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Thailand Seeks to Turn Indochina Battlefields into Marketplaces

November 26, 1988 GMT

BANGKOK, Thailand (AP) _ More than a dozen years after communist victories in Indochina, Thailand is hoping to turn its adversaries next door into trading partners and battlefields into lucrative marketplaces.

Calling for increased commerce with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, Thai businessmen see potential in markets shunned by their hardline government.

As Vietnam liberalizes its underdeveloped economy, Thai businessmen and some legislators worry that if they act too slowly, others will corner a market Thailand is in a favorable geographic position to penetrate.


Japan and Singapore already ply those markets, each drawing about $300 million a year in a low profile but brisk trade. Among other competitors in the region are Hong Kong, Taiwan and France.

Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan, himself a businessman, started talking about improving general relations with Indochina as well as exploring economic opportunities shortly after taking office last August. ″Battlefields into marketplaces,″ has become one of the slogans of the new government.

Thai businessmen are angling for fishing licenses in rich Vietnamese waters and sending agricultural experts to Laos to supervise an experimental farm while importing timber from that country.

Laotians shop at a Thai-run department store in the heart of the capital of Vientiane and a Thai company recently entered into the first major joint venture investment project in Laos, the construction of a garment factory.

But officially Thailand has thus far had no government-to-government economic transactions with Vietnam since Hanoi’s troops invaded neighboring Cambodia, and Thai policy has been one of putting pressure on Hanoi in all fields.

The Thai government also offers no help to private entrepreneurs doing business with Indochina, but generally turns a blind eye to the vast black market trade across its borders with Cambodia and Laos as well as Burma.

″We have lost time and lost out to countries that actively traded with Indochina regardless of their government’s strong opposition to Vietnamese troops in Cambodia,″ said Wongse Polnikorn, a onetime deputy foreign minister and currently chairman of a Thai company that will import timber from Laos and set up a cash crop farm in Vientiane.

Chatichai decreed that the number of goods officially banned for export to Laos be halved to 30 in advance of his recent visit to Laos, the first by a Thai prime minister since 1979, government spokesman Suvit Yodmani said.

Since the 1975 communist victory, periodic skirmishes - as well as two major confrontations - have erupted along the Thai-Laotian border. Similar clashes have occurred between Thais and Vietnamese along the Thai-Cambodian frontier.

Last year, two-way trade between Laos and Thailand topped $48 million although the black market, or ″unofficial,″ trade is known to be far higher. Two-way trade with Vietnam rose to $7.5 million last year from $4.8 million in 1986, while Thai exports to Cambodia were $400,000 in 1986.

Suvit said Chatichai’s moves toward Vietnam were a ″trial balloon″ to induce Hanoi to focus on improving its economy rather than making war.

But some in Thailand, which has traditionally been suspicious of Hanoi’s long-term intentions in the region, view a prosperous Vietnam as potentially dangerous and expansionist.

″If we can make Vietnam prosperous, ourselves prosperous, that’s great, but what is there to guarantee that Vietnam won’t move into Thailand’s northeast,″ Suvit said in an interview. ″Once it’s prosperous, then it can afford to keep troops in Cambodia.″

Surin Pitsuwan, a respected member of Parliament, said Thailand should at first proceed cautiously in trade with Laos, a country with which it shares ethnic and cultural bonds and which poses no major security threat. He also suggested more economic dealings with Burma, with which official, two-way trade totaled $544 million in 1987.

″There are a lot of trade opportunities and untapped resources next door,″ Surin said. ″If we don’t hurry now, the degree of their dependence on us will be reduced.″

Although Thailand will be hard pressed to compete with Japanese technology and funding involved in major projects, businessmen say the Thais could carve out a profitable Indochina niche in areas like fishing, forestry and smaller- scale construction.

Thailand, with its economy booming and consumer spending on an upward curve, could also serve as a market for Indochinese goods. While war and mismanagement have eroded the economic infrastructure in Indochina, the three countries possess large untapped natural resources and an abundance of cheap labor.

″We must go and explore ways we can do more and benefit from one another,″ said Kangwan Tantiponganant, a businessmen involved in Laos.

Given the political sensitivities, other Thai businessmen prefer to make low-keyed trips to Hanoi and Vientiane, emphasizing that their interests are in ″long-term business planning.″

End Adv Weekend Editions Nov. 26-27