US plan to grant trade privilege to Laos may fizzle out again


WASHINGTON, (AFP) - The Bush administration's plans to grant special trade privileges to Laos may fizzle out again in Congress where a growing number of legislators are demanding the tiny Southeast Asian nation be sanctioned for alleged rights abuses.
Spearheading the effort to deny Laos the "normal trade relations" status is a member of President George W. Bush's Republican party who is proposing legislation on "the urgent need for freedom, democratic reform and international monitoring of elections, human rights and religious liberty" in that country.
Congressman Dan Burton sent a note Thursday to the House of Representatives seeking an urgent meeting to discuss the legislation amid claims by rights groups that the Lao military was practising "Kosovo-like" ethnic cleansing on rebel and civilian minority groups.
The Lao military has been accused of using heavy-handed, often brutal tactics to eliminate ethnic minority guerrillas, predominantly Hmong tribesmen waging an ineffective, low-level insurgency for nearly three decades since being abandoned by their US sponsors at the end of the Vietnam War.
Burton referred to what he called "egregious" human rights violations and said "many of these peaceful citizens have been targeted by the Lao and Vietnamese governments and subjected to torture, murder, mass starvation, and other forms of cruelty."
Thirty-eight congressmen have co-signed Burton's legislation.
Aside from Laos, North Korea and Cuba are the only countries denied the normal trade relations or NTR status by the United States. Total annual US-Laos bilateral trade is a paltry 10 million dollars.
Washington first attempted to reinstate Laos' NTR status in 1997 but it was shelved following an uproar from rights groups and much of the estimated 300,000 Lao community in the United States.
In September last year, legislation was again proposed for NTR in Congress shortly after Washington and Vientiane concluded a bilateral trade agreement that same month but the move also came under fire.
Last week, a dozen legislators reintroduced the NTR proposal at the House and the Senate, saying extension of such treatment would assist communist-ruled Laos in developing its economy based on free market principles.
They said that Laos, among the poorest countries in Asia, had cooperated with the United States in the global war on terrorism and drug trafficking and the accounting for American servicemen and civilians still missing from the Vietnam War.
However, rights groups said granting NTR would legitimize the Lao government's poor human rights record. Twenty-two legislators have also signed a letter opposing NTR for Laos.
"You cannot say yes to the NPR when you are facing a Kosovo-like situation in Laos today," said Philip Smith, executive director for the Washington based Center for Public Policy Analysis.
Smith said sources were told by rebels via satellite telephone of grim details of alleged attacks and atrocities by the Lao and Vietnamese military.
Some 300,000 Hmong fled to Thailand after the communist takeover in Laos in 1975, but the remaining rebels have continued a low-level insurgency.
Vietnam maintained an official military presence in Laos until 1989 and continues to exert considerable political influence in the country.
Vincent Tsu Vue, a US-based Laotian whose father was among rebel leaders who reportedly surrendered last week to the Laotian authorities, pleaded at a media conference Thursday for US intervention to stop "another massacre of freedom fighters."
"We do not know what kind of living condition he's in and how he is being treated by his captors," said Tsu Vue, who has not seen his father for more than 25 years.