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A Special Supplement: A Visit to Laos

According to this visitor, the Pathet Lao had set up a hospital, a printing press, a small textile mill, a bakery, and a shop for making arms and ammunition in the caves. The bombardment was said to include guided missiles that can dive into a cave, as well as high explosives and anti-personnel weapons. The people come out only at dusk and dawn to try to farm, but the planes attack any visible target, even trails and cultivated fields. These reports attracted little attention, presumably because the source was not believed. In June, 1968, Jacques Decornoy of Le Monde traveled to Sam Neua province and confirmed these reports.45 His harrowing account of life under perhaps the most intensive bombardment in history received little attention in the United States.

According to Souvanna Phouma and the American Embassy, some 700,000 refugees are said to have fled to Government-controlled areas. The most recent arrivals are from the Plain of Jars area. As noted earlier, this area was under Pathet Lao control from 1964 until 1969. During the offensive in the fall of 1969, the CIA Clandestine Army conquered the plain after heavy bombardment—the first large shift in territorial boundaries since the outbreak of the civil war. When Communist forces were about to retake the Plain of Jars in February, 1970, the population was evacuated and the area turned into a zone of devastation. It is estimated that about 15,000 refugees were taken, mostly by air, to Vientiane, where they are now scattered in refugee camps.

Just prior to the Communist recapture of the Plain of Jars in February, 1970, Henry Kamm reported that the Lao peasants were not informed that they were to be evacuated, though those who wished to stay (in what would become a free fire zone, in fact) would be permitted to do so.46 Reports in Vientiane indicate that a large part of the population went over to the Pathet Lao despite the abysmal conditions.

IV

I spent several days visiting a refugee camp near Vientiane. The camp consists of five long sheds with an aisle between two raised floors. Each family has about fifteen square feet of space, without partitions and marked off only by posts. There are perhaps 100 people housed in each shed—many children, old men and women, a few young mothers, some young men who were wounded in the fighting, and a few other young adults. Many observers believe, and have reported, that most of the young people joined the Pathet Lao before the evacuation. These refugees had been in the village for about two months.

The refugees give the impression of being severely demoralized. Only rarely do any of them work. There has apparently been little attempt to clear land for cultivation, though it is likely that they will stay in this area. They themselves do not know what will happen to them. The government provides them with a rice ration, but little further care and no information. Promises to reimburse them for lost property or to change their Pathet Lao money for RLG currency have not been fulfilled. The refugees asked me—some begged me—to help them to have their money exchanged. Some said that they would starve otherwise, and this is possible, since apparently they have no food except for the rice ration and what they can find in the forest.

But these people are not mendicants. They were, in fact, probably the most well-to-do of the Lao peasantry. Some had careful records of their possessions. One sixty-year-old man who had owned forty cows and nine buffaloes estimated that the value of his belongings was about $3,600. Another showed us detailed records written up for the RLG but never honored which calculated his possessions as worth $5,000 before the bombing. Such reports were not unique, though some of the refugees had been very poor. Some had brought with them good clothes, occasionally a sewing machine or other possessions. All spoke with great longing of their wish to return to their homes in the Plain of Jars, with its fertile and abundant land, its cool climate, distant hills, rivers, and streams.

The refugees were acquainted with our interpreter from previous visits, and were superficially friendly, though wary. They naturally assumed that we were connected with the American Government, and they obviously were not going to tell us anything that might lead to some new catastrophe. Conducting extensive interviews makes one feel uncomfortable. The refugees have good reason to dissimulate, and at the same time they do not wish to be uncooperative. With repeated questioning, it is easy to discover inconsistencies and even absurdities in their answers, but it is not pleasant to take on the role of a police agent. Apart from this, it is heart-rending to see their demoralization and despair, to watch an old woman crouching down in unaccustomed supplication, or to see the children sitting quietly hour after hour in the oppressive heat and dust of the camp.

The first story told by virtually every refugee is straightforward. They came to the Government side because they hated the Pathet Lao, who were oppressive. Why did the Pathet Lao oppress the people? “I don’t know; I guess they are just crazy,” one man told us.

Another man who had been a rather poor farmer in his former village spoke quite openly and favorably about the Pathet Lao. As he went on, a small group collected and listened quietly. An alert young man began to interrupt, correcting our informant and giving the negative, stereotyped answers to which we had already become accustomed. Within moments, our informant’s answers also shifted. When the same sequence was repeated in other interviews, we realized that so long as this man was present, there was no point in continuing the discussion. Who he was, of course, I have no idea—perhaps a Pathet Lao cadre. Certainly the reasonable approach, from their point of view, was to appear to be pro-Government and antagonistic to the Pathet Lao.

We spoke to one young woman who had fled to the Government side some years earlier, with several other young people. When asked why, she said that it was because of porterage which they were forced to do for the Pathet Lao. We asked whether she fled after her village was destroyed by bombing. “No, before,” she answered. An older man interrupted, saying: “No, after, you know, there were many people killed in the bombing.” She then said: “Yes, we escaped after the bombing.” “Were you afraid of the bombing or the porterage?” “Both,” she answered.

Every refugee with whom I spoke said that everything that he knew of—his own village, and all dwellings within several days journey—had been destroyed by bombardment before they were evacuated. Prior to 1968 the bombing of the Plain of Jars was sporadic. In April of 1968 it became more intense, and the villagers soon had to leave their villages and dig trenches and tunnels in the surrounding forest. At first they were able to farm sometimes, mainly at night, but this became impossible as the bombing increased in intensity. One man told us that the people of his village had been forced to move eight or nine times, deeper and deeper into the forest into new systems of trenches as the bombing extended its scope. He reported that by April, 1969, his village was destroyed by bombs and napalm. The Pathet Lao showed them how to dig trenches and tunnels, and identified the types of planes.

Another reported that in February, 1969, the bombing destroyed everything in the village. The first bombing, of a village nearby, was in June, 1967. Later, the bombing was constant, and the people lived in tunnels in the hills, coming out only on days when the bombing stopped. Our interpreter, who had interviewed about 300 refugees, informed us that these stories were typical. Every refugee to whom he had spoken reported that everything he knew of personally or had heard about was destroyed by bombardment before the evacuation.

In September, 1969, the Vang Pao army conquered the Plain. The Meo soldiers were undisciplined and killed many of the cows and buffaloes. Many of the young men joined the Pathet Lao: others were taken into the Vang Pao army. We asked why the Meo soldiers killed the cattle. One man said the soldiers told the villagers that they didn’t want cattle left to nourish the Pathet Lao. The refugees were concentrated in new villages—strategic hamlets, apparently—when the Vang Pao army came. Then, when it was clear that the Plain could not be held, they were evacuated.

The primary complaint against the Pathet Lao had to do with the compulsory porterage. Prior to the bombing, there was very little porterage, but when the bombing began, the Pathet Lao soldiers moved to remote areas and could no longer use trucks, as before. “The planes made the soldiers disperse and they forced us to do porterage,” one refugee said. One claimed that the porterage had begun as early as 1964. Others gave later dates. All, when pressed, said that the porterage began when the soldiers were forced by the bombing to move to inaccessible places.

Few of the refugees had ever seen any Vietnamese, though one informant, when interrupted by the young man whom I mentioned earlier, agreed with this man that the Pathet Lao were really Vietnamese who spoke Lao. A moment before, in answer to the question, “What kind of people are they?” he had said: “Oh, they are our own Lao people.” He was unwilling to talk any longer at that point.

There were also other complaints about the Pathet Lao. One relatively rich farmer said he could not live comfortably with the Pathet Lao even if the bombing were to end, so that no more porterage would be necessary:

They would take us to study all the time. There was no money, no commerce. They only respect you if you have torn clothing so we have to wear torn clothing all the time.

The poor farmer I mentioned earlier gave a more sympathetic account. He described a mild land reform in 1965:

They told the people who had a lot of land to give some to the people who had only a little. I didn’t get any, and none was taken away. I had enough. They only took land to give to the really poor. The people from whom they took the land away sometimes were angry. In this case, the Pathet Lao would say: “Look, you have a lot of land and he doesn’t have any. Do you want him to die?” They always explained. They rarely put anyone in jail. Only if they explained for a long time and they still didn’t give any land.

The people who were taken away were not put in prison. They were taken to Phonesavan to study and work. If a person caused trouble they also took him to study. Also lazy people. They would teach them not to steal or your friends will kill you. Being lazy or not giving up your land is stealing from your friends. The Pathet Lao never yelled. They really did well. They really acted nicely. They never stole. Never took anyone or beat anyone.

  1. 45

    Decornoy’s reports are given in full, in translation, in Adams and McCoy, op. cit. Also in the Bulletin of the Concerned Asian Scholars, April-July 1970.

  2. 46

    The New York Times, February 5, 1970.

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