On the banks of the Mekong River in the heart of Laos’s capital city, Vientiane, stands a defiant Chao Anouvong, the Laotian king who fought the Thais almost 200 years ago, winning the hearts of his compatriots and the wretched anger of the royal regiments in Bangkok.
Cast in bronze, his statue was erected just two years ago. With his left hand clutching a sword, his right arm extended and pointing at the enemy across the river, the imposing figure has continued to irritate Thais who see the statue, at best, as contentious.
But the political realities are somewhat different these days. Relations between Thailand and Laos have never been better. Airports, roads, railways and dams are being built and Vientiane is increasingly dictating its own path in foreign relations, regardless of its traditional ties with Vietnam.
It’s a path that Hanoi should find increasingly irritating.
Construction continues by Thai companies at the site of the $3.8 billion Xayaburi Dam, which according to independent reports will put at risk food security by upsetting the spawning season of fish stocks that feed more than 60 million people down river in Cambodia and Vietnam.
Thai and Laos companies intend to split the profits by selling electricity produced from the dam back into Thailand and, according to one source with ties to the Laos government, “this is a win-win … and will enrich all Laos and enable it to prosper and be able to buy cars.”
There are also plans to build a high speed train, a line from Bangkok to Nong Khai, a short distance from the border and the Lao capital. The infrastructure needs are real but so are the costs to its traditional ties with Vietnam.
Importantly Laos also took quietly to the sidelines, alongside Thailand, at the recent summit of foreign ministers for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) when Vietnam saddled-up with The Philippines and desperately needed support for its stance over disputes in the South China Sea, with China.
Hanoi and Manila want a united multilateral stand by ASEAN countries with overlapping claims to islands in the disputed waters. China wants a bilateral approach, one that was pushed strongly by its chief ally within the bloc, Cambodia.
Cambodia’s is also ASEAN’s chair this year and used its position to thwart Vietnamese and Filipino ambitions. This came as no surprise given Cambodia’s foreign policy shifts and Chinese largesse of recent years.
But Hanoi would have appreciated Vientiane’s support at the summit given their traditional ties and the affiliations that came with the communist revolutions of the 1970s.
Vietnam has also been a major financial benefactor to Laos and provided its government with military support and diplomatic leverage on the international political stage when needed.
And Laos seems to have forgotten that Vietnam’s sovereign claims in the Parcel and Spratly islands along with food security and the free flow of the Mekong River are two of the most vital issues for the government of Nguyen Tan Dung.
Vietnam also has common sense and credible independent reports on its side. Vientiane and Laos Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong might be unmoved by that and this could make his country’s blossoming relationship with Thailand all the more important.
But it risks being left out in the cold with Vietnam and that could herald another significant ruction in regional political affairs, one that ASEAN can ill-afford.