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A Special Supplement: A Visit to Laos

I

I arrived in Vientiane in late March, 1970, with two friends, Douglas Dowd and Richard Fernandez, expecting to take the International Control Commission plane to Hanoi the following day. The Indian bureaucrat in charge of the weekly ICC flight immediately informed us, however, that this was not to be. The DRV delegation had returned from Pnompenh to Hanoi on the previous flight after the sacking of the Embassy by Cambodian troops (disguised as civilians), and the flight we intended to take was completely occupied by passengers scheduled for the preceding week. Efforts by the DRV and American embassies were unavailing, and, after exploring various farfetched schemes, we decided, at first without much enthusiasm, to stay in Vientiane and try our luck a week later.

Vientiane is a small town, and within hours we had met quite a few members of the Western community—journalists, former IVS workers in Laos and South Vietnam, and other residents. Through these contacts, we were able to meet urban Laotians of various sympathies and opinions, and with interesting personal histories on both sides of the civil war. We were also able to spend several days in the countryside near Vientiane, visiting a traditional Lao village and, several times, a refugee camp, in the company of a Lao-speaking American who is a leading specialist on contemporary Laos. Officials of the Lao, American, North Vietnamese, and other governments were also helpful with information, and I was fortunate to obtain access to a large collection of documentary material accumulated by residents of Vientiane over the past few years. Many of the correspondents, both French and American, had much to say, not only about Laos but also about their experiences in other parts of Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, most of the people with whom I spoke (most forcefully, the Laotians) do not wish to be identified, and asked me to be especially discreet in citing sources of information.

It doesn’t take long to become aware of the presence of the CIA in Laos. The taxi from the airport to our hotel on the Mekong passed by the airfield of Air America, a theoretically private company that has an exclusive contract with the CIA.1 Many of its pilots, said to be largely former Air Force personnel, were living in our hotel. If you happen to be up at 6 A.M., you can see them setting off for their day’s work, presumably, flying supplies to the guerrilla forces of the CIA’s army in Laos, the Clandestine Army led by the Meo General Vang Pao. These forces were at one time scattered throughout Northern Laos, but many of their bases are reported to have been overrun. These bases were used not only for guerrilla actions in the Pathet Lao-controlled territory, but also as advanced navigational posts for the bombardment of North Vietnam and for rescue of downed American pilots. There are said to be hundreds of small dirt strips in Northern Laos for Air America and other CIA operations.

After watching Air America parade by on my first morning in Vientiane, I decided to try to find out something about the town. Behind the hotel I came across the ramshackle building that houses the Lao Ministry of Information, where one office was identified as the Bureau of Tourism. No one there spoke English or even French. In another office of the Ministry, however, I did find someone who could understand my bad French. I explained that I wanted a map of Vientiane, but was told that I was in the wrong place—the American Embassy might have such things. I left by way of the reading room of the Ministry, where several people sat in the already intense heat, waving away the flies and looking through the several Lao and French newspapers scattered on the tables.

Across the street stands the modern seven-story building of the French Cultural Center, whose air-conditioned reading room is well stocked with current newspapers and magazines from Paris. French plays and lectures are advertised on posters. On another corner is Vientiane’s best bookstore, which sells French books and journals.

The contrast between the Lao Ministry of Information and the French Cultural Center gives a certain insight into the nature of Laotian society. For a European resident or a member of the tiny Lao elite, Vientiane has many attractions: plenty of commodities, a variety of good restaurants, some cultural activities (in our hotel a placard announced a reading of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), the resources of the French Cultural Center. An American can live in the suburbs, complete with well-tended lawns, or in a pleasant villa rented from a rich Laotian, and can commute to the huge USAID compound with its PX and other facilities.

For the Lao, however, there is nothing. Virtually everything is owned by outsiders, by the Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese. Apart from several cigarette factories (Chinese-owned), lumber, and tin mines, one of which is owned by the right-wing Prince Boun Oum, there seems to be little that is productive in the country. After decades of French colonialism and years of extensive American aid, “in 1960 the country had no railways, two doctors, three engineers and 700 telephones.”2 In 1963 the value of the country’s imports was forty times that of its exports:

Economic development has been virtually non-existent and the attempts by the Americans to stabilise a right-wing and pro-Western regime by lavish aid programmes led merely to corruption, inflation and new gradients of wealth within the country and so played into the hands of the extreme left, the Pathet Lao.3

In 1968, 93 percent of the exports were tin, wood, and coffee, while 71 percent of the imports (by value) were food, gasoline and vehicles. 4

The Lao educational system presents a similar picture. It is estimated that only about half of the children ever reach school. Of about 185,000 children in school in 1966-7, 95 percent were in the first six grades, 70 percent in the first three grades. In 1969, only 6,669 students were enrolled in secondary schools. The American aid program has helped, but it too tends to perpetuate the distorted pattern of education for the elite. Secondary education has about the same funds as primary education:

The school is still training a minority of the youth, particularly at secondary levels, to take their place in administration. The biggest and best schools are still located in the cities. The values and attitudes communicated to children are still those of an urban-thinking, technocratic West. The curriculum is still a catch all of often unrelated pieces of information. And the concept of responsibility to the nation is still not being taught forcefully anywhere in Laotian society.5

The sensible Education Reform Act of 1962 remains largely a paper program. Branfman concludes that “the school system is training a class of consumers, not producers of wealth,” a Western-oriented elite that might, at best, administer Lao society in the interest of the domestic elite and its American backers.

Political life as well is limited to a tiny elite. The State Department Background Notes, March, 1969, contends that “only a few thousand individuals, many of them French-educated, participate in government and politics; the bulk of the population is illiterate and politically passive.” Surely this is true of the Government-controlled areas. I shall return to the areas under Pathet Lao control later on.

The Lao elite do not seem popular among foreign observers in Vientiane, who comment repeatedly on their venality and corruption. Typical is a report by two French journalists who were at the site of a short but brutal battle near Paksane, southeast of the Plain of Jars. They describe the arrival by helicopter of “the strongman of Vientiane, General Kouprasith,…the most powerful of the Lao generals,” well after the battle was over:

A person with an enormous face and body, wearing heavily camouflaged clothing, he approaches one of the 7 wounded soldiers waiting to be evacuated, taps him on the shoulder, and cries coming toward us: “You don’t see any Americans here, nothing but Laos.” Behind him, someone brings over a case of pepsi cola and ammunition. The general has himself photographed, arms akimbo, behind a cadaver presumed to be North Vietnamese. It has been searched for an identity card by a soldier, but in vain…. At the Paksane airport, we come across the American pilot who guided the T28 bombing. He is dressed like a sheriff with sunglasses, a cartridge box, and a pistol in his belt. He says to General Kouprasith: “We have done a good job today, General.” He adds: “Don’t forget to go see the colonel”—and he says an Anglo-Saxon name—“he is waiting for you.” Kouprasith makes an impatient gesture.6

A well-informed observer describes the Royal Lao Government in the following way:

Its corruption, lethargy and indifference is as great if not greater than it ever was. Few people living under its rule actively support it. American officials have been unable to push for basic reforms due to the political necessity of getting on with the Lao civilian and military elite so that continued American bombing will be permitted.7

I discussed these matters with a middle-aged Lao intellectual, non-Communist and rather left-wing in outlook, a man who has had much experience with the Royal Lao Government and who also lived for some time in a Pathet Lao area. He seemed to feel that the only hope for Laos was a Pathet Lao victory, though he himself, as a Lao bourgeois, did not look forward to this with much enthusiasm. He felt, however, that nationalistic and uncorrupted bourgeois elements would find a place in a society organized by the Pathet Lao.

For the RLG he felt only contempt, and he expressed his belief that even younger men, though less dedicated to total corruption, would be able to do very little. He recalled that while the Government of National Union was functioning, Prince Souphanouvong, the leading figure of the Pathet Lao, was widely regarded as its most capable and efficient member, and one of the few honest men in Laotian public life. He saw no sign that a productive economy could be developed or that control by foreigners could be overcome, in view of the nature of existing programs. He mentioned efforts to develop a “neutralist” organization based on younger, more nationalistic, and less corrupt segments of the elite, but he had little hope of their success.

With some bitterness he gestured to the street outside the room where we were talking, observing that every one of the stores that lined the street was owned by a non-Lao. The Lao elite is busy building bowling alleys, running the prostitution and opium rackets,8 renting villas to Americans, living at the exorbitant level permitted by the flow of American commodities and the pervasive corruption. He felt that the American aid program was essentially destructive in having perpetuated a consumer-oriented society which benefited, while corrupting, the elite, and in not having even begun to lay the basis for development or modernization that would involve the Lao masses or create a productive society.

  1. 1

    For a good account of its operations, see Peter Dale Scott, “Air America: Flying the US into Laos,” Ramparts, February, 1970.

  2. 2

    Keith Buchanan, The Southeast Asian World, London, Bell and Sons, 1967, p. 140f. The present USAID administrator reports that as of today, “Laos has virtually no indigenous medical capability and there are only about a dozen foreign trained Lao doctors in-country.” (Hearings of the Symington Subcommittee on United States Security Agreements and Commitments Abroad of the Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate, Oct. 20-28, 1969, p. 566, released with many deletions in April, 1970. Government Printing Office.)

  3. 3

    Buchanan, op. cit.

  4. 4

    Rapport sur la situation économique et financière, 1968-9.”

  5. 5

    Fred Branfman, “Education in Laos Today,” speech given at IVS annual conference, February 10, 1968. The reference is to the part of Laotian society administered by the RLG. The figure of 6,669 students in secondary schools comes from the AID report in the Symington Subcommittee Hearings, p. 570.

  6. 6

    Jacques Doyon and Guy Hannoteaux, “l’Ambiguïté de l’engagement américain au Laos,” Figaro, March 11, 1970, Vientiane.

  7. 7

    Laos: the labyrinthine war,” Far Eastern Economic Review, April 16, 1970, correspondent.

  8. 8

    The CIA is also reported to be involved in the opium traffic. For background and discussion, see the articles by David Feingold and Al McCoy in Nina Adams and Alfred McCoy, eds., Laos: War and Revolution, to be published by Harper & Row in November. See also Christian Science Monitor, May 29, 1970, for a report of direct CIA involvement in opium shipment.

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