The Forgotten Domino: Yellow Rain in Laos: New Reports

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By Claudia Rosett
The Wall Street Journal, 06/14/90

{Second of two articles}


NAM POON, Thailand — To the wise men of world politics,
yellow rain is just a delusion of chemical warfare, conjured
up in the Cold War days out of bee droppings, flower pollen
and the hysteria of a Reagan administration that couldn’t
find enough evil already at work in Indochina. But to a Thai
doctor named Semean Suta who works in this village just a few
miles from the Lao border, yellow rain “is real,” and falling
this season in fighting in Laos.

Victims of what Dr. Suta believes to have been poison gas
attacks have been fleeing Laos these past few months. Some
have come coughing and retching to his wood-cabin clinic in
Nam Poon, seeking help. “Anytime they have fighting, it is
there,” says Dr. Suta, speaking through a translator. “When
they don’t have fighting, it is gone.”

For months now, reports of yellow powder poisoning have
been filtering out of the same obscure regions of Laos that
were the center of the original “yellow rain” controversy of
the early 1980s. Clearly there has been heavy fighting in the
region between the Communist Lao government and mostly Hmong
resistance fighters who proclaimed a new provisional
government in December. The reports of chemical or biological
weapons have a significance that reaches beyond one forgotten
domino. The U.S. and the Soviet Union have just signed a new
chemical weapons treaty, and there are worries about
proliferation in the Third World. The wider world has
interest in knowing whether these reports are true, and if so
what chemical or biological agents are in use.

The new reports may or may not be true, though they do
sound plausible. But what is clear is that even if such
attacks are taking place in Laos right now, the U.S.
government is not prepared to find out. After years of
disputed yellow rain reports, a three-man chemical and
biological warfare team was attached to the U.S. Embassy in
Bangkok in 1983. About the same time, the reports began to
dry up, perhaps because of the publicity after Secretary of
State Alexander Haig made public accusations of biological
warfare with trichothecene poisons, a position never formally
abandoned by the U.S. The chemical and biological warfare
investigators were not allowed to cross into Laos, and never
managed to confirm anything. In 1986, the team was disbanded.

These days, a State Department desk officer confirms that
there is “no special team” to look into the recent poison gas
reports. American officials avoid all official contact with
the Lao resistance, and tracking reports of chemical warfare
is a parttime job parceled out among staffers whose main
duties lie elsewhere. Playing point man is one competent but
harried attache who is also charged with following anything
else the Laotian government does, plus keeping track of
Burma. “It’s not that we’re trying to avoid reporting the
problem,” says another Western diplomat in Thailand. “It’s
that there’s just no institutional framework for it.”

There is, however, a U.S. drug enforcement agent attached
to the embassy, who confirms by phone that around February he
received some photographs of alleged chemical-attack victims
and a sample of “some leaves with yellow stuff on them.” He
says he passed these to a defense attache, who in turn
confirms only that it is standard procedure to send such
items to the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington.

A tipoff from another source provides the name of a
defense-intelligence officer in Washington who should know
something of the fate of this sample. A phone call to this
man produces the information that he’s heard “stories that
there were some samples floating around,” but yellow rain
“seems to be a dead issue.” He recommends contacting a public
affairs officer, who suggests calling a Lt. Col. Richard
Oborn, who says that at this point yellow rain “hasn’t been
an item of interest.”

Lao resistance fighters, some of whom I met with last
month in Bangkok, the northern Thai town of Nan, and the
refugee camp of Ban Vinai, say they have been delivering
chemical weapons samples to anyone who will take them. The
Hmong call the poison “chemie,” and say it is delivered as a
yellow gas or powder by both artillery fire and airplane. A
resistance general, Xiong Leng Xiong, says the Lao government
has been “shooting poison gas very often, in areas where we
declared freedom.”

Other resistance spokesmen claim that the same substance,
or something similar, has been dropped crop-duster-style
these past few months by planes flying over resistance areas
deep inside Laos. They say sites have included villages near
the old northern capital of Luang Prabang, in the Plain of
Jars — where Western diplomats say aerial attacks took place
recently.

Those in the immediate area sometimes die, says Shoua
Xiong, a resistance commander. Those who survive contact with
this powder, or gas, develop headaches, nausea, difficulty in
breathing, and in some cases skin sores. Asked if there is
bleeding, as was reported in the early 1980s and which led to
the suspicion of trichothecene agents, he says no.

Shoua Xiong says that his guerrillas have captured two
suspicious rockets inside Laos, and would be glad to have
them tested by the Americans. “But who can I give them to?”
he asks. Americans officially refuse contact with the
resistance, and he has his doubts about strolling into an
American embassy or consulate carrying a rocket. “We are not
allowed to carry war equipment in Thailand.” Anyway, he
complains, the resistance has passed powder samples to both
the Thai army and the Americans, but it never hears anything
back. “We are sick and tired of bringing samples,” says Mr.
Xiong. “If any scientist wants to prove it, they can go with
us” into Laos.

It could be, as some skeptics suggest, that these claims
are just a publicity stunt. But even a bit of exploration
along the border turns up corroborating tales in some spots
where Hmong publicity squads probably don’t tread.

In the Nan hospital, about 50 miles from the Laos border,
a doctor says that four hill-tribe children had been brought
in from the border area in late February, suffering from the
symptoms Mr. Xiong described. Their parents attributed the
illness to yellow rain, which they said had drifted across
their village. A supervisor who attends the interview
dismisses this version, after warning the doctor in Thai that
she shouldn’t say anything more.

Further along the road toward Laos, in the town of Mae
Charim, a doctor at the hospital there says a number of
wounded Lao resistance fighters had come through these past
few months, most suffering from bullet wounds. She adds that
there were also three men from the border area, admitted Feb.
5, suffering from nausea and trouble breathing. She says she
is new to the area, and has not seen this sickness elsewhere
in Thailand. The three men stayed about a week; she does not
know where to find them now.

Still further down the road is the last stop before the
border — Nam Poon village. There, Dr. Suta says he had seen
the same three men in February, before sending them on to Mae
Charim. He says he is sure that they were Hmong resistance
fighters, suffering from a chemical attack. He has worked in
Nam Poon for eight years, and has seen others like them. He
gives a description of symptoms that square with the tales of
Shoua Xiong.

On April 13, the Thai army command that oversees the
border near Nan, across from Laos’s Sayaboury province —
site of heavy resistance fighting — warned Thai villagers to
beware a poisonous yellow dust drifting over from Laos. A few
days later, the local governor dismissed the warning as a
false alarm.

Yellow rain is of interest, however, to the Thai army,
which recognizes that it might be forced to face weapons used
by Laos. According to several Western sources, the Thai army
has recently tested some samples taken from the Laos border
area. The results, according to these sources, have been
“inconclusive,” whatever that might mean. Officially, this
testing has been kept secret.

Both Thai and U.S. interest in the matter is clouded by
politics. The politically powerful Thai army is shadow-boxing
at the moment with the civilian prime minister, Chatichai
Choonhavan — who will meet today in Washington with
President Bush. Part of Mr. Chatichai’s foreign policy is to
avoid awkard confrontations with Laos — such as publicizing
reports of chemical warfare. He hopes instead to replace
border battlefields with markets, though the Thai army still
seems to think communist Laos is a trading partner with a
sting.

In its policy of no official contact with the Lao
resistance, the U.S. defers to the Vientiane regime of
Kaysone Phomvihane, of which little is known because it ranks
among the shadiest totalitarian sinkholes on this planet. In
a 1986 book entitled “Laos,” one of the West’s leading Laos
watchers, Martin Stuart-Fox, described the Vientiane regime’s
degree of political secrecy as “extraordinary” even for the
communist world. “Nothing that might lead to a questioning of
the Party Line is permitted; the Chinese embassy is as
isolated as is the American,” wrote Mr. Stuart-Fox. Little
has changed.

With no American framework for the chore of piecing
together stories and samples, what can be learned in Thailand
today certainly does not add up to clear evidence of chemical
warfare. Yet if this is a publicity stunt, it is remarkably
well-orchestrated. Also, none of the current accounts
mentioned the bleeding so prominent in the early 1980
reports. Western diplomats in Thailand, asked for their gut
sense about the yellow rain reports, are reluctant to write
them off completely. “It’s not implausible,” says one.
“There’s been enough smoke; there may be fire,” says another.

The most likely explanation is that people are reporting
what they see, and the Vientiane Laos government is using
some still-mysterious chemical weapons, perhaps drawing on
old dumps bequeathed by Soviet advisers before the days of
glasnost. Chemical or biological weapons are a ghastly but
efficient means of silencing resistance. It’s easy to see why
the Lao government might be tempted to blanket an area with
yellow rain, rather than send its troops trudging through the
jungle to shoot rebels one by one. But with new chemical-arms
treaties posing verification problems, the U.S. has a
legitimate interest in learning precisely what the Soviets
may have left behind in Laos.

The scandal about yellow rain reports during their
previous heyday was that the U.S. waited years before placing
a professional investigative team in Bangkok; in the words of
a diplomat who watched the last team fizzle: “They should
have been brought in on day one.” Now, in the same place a
decade later, even while signing new chemical weapons
treaties, the U.S. is making the same mistake all over again.

Miss Rosett is editorial page editor of The Asian Wall
Street Journal.

Center for Security Policy

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