha the Great was a descendent of the House of Chiangmai, a separate Lanna dynasty but later came under the control of the Chakri House after the fall of Ayuthaya. Since Sayasetha came to reign over Viengchan only because the latter was without issue to carry on the royal line. Having descended from Phothisarath of Luang Prabang, Sayasetha was enthroned in Viengchan without any contest. There was no territorial dispute between Lao and Thai during Sayasetha's reign. When Chiangmai fell unto Siam's fold in the late 1700s, Thailand succeeded in fooling the French that the majority of the Lao territory belongs to Siam. The fact that a Siam descendent---by way of Lanna--- reigned over Viengchan boosted the claim.
The Lao-Thai border demarcation is unsettled question left from the Franco-Siam Treaty of 1929. During the 1960s, Thailand lost several border disputes to its neighbors. To the South, the Preavihear (Khao Phra Viharn) reverted to Cambodia. Lao also regain its foothold of Sayabouri. The northwest of Lao borders Thailand by territory west of the Mekong River. The true borderline between Lao and Thailand should run north to southwestward of the Mekong River. However, similar to our experience of the late 1700s and 1800s, Lao was too busy with our civil war during the 1950s and 1960s and never got around to push for more land from Thailand. After 1975, the communist government concluded a mutual defense treaty with Vietnam and imported more than 70,000 Vietnamese troops into Lao. Although members of the ancient regime had been carted off to death camps, and those who escaped had left the country. Communist Lao was not under threat from the ancient regime. The Vietnamese troops sent into Lao were to prepare for a westward expansion of communism. The Lao communist leaders seemed to have wanted to use Vietnamese manpower to regain its lost territories in exchange for transferring Lao's sovereignty to the hands of Indochinese Communist Federation. Sensing this threat, Prime Minster Kriangsack Chamanand of Thailand quickly concluded a joint communiqué with Kaysone Phomvihane in 1976 providing that Lao and Thailand shall not use force to resolve the two country's border dispute and shall not use each other's soil to stage a military campaign against one another. The two countries kept the peace for the next ten years until the border issue resurfaced in 1987. Successive administration in Bangkok pushed for border demarcation. Lao remained calm and look for the right opportunity to seize back our territory.
     Today the border demarcation effort continues. In the year 2000, only 17 demarcations had been placed along the Lao-Thai borders. The border demarcation issue should not be taken likely by the Lao government. Lao must protract this issue as long as possible. Thailand would want Lao to hasten the process because any borderline we now agree upon will be set in stone. However, the existing blur of Lao-Thai border provides Lao with an opportunity to go back to the 1924 & 1926 Franco-Siam treaties. These treaties may not recognize the 16 provinces lost to Thailand, but at least they will provide Lao and Thailand with some points of reference. As the process drags on, Lao must attempt to reject the Franco-Siam treaties altogether and work for greater solution to resolve all outstanding issues concerning Lao-Thai frontier. The Isan Question must be reexamined and resolved once and for all. Lao must reject the Franco-Siam treaties because it was entered into by a colonial power on behalf of a country and people who did not consent to it. By any stretch of logic and reason, a colonial power looks to settle a dispute for the sake of expediency not for the best interests of its subjects. After having regained our independence in July 1949, Lao had steadfastly worked towards restoring the Lao territory to its rightful fold. Although Thailand succeeds in brainwashing its people into believing that the 16 Isan provinces belong to Thailand, the Isan territory is a territory lost through colonial incompetence. The Isan people were displaced due to internal and external political events beyond the control of the Lao people. When, as now, conditions conducive to division and loss no longer persist, Lao must work toward the restoration of its territory and uniting its people under the same flag. The Mano incident is a prelude to more border disputes in years to come. So long as the Lao race remains breathing on this earth, Thailand must yield to the call for justice. The day of awakening for Thailand is near as the flame of Lao nationalism is being rekindled inside Lao and throughout the world. Thailand's government and its intellectual community are intoxicated by their modest economic success harnessed in the past thirty years. While at the same time discrimination against our Isan brethren is increasing day by day. The Lao people on both side of the Mekong River will soon reunite for a greater Lao. Today, it is the Mano islets; let it not be forgotten that our eyes are set for greater objective of restoring full territorial integrity to Lao. We know we can fight. When we choose to fight, we know we can win. This fact remains the supreme truth in the heart of every Lao nationalist. Can any Thai nationals say the same?
The Vang Tao incident of July 3, 2000, had greater implication than was intended. The world chooses to accept that the fear by the Vientiane administration has translated into the reevaluation of the security structure of Lao. However, the Vang Tao incident provided is ample opportunity for Lao to seize the Mano islets. To understand the inner working of the Mano islets question and the secretive operation of the communists in Vientiane, a short review of history is in order. Before engaging in military campaign in 1987, the Lao government prepared for the battle for two years. Between 1985 and 1987, Lao spent tens of millions of dollar on military equipment. Military trucks, weapons, and equipment used on the 1987 campaign against Thailand were specifically bought for a single purpose: regaining Lao territory from Thailand. When came the Vang Tao incident of July 2000, the Vientiane administration gleefully jumped at the opportunity to seize more territory. Having lost almost 6,000 men in 1987 in fight with communist Lao over a strip of less than 5 square kilometer, Thailand is reluctant to provoke a full-scale military conflict. Thailand's Minister of Defense, Chuan Leekpai, is a civilian and has not even one hour of combat experience. When the Lao government sees this weakness, it is too much of a temptation not to seize the Mano islets. Chuan Leekpai too must learn that in 1987 the Thai military was under a five stars general Chavalit Yongchaiyuth's command. Yet the Thai army was no match of the so-called ragtag Lao People's Liberation Army---code name Vietminh volunteers who came to die for their fraternal ideological protege. The outcome of the Mano islets is a foregone conclusion; Lao will retain full control over it. After all, it is Lao's territory. To contest it would mean a protracted and bloody military campaign, which Thailand cannot afford, and Lao has nothing to lose. Thailand will try to weasel its way out by proposing a joint control over the islets. Most likely such a proposal will fail, and should not be accepted. Both communist and noncommunist Lao can agree that Lao and its territory must be ruled by the Lao government. Be it red or white, Lao territory must be governed by Lao people. Another fall back position for Thailand is to lease the islets for its farmers. This proposal may be acceptable to all Lao people. Under the second option, Thai farmers will use the islets with Lao's consent. This position is the present posture taken by Lao.
     We must also look at the present day politics of Thailand. Chuan Leekpai, the Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, will soon depart from the political scene. The upstart contender now is the billionaire Taksin Shinawatra. If Shinawatra succeeds in his bid to become Prime Minister, as a businessman he will adopt more non-combative and conciliatory posture when dealing with Vientiane. Appeasement will be acceptable only if it returns territories to Lao.
     Since the 1987 border dispute, the two governments had refrained from using military means to assert its respective territorial claims. However, the sending of troops into the Mano I & II islets shows that Lao is not reluctant to use force to assert its rightful claim. The sending of troops into the islands may be seen as an act of aggression under international law; however, Thailand is toothless to retaliate because it knows that it will lose in the International Court of Justice. History taught the Thai government that it never prevailed on territorial disputes with its neighbors. The Preavihear (Khao Phraviharn) incident of 1962 with Cambodia clearly shows that ill-gotten gain territories will one day be returned to their rightful owners. Thailand is daily reminded that the sixteen provinces or the Isan Question will still have to be resolved. Whether these Lao Isan provinces will become part of Lao once again or seceded from Thailand proper as an independent state remains a sensitive issue. Thailand may not be prepared to accept the loss of these Isan provinces, but will soon have to accept the reality that the Isan people are Lao by birth. The Isan territory, therefore, belong to the Lao people. Any political administration over these people is considered colonial and must be liberated. We cannot look only to the Vientiane administration when we evaluate human rights abuses against the Lao people. We must also not forget that 17 million Lao people west of the Mekong River are living in dire poverty. These people had been left out from economic largess gained by Thailand during the 1970s and 1980s precisely because they are Lao descent. They work in the most low pay and under the most dangerous of conditions. Lao nationalism means nothing if we forsake these brethren of ours.
     The issue of restoring territorial integrity to Lao transcends political and ideological differences among the Lao people. We cannot truly speak of Lao, our people and culture, unless we have a place to call our homeland. When that land is taken away from us, be it by force or deception, we must reclaim our territory. In this instance, no matter how repugnant the current communist regime may be, that government is the sole voice for Lao and its people in asserting our claims to restore Lao's territory to its rightful frontier. Thailand maintains a nonviolent posture to resolve the Mano I & II issue because it knows too well that these two islets belong to Lao.