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A Special Supplement: A Visit to Laos

Other knowledgeable observers agreed in a general way with this analysis. One of them pointed to a large monument in the center of Vientiane referred to as the “vertical runway” because it was built by dictator Phoumi Nosavan with materials that were meant to be used for improving the Vientiane airport.9

A young Lao teacher, openly sympathetic to the Pathet Lao, gave a similar (though more vehement) account. Asked whether the Pathet Lao were attempting to build a clandestine organization within Vientiane to exploit such grievances and plan for an ultimate take-over, he said that to his knowledge they were not, but that there was also no necessity to do so. Many people, he reported, listen regularly to the Pathet Lao radio, and have considerable, though hidden, sympathy for the Pathet Lao. He referred to the elections of 1958, the only real elections ever held in Laos, in which the NLHS, the political party of the Pathet Lao, had done very well in Vientiane, and he asserted that these sympathies would once again be revealed if honest elections could be held. He claimed that similar sentiments are widely held among young urban intellectuals, though they are rarely expressed in Vientiane, where the atmosphere is that of a police state—albeit a rather lax and inefficient one.

Vientiane is a place of rumor and suspicion. Direct access to news is limited. Most of what appears in the press is simply based on American Government handouts. Little of the country is firmly under Royal Lao Government control. We were warned not to travel too far from Vientiane, and taxi drivers made much of the dangers of going more than a few miles from the city (partly, no doubt, because they could demand higher fares). In a refugee camp about 35 miles from Vientiane along one of the few roads that can be freely traveled, inhabitants refused to take us out to the forest where, they said, men were working; they claimed that the Pathet Lao were there and the danger was too great. One man finally agreed to take us, but after leading us on a rather aimless path, said that the trip was impossible. Again, there may have been other reasons.

Parts of the nominally Government-controlled areas are actually run by the CIA, and no one seems sure where the CIA ends and the civilian aid program, USAID, begins.10 The CIA bases of Sam Thong and Long Cheng, north of Vientiane, are in an area that is designated as uninhabited on the detailed map that I bought at the Service Géographique National du Laos, dated 1968 (supplied, I was told, by the US). There are reported to be over 50,000 people in or near the two bases, and perhaps several hundred thousand in the vicinity, almost all of them refugees. According to the spokesman for the Pathet Lao Information Office in Hanoi,11 since 1964 these areas have been turned into “a second capital of Laos.” They serve as the headquarters for Vang Pao’s Clandestine Army.

Correspondents and congressmen have been to Sam Thong. Long Cheng is off limits. However, T. D. Allman made his way there on his own several months ago, and last February in a TV interview with Bernard Kalb he reported what he had found before he was picked up and shipped out after a two-hour stay.12 He describes Long Cheng as an immense intelligence gathering and administrative logistics base, with a 3000-foot runway, many planes, and rescue helicopters (one in the air constantly) to pick up American pilots shot down by Communist anti-aircraft. He estimates that ten to twelve Americans a month are lost in crashes of jets bombing in that area from their Thai bases. The Forward Air Control planes, which mark targets for the American jets, are also based in Long Cheng and flown by American pilots. He reports that there are CIA houses everywhere, which can be readily identified by their lack of windows and their abundance of antennas and air conditioners.

Sam Thong has been reported captured several times, most recently in mid-May, 1970.13 It was abandoned by the Vang Pao army in mid-March and occupied about two weeks later.

Allied sources said looting and vandalism by Laotian troops had reduced the base to “a shambles.” The sources said looting had been going on since government forces retook the base earlier this week. 14

Most observers feel that the Communist forces can take these bases if they are willing to pay the price, and that if they do the Vang Pao army, largely composed of Meo mountaineers, may disintegrate, and may make an accommodation with the Pathet Lao, or may be moved to Thailand. This would be a major blow to the American effort since the Clandestine Army is a more serious fighting force than the Royal Lao Army. While we were in Vientiane there were almost daily rumors of an attack on the bases, and North Vietnamese tanks were reported in the vicinity—surprising, it seemed to me, in view of the intense bombardment of Northern Laos, though it was pointed out that jet bombing is ineffective against military targets in the jungle and mountainous terrain.

II

The recent history of Laos contributes to the atmosphere of suspicion. The first Government of National Union of 1958 was overthrown by American subversion. As Ambassador Graham Parsons candidly remarked in Congressional Hearings of 1959, “I struggled for sixteen months to prevent a coalition.” An American military mission was operating at the time, headed by a US Army general in civilian guise. In the 1958 elections, of twenty-one seats contested for the National Assembly, nine were won by the Neo Lao Hak Sat (NLHS) and four by the candidates of the Committee for Peace and Neutrality of Quinim Pholsena, a “left-leaning neutralist” allied with the NLHS. Five right-wing and three non-party delegates were elected. The NLHS had put up only thirteen candidates. Its leader, Souphanouvong, got the largest vote and was elected chairman of the National Assembly. The United States withheld funds, thus impelling the Lao elite to introduce a new government headed by “pro-Western neutralist” Phoui Sananikone. Shortly after, Phoui declared his intention to disband the NLHS as being subversive, thus scrapping the earlier successful agreements that had established the coalition. US aid soon resumed and Phoui pledged “to coexist with the Free World only.”

In December, 1959, he was overthrown by the CIA favorite, Phoumi Nosavan, a Lao equivalent to the military dictator of Thailand (his cousin, as it happens), who was also receiving substantial US support. Although the coup government did not last, Phoumi retained his powerful position as Minister of National Defense, thus controlling most of the budget; and the extreme right won the ridiculous 1960 elections which were so crudely rigged by the CIA and its favorites that even conservative pro-US observers were appalled.

A coup by paratroop captain Kong Le restored Prince Souvanna Phouma, and civil war broke out, with the Souvanna Phouma government, supported by Russia and China, opposing the American-backed General Phoumi Nosavan and the government of the reactionary prince Boun Oum. Recognizing that its policies were failing disastrously,15 the American Government agreed to participate in a new Geneva Conference, which took place in 1961-2.

The settlement reached at Geneva, however, did not last long. After a series of assassinations in early 1963, the two most prominent Pathet Lao leaders, Prince Souphanouvong and Phoumi Vongvichit, departed from Vientiane. As a RAND Corporation study by P. F. Langer and J. J. Zasloff describes this incident, they left “contending, not entirely without justification, that their security was threatened in the capital.”16 The other two NLHS cabinet members left soon after. The civil war resumed with somewhat different alignments. This time the Americans were supporting Souvanna Phouma and Kong Le, who joined forces with the Lao right (Kong Le presently departed for France, where he now lives in exile), against the Pathet Lao and the “left-leaning neutralists” under Colonel Deuane.

According to the Geneva agreements of 1962, foreign troops were to depart, along with all advisers, instructors, and foreign civilians “connected with the supply…of war materials.” The United States claims that North Vietnam never adhered to this agreement, leaving 6,000 soldiers in Laos. The Chinese claimed at the time that hundreds of American soldiers simply changed into civilian clothes, as in the late 1950s. The Pathet Lao maintain that “after the signing of the 1962 Geneva Agreements on Laos, the missions of military ‘advisers’—PEO, MAAG, PAG, USOM—put on a common civilian cloak: USAID.” They claim that there were 3,500 such military “advisers” in civilian camouflage by 1968 and that “the whole system is directly under the US ‘special forces’ command, code-named H.Q.333 and based in Oudone (northeast Thailand).”17 In their RAND study published in September 1969, Langer and Zasloff estimate that there are about 700 North Vietnamese military advisers with the Pathet Lao.

Chinese nationalist troops supported by the United States remained after Geneva, 1962, although some may have been evacuated. They were reported at one time to number in the thousands, and are said to be a fairly effective fighting force—the only Chinese fighting in Laos, incidentally. Vongvichit estimates that there were 600 by 1968, and reports that their activities were confirmed by an ICC investigation in December, 1962.

American-supported Thai and South Vietnamese troops are also reported to have remained.18 Vongvichit asserts that “thousands of Thai soldiers and agents, especially those of Lao stock and coming from northeastern Thailand, have wormed their way into the royal army, police and administration, or have mingled with the population in strategic areas and economic centres.” Similar reports of Thai soldiers in Laotian uniform are common, and generally believed, in Vientiane. No one has any idea how many CIA operatives remained, or what in detail they were up to, or to what extent they operate under civilian cover.19

Obviously USAID tries to implement American Government policy in Laos and to build domestic support for the American-sponsored Royal Lao Government. A more interesting example of the difficulty of determining just how the United States is intervening in the internal affairs of Laos is the case of the International Voluntary Services (IVS). This is a private volunteer group that has attracted many idealistic young people who are eager to help with modernization and development in traditional societies, without mixing in local politics. IVS has operated in Laos for about fifteen years. In 1962, the group was offered a large USAID contract for work in Laos, and its membership grew to about one hundred. The reasons for this sudden American interest seem clear. Before 1962, most American aid had gone to the urban areas. In fact, less than half of 1 percent of the extensive American aid funds20 were spent on agriculture, the livelihood of over 90 percent of the population.

  1. 9

    Embassy officials claim that this particular instance of corruption is exaggerated, and that USAID simply diverted other funds to the airport construction.

  2. 10

    That USAID serves as a CIA cover, as has long been reported, has now been officially admitted by Foreign Aid Chief John A. Hannah, AP Boston Globe, June 8, 1970.

  3. 11

    The Pathet Lao officially favors a return to the general lines of the agreements of 1962 that established a Government of National Union, and therefore has no embassy in Hanoi. There is a RLG Embassy in Hanoi, staffed, I was informed, by Pathet Lao sympathizers. The Pathet Lao Information Office is the highest official Pathet Lao representation in Hanoi. There is also a Pathet Lao representative in Vientiane, accessible, though blockaded by RLG troops, and, he asserts, harassed in many ways by the Government. We were not able to penetrate the bureaucratic maze in the time available, but we did manage to speak to him at the airport, on the way to Hanoi. The interview from which the remark in the text is taken appears in full in N. Adams and A. McCoy, op. cit.

  4. 12

    See “Laos: the labyrinthine war,” Far Eastern Economic Review, April 16, 1970, for some comments on Allman’s observations.

  5. 13

    The New York Times, May 25. AFP reports that Vang Pao “is trying to retake five small forward posts of his base at Sam Thong…. The base was captured by leftist forces in a surprise assault last week.”

  6. 14

    UPI, International Herald Tribune, April 4-5, 1970. There is some suspicion that the report that Communist troops had occupied Sam Thong was released in an effort to conceal the vandalism of the Clandestine Army.

  7. 15

    In the words of the Department of State Background Notes, March 1969, “By the spring of 1961 the NLHS appeared to be in a position to take over the entire country.”

  8. 16

    P. F. Langer and J. J. Zasloff, Revolution in Laos: The North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao, RM-5935, RAND Corporation, September 1969, p. 113; to be published this fall by Harvard University Press as North Vietnam and the Pathet Lao: Partners in the Struggle for Laos (175 pp., $5.95).

  9. 17

    Phoumi Vongvichit, Laos and the Victorious Struggle of the Lao People Against U.S. Neo-colonialism, Neo Lao Haksat Editions, 1969, pp. 77-80. PEO is the Program Evaluation Office of the State Department, claimed by Vongvichit to be “a US military command in Laos.” MAAG is the Military Assistance Advisory Group: PAG the Police Advisory Group; and USOM the United States Operations Mission.

  10. 18

    See Jonathan Mirsky and Stephen E. Stonefield, “The United States in Laos,” in E. Friedman and Mark Selden (eds.), America’s Asia, Pantheon, 1970.

  11. 19

    For background on events prior to the renewal of the civil war in 1963, see Arthur Dommen, Conflict in Laos, New York, 1964; Hugh Toye, Laos: Buffer State or Battleground, Oxford, 1968; Mirsky and Stonefield, op. cit.; Langer and Zasloff, op. cit.; Vongvichit, op. cit. See also Peter Dale Scott, “Laos, Nixon and the CIA,” New York Review, April 9, 1970.

  12. 20

    From 1946 to 1963 Laos received more American aid per capita than any country in Southeast Asia. By 1958 the Royal Lao Army was the only foreign army in the world wholly supported by the taxpayers of the United States.” Mirsky and Stonefield, op. cit.

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