"We opened our hearts to the Vietnamese when they came to Laos. We thought they represented the future. The only thing we wanted was for it to be a Lao future."
The speaker was Prince Mangkra Souvanna Phouma, the son of the former neturalist premier of Laos and himself a political veteran in the Kingdom of the Million Elephants.
Now an exile in Paris, the prince wonders out loud whether an independent Laos will still exist a decade from now.
"The Vietnamese have turned Laos into a virtual province of North Vietnam. It is their [approximately 40,000] soldiers who control everything. My father [ his name is also Prince Souvanna Phouma], who was supposed to be a 'special adviser' to the government, has no power. Even my uncle, Prince Souphanouvong [ the nominal president of the National Assembly and largely figurehead leader of the communist Pathet Lao] has no power."
The urbane and handsome prince, who speaks flawless English and French, operates a thriving public-relations concern here. But he says he would nevertheless prefer to leave Paris behind and return to Laos some day.
His dissatisfaction with the turn of events in Laos is not ideological, but nationalistic in inspiration, he says.
What I am against is Soviet and Vietnamese-style communism -- the kind that destroys the independence of nations and oppresses the people."
The prince blames Vietnamese policies for the fact that hundreds of thousands of Laotians have become refugees.
"When there is a viable resistance movement, I will support it," he says. Prince Souvanna Phouma is not sanguine about the prospects:
"We have to dream about making Laos a peaceful, neutral country with democracy and freedom for its people. But that is not realizable in the short run. Even if the resistance grows, it cannot win by itself. Our country is caught in the grip of international power politics. The solutions must come from the US, China, the USSR, and Europe as well as our own people."
Still, according to the prince, some resistance activities are already under way. Lao sources in Paris suggests these developments:
* According to a former Lao diplomat, the Lao People's National United Liberation Front (LPNULF), founded in May 1980, has 3,000 guerrillas under arms in in the south. Leading this group in the field are said to be former Defense Minister Phoumi Nosavan and Gen. Khambou Bourrasath, both associated with the old pro-American right-wing. Neutralists like Kong Le and even some former Pathet Lao members are working with the LPNULF, however.
Late last year at a Khmer Rouge base in northern Kampuchea's Dangrek Mountains, a three-way meeting was reportedly held to coordinate anti-Hanoi strategy. Participants included Phoumi Nosovan, Khmer Rouge Defense Minister Son Sen, and representatives of the United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Races (FULRO), an organization of ethnic minorities fighting inside Vietnam. The Khmer Rouge agreed to supply Chinese arms to both groups."
* In the mountainous highlands of Laos, the Hmong tribal army is continuing the war against the Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao. The conflict started long ago when the Hmong had the support of the CIA during the time of the American war in Indochina. Estimates on the number of armed Hmong vary from 2,000 to 10, 000, although they have suffered very heavy losses in fighting with the Vietnamese.
* Along the China-Laos frontier in the north, an estimated 5,000 guerrillas are reported operating. Many are from ethnic minorities straddling the border such as the Yao.
A good measure of the upturn in antigovernment activity may be attributable to china's role. After the Lao government fully supported vietnam's invasion of Cambodia, the Chinese are reported to have responded with military aid for the Lao guerrilla groups.
Still, it remains to be seen how much of a base the guerrilla groups can build among the Lao population, and how effective they can be against some 40, 000 Vietnamese troops in Laos and thousands of Soviet advisers.