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From Our Correspondent: Elections in Laos
Ruminations on a faraway poll

November 21, 2000
Web posted at 1:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 1:30 a.m. EDT

Thakkek is a delightful riverside town in Khammouane Province, Laos, about four hours east of Vientiane, the capital. Sitting on the north bank of the Mekong River opposite Thailand's booming Nakhon Phanom, the place has a noticeable Vietnamese presence, mainly traders and laborers. They are not much appreciated by many of the locals. Dilapidated traces of the town's French colonial past remain, including a charming main square crying out for sensitive restoration. The French are long gone, of course, but Laos is still a victim of its past.

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During the 1960s and 1970s, it was sucked up by Cold War geopolitics into a "secret" and very hot war. On December 2, 1975, the Pathet Lao took power, turning the tiny battle-scarred kingdom into a People's Democratic Republic — one of those little PDRs that we hear less and less of in a democratizing and increasingly prosperous world. The communists moved the official capital from Luang Prabang to Vientiane and sent King Savang Vathana into internal exile and an obscure death. After more than six centuries, the monarchy was ignominiously snuffed out.

Whatever its name, PDR Laos did not gain democracy — or prosperity or much else. Indeed, it is astounding how little has been achieved economically in a quarter century. The country remains heavily dependent on foreign donors, many of whom have become exasperated with the inertia. In the coming weeks, these donors will be knocking on Vientiane's door for an explanation of the all-round economic ineptitude. Amid this growing "Laos fatigue," at least the country is largely at peace — give or take the occasional bomb. A few weeks ago, yet another peppered Vientiane's domestic air terminal. In lackadaisical Lao style, nobody quite got round to claiming "responsibility." The bombings remain something of a mystery.

In Thakkek, my thoughts flicked from ineffectual Laotian communists to imperious French to industrious Vietnamese and then inevitably back to the Americans. Always the Americans. This was partly because I was up in Laos taking a look at the problem of the unexploded ordnance (UXO) that litters almost the entire country — somewhere between 200,000 and 600,000 tons of the stuff. Nobody knows. From 1964 to 1973, U.S. bombers dropped over two million tons of high explosive in a vain attempt to destroy the Ho Chi Minh trail supplying communist forces in South Vietnam and to keep the Pathet Lao at bay. Laos is one of the most sparsely populated countries in Asia, and, thanks to Uncle Sam, probably the most bombed nation in the world. On average, the U.S. launched a bombing mission on Laos every eight minutes non-stop for nine years.

President Bill Clinton was recently in Hanoi, extending a handshake to Vietnam and ruminating on the shared suffering of the war. The Vietnamese endured a great deal more of it than the Americans. Victims of UXO in that densely populated country run to about 2,000 each year — about the total number of American military still missing in all of Indochina. In Laos, casualties are lower, but half the population was displaced by the aerial bombardment and resettlement remains a major problem to this day because of the serious UXO contamination. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen estimates that as many as 800,000 people died in U.S. bombing even before the Khmer Rouge arrived in 1975 to knock off another 1.7 million plus. Cambodia, too, has a lingering UXO problem, with perhaps as much as 240,000 tons lying around. Even so, the Khmer press speculated that Hun Sen — a great admirer of many things American — was mildly miffed Clinton didn't swing through for at least a quick stopover at Pochenthong Airport.

Back in Thakkek, daily life could not have been more unconcerned with the contradictions of international diplomacy. But aerial bombardment from the U.S. of a different sort was causing a stir right inside my hotel. The waitress in the restaurant was doing a kind of ramwong dance with the remote, trying to get a fix on the CNN satellite. The signal was as strong as ever, but the ancient decoder just wasn't up to the task. As the pictures from Atlanta waxed and waned, diners fell silent. Nobody could make any sense of what was unfolding in the world's most powerful democracy. Talking heads on the screen were trying to explain why there was no clear winner in the presidential election.

After absorbing the shock of what was going on, diners began to toss around a few irreverent Asian-style solutions to the problem. Perhaps the Americans could take the Cambodian route, with a two-headed government with co-presidents. That got pretty short shrift. The Cambodian experience has taught everyone what a disaster conjoined leaderships are. Indeed, at one point after the 1997 coup, the country had not two but three people claiming to be prime minister. "I am so embarrassed," a Cambodian friend admitted at the time. "I have such a small country and so many prime ministers."

A pre-People Power Filipino solution would have been to dump stuffed ballot boxes from island-hopping helicopters. Then there's Myanmar. Perfectly split votes aren't exactly the problem there. In 1990, the military junta decided that over 70% per cent of the vote wasn't quite enough to secure election. With that kind of thinking — no democracy without total consensus — presidents-not-quite-elect Gore and Bush would both be out in the cold with Ralph Nader. In Thailand, it would once have been possible to sort out this kind of glitch with a neatly lobbed bundle of 500-baht notes. But no more. Thailand's ferocious new Election Commission is rooting out the corrupt old ways.

Seen from Thakkek, one of the more interesting things about the U.S. election was how few people had voted. Indeed for every person who cast a vote, there was another who could not be bothered. Voter turnout in Thailand is usually about 30% per cent higher than in the U.S. In Myanmar in 1990, it was even more. In Cambodia, well over 90% turned out in 1993 and 1998. Who can say what the figure would be in Laos if there were free and fair elections tomorrow? My suspicion is that it would be very high. People naturally embrace peaceful opportunities for meaningful change, even in the face of serious intimidation. Look at the East Timor independence poll. Apathy sets in only when people feel their vote makes no difference. Perhaps that is what we have just seen in the U.S. — and how wrong they were.

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