Laos: Land Of A Million Elephants
The “Land of a Million Elephants and White Parasol”, in the Lao language “Lang Xang Hom Khao", once the Kingdom of Laos in Southeast Asia, has now tragically become a Marxist state, “The People’s Democratic of Laos” OH! Where has all the romance gone? This once tranquil, peaceful, happy country, the home of the Lao Tai, Mon-Khmer, Chinese-Tibetan and Hmong-Mien peoples. Where ancient Buddhist traditions lead to a content and happy life, has now been forcefully raped by totalitarian Communism bred in Moscow and Hanoi. The peoples have been scattered over the world as refugees or killed horribly by chemical weapons or are trapped in the country living from hand to mouth and suffering the personal imprisonment which passes for democracy in the jargon of the Socialist dictators.
The old romantic, grand and proud national flag of Laos is blood red with a white Erawan in its centre. Erawan is the Lao name for Airavata, a white elephant who carried Lord Indra in the Hindi religion. The flag, now scorned is replaced by a drab red and blue bicolour with a plain white circle in its centre. Further evidence of the lack of grandeur and romance of a Communist state.
The ancient, exotic, remote country that few had heard of before the Vietnam War, is landlocked by equally strange and romantic countries, China and Burma in the North, the “Golden Triangle”, tragic wartorn Vietnam in the East, the unhappy graveyard of Cambodia to the South. Happy, but unsettled Thailand forms its Western border and its only fragile link to the Western world, where freedom, free speech, food and happiness beckon to the despairing viewers from across the Mekong River, which has been, until recently a modern “Berlin Wall”. The country which has a landscape reminiscent of a tadpole or mushroom, it’s head in the North, nestling amongst the foothills of the Himalayas, is between the parallels o latitude 15˚N and 20˚N, the Tropic of Cancer passes through its head which puts the majority of the country in the Tropics.
The climate is monsoon based providing copious rainfall which sustains its lush jungle vegetation and makes the lowlands along the Mekong River part of the Thailand “Rice Bowl”. In the East and North vast jungles cover the mountains which meet with China and Vietnam, the Ho Chi Minh trail passed to the East, teak and other hardwood trees abound at present, but are being devastated by desperate lumberjacking to provide some exports to earn foreign currency. The re-education camps favour lumber jacking as a productive method of disposing of the vanquished politicians, soldiers, civil servants, businessmen and educated free thinking individuals. Few return to show their new education.
France absorbed Laos
into French Indochina following treaties with Siam in 1893 and 1904 and
remained an undisturbed quiet colony, probably because the French
settlers formed a utopia and also few readily obtained natural resources
where available, until independence was granted after the Dien Bien Phu
battle, which effectively ended French control of the region. I found
little criticism of the French amongst the average Lao people I know,
most respected the French as just administrators and educationalists who
had respected Lao customs. They had reorganised the government built
schools, roads and improved the townships, they allowed the country to
develop naturally without any exploitation, and they supported the Royal
family who were loved and respected by the whole population.
The principle religion is Theravada Buddhism, although foreign missionary zealots did their best to undermine this peaceful state of affairs, happily with little success, the violence of Christianity has little appeal to a Buddhist. The Lao people are Buddhists and remain so, even today under a Marxist repressive government. The Lao occupying the Mekong River plain area are a gentle natured, peaceful, and fun loving people, who, because of a fertile and plentiful land, had never been required to strive too hard to live. The climate, hot and sometimes very humid provides a perfect growing cycle. A manaña attitude of life existed happily, a Lao expression, so easy to say, “Bor pen nyang” or “Nevermind” indicates the laidback easy approach to life. In contrast, the people living in the North East, more akin to the Vietnamese are far more vigorous and industrious. Their habitat being colder and mountainous, demanded more activity to survive. I grew to respect immensely those Vietnamese-Lao I worked with for their ingenuity, probably because I also came from a Northern country, and developed an undying love and affection for the lowland of Laos.
The original Kingdom of Laos encompassed most of North Eastern Thailand, before colonial rule redrew boundaries for political purposes, and in doing so split an ethnic group of people. The new boundary between Thailand and Laos follows in the main centre of the River Mekong and was until 1975 nearly a political line on a map. Completely free travel existed for people and goods. The Lao and the North East Thai are first cousins with almost identical language and customs.
The struggle for national identity and freedom in Vietnam by Ho Chi Minh in the 1930’s and 40’s, which so tragically developed into the Vietnam War and a confrontation of political ideologies, naturally spilled over into sleepy Laos, at first amongst the North Eastern Lao. Power politics became involved and an ideal vehicle to power became available to certain disgruntled lowland Lao. There was a power struggle between the King, Prince Sisavangwattana, and his cousin Prince Souppanouvong.
This erupted and the King arrested his cousin and his political supporters imprisioning him in Chinomo Prison in Vientiane. However, they managed to escape and fled to the North East and Ho Chi Minh and there formed the Pathet Lao movement, bent upon the hackneyed phrase, “Libertation of the People”. It is sad to reflect, in hindsight, that Ho Chi Minh was not originally a Communist, but his movement became so under the influence of Russia, who had been allowed to fill the void of support left by ultra suspicious Western governments, shortly after the end of World War II.
The Pathet Lao movement became Communist inspired through association with Vietnam and from the brainwashing education given by Russia, to young aspirant political militants. One must remember in these modern days of change, that in the 1950’s the Soviet Union laboured under a harsh and repressive regime where the will of the people meant nothing, and death and imprisonment were common solutions to any opposition. Their methods were gradually instilled into the Pathet Lao. However, the intrinsic basic gentle nature of the Lao prevented the bloody massacres which took place in neighbouring Cambodia in 1976 and still continues.
The American aerial bombardment of Vietnam, much of which
overflew Laos, resulted in indiscriminate dumping of thousands of tons
of high explosives and mines on rural areas of Laos, killing totally
innocent peasant farmers and their families, poisoning their paddy
fields with anti-personnel mines and destroying their homes.
I was a personal friend of a Pathet Lao official, who is today a senior member of the government. He told me that he came from a remote village in the Plain of Jars region of central Laos. His village and many others had been destroyed by bombing, and the remaining farmers had been unable to plant their rice for fear of mutilation from exploding mines. These uncaring actions did little to soften the Pathet Lao’s attitude towards their countrymen and women in the lowland areas of Vientiane, Savannaket, Pakse and the royal capital of Luang Pra Bang, who were supporting the King and giving friendship and making money from the occupying Americans. There was little else they could do seeing they didn’t want the Pathet Lao, were loyal to the King and good businessmen and women to boot. Further they are a gentle people who just wanted to be left alone to live their lives happily. “The meek shall inherit the earth”?
The King’s army, backed by American “experts” and the Meo tribesmen, fought a brave rearguard action throughout the Vietnam War period and never suffered a major defeat. Their end came when a ceasefire was negotiated in 1973-4 and an uneasy coalition government was formed between the Pathet Lao, the King and his old government. The Meo, Hmong in Thai, tribesmen are a fiercely independent race of nomadic people, who wander the whole of northern South East Asia. They all abhor controls and any interference with their freedom. Any threat to their independent wandering way of life would stifle them. The CIA used this independent spirit to advantage, and plunged these willing and loyal fighters into a lost cause, where they ended up being hunted and exterminated like vermin or driven across the Mekong into refugee camps and an imprisoned way of life in a foreign country. They suffered huge casualties from chemical warfare attacks and blanket bombing raids in the period 1976-1978, made by MIG22 “training” aircraft based in Vientiane. These proud, independent, colourful people to whom hospitality to strangers knew no bounds, and whose traditional dress and dances were a delight to see, suffered untold horrors in defence of a freedom, which had they remained neutral, would probably never have been threatened. After the ceasefire in 1973-4 a manifesto for government was produced which on paper was utopic. It turned out like most manifestos for government, a con trick, and by stealth rather than “popular rebellion” the magical, ancient “Land of a Million Elephants and White Parasol” died and became a Communist republic in late 1975.
This is where my story began, I never knew the real old way of life, but I glimpsed it through the eyes and words of my very dear Lao friends, with whom I was privileged to share a rather sad, violent but immensely interesting five years from 1975 until the end of 1980. My heart is still there!
Copyright © 2009 Dominique Stanley