Currently sheltering 148,000 Laotian refugees, Thailand appears to be trying to ease its load by working with the communist government that they fled. Last week, Thai officials announced an agreement with Laos to let certain refugees return home but they said no one would be forced to go.
At the same time Laos agreed to clamp down on illegal departures. The news came as refugee workers here reported that the Thai military has strengthened security along the border in recent weeks and turned away large groups of refugees.
The Soviet-oriented Laotian government has also formally agreed -- in yet another political realignment apparently prompted by the Sino-Vietnamese conflict -- to help Thailand suppress its pro-Chinese Communist insurgents. Thailand in return pledged help against rightist guerrillas who have harassed the Laotian Communists since they took full control of the country in 1975.
These measures were part of a six-point accord concluded last week in Vientiane, the Laotian capital, by Thai Interior Minister Lek Naewalee. Whether they will be applied remains to be seen, but analysts here feel they represent a Thai attempt to tackle the refugee question without waiting for Western assistance.
Thailand has repeatedly predicted it will be left to care permanently for many of the 148.000 Laotians now in Thai camps. World attention and resettlement opportunities focus on Vietnamese "boat people" officials alleged, to the exclusion of Laotians and Cambodians who left their countries by other means.
In June, Thailand forcibly sent home about 42,000 Cambodian refugees. Minister Lek's trip was watched closely by foreign refugee agencies here because of nagging fears that the Thais might intend the same for the Laotians. One source here said a senior Thai official had told a foreign agency that "there is already a plan for that."
Publicly, the Thai government strongly denies this.
"We have no plans for any forced repatriation of Laotian refugees," and Suwit Yodmanee, a spokesman for the prime minister's office.
Thai sources stressed the new repatriation accord would apply only to Laotians who volunteered to go home. The Laotian government would have to approve each case individually. The sources noted that since the Vientiane authorities consider most refugees to be socially undesirable, it probably would accpet only a few.
Foreign analysts, however, have raised questions on the definition of "voluntary." The Thai Foreign Ministry has insisted that the Cambodians who returned in June went of their own free will. Reporters and refugee workers present when they left their camps maintain they were forced out.
Many people who follow refugee affairs argue that a massive forced repatriation is unlikely for the time being. Thailand is anxious to improve relations with Laos and would not force on it thousands of people whom Laos has labeled CIA agents or criminals.
This analysis has it that the Thais introduced the new accord to hold refugee rolls close to their current levels.
In late July, refugee workers and witnesses report, 189 Meo tribespeople, including old women and children, tried to enter Thailand from a Laotian island in the Mekong River,
Armed Thai troops barred their way. Later on, according to the sources' reports, Laotian forces arrived at the scene and attacked the island. Many of the Meo died -- 40 by one version of events -- and the rest were taken away by Laotian soldiers.
Sources report other turnaways by the Thais at isolated parts of the border. Indeed, a senior provincial official recently told an American journalist that current policy was to let no one enter.
Analysts here feel the Laotian government is cooperating with Thailand in large part to ease pressure from righist Meo insurgents. Most are former members of the so-called secret army that the CIA directed in Laos before the communist victory.
Sources here said the guerrillas have sanctuaries in Thailand and sometimes use the refugee camps to rest and recruit new members.
The agreement signed last week calls for the two sides to exchange information that will help in suppressing both the Meo rightist and the Thai commjnist insurgents.
Earlier this year the Communist Party of Thailand came down firmly on the side of Peking in its dispute with Vietnam. Laos, a Vietnamese ally, was later reported to have closed down some of the Thai party's border sanctuaries. The new agreement formalizes that break with the Thai Communists.
Whether real Laotian-Thai military cooperation will actually take place is far from certain. A diplomatic source reported that during the Vientiane talks the Laotian side proposed a joint suppression operation along the frontier. The Thais said no.
The source speculated that the long-standing enmity between the military commands of the two sides would preclude any meaningful cooperation in the field. That same analysis might apply to the agreement as a whole.