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A Special Supplement: A Visit to Laos

This informant had never been to school and was pleased with the Pathet Lao educational reforms. He said that the teachers were taken to Phonesavan to be taught and then returned to the village. Other boys joined the Pathet Lao to be soldiers, and some went to the towns for medical training or to join the civil administration. No Pathet Lao lived permanently in the village, he reported.

He was not sure what the Pathet Lao taught the teachers, but when they returned they taught only in Lao, no longer in French. Everyone was taught to read, particularly the women.

The only people who didn’t study were those who were blind. I knew how to read. I studied arithmetic. Before I didn’t know anything. Before, the teacher didn’t work as much. Now he worked much more. The teacher wasn’t happy because he was working all the time. [General laughter.]

We interviewed two of the village teachers. They said that when the Pathet Lao came in 1964, after driving the Kong Le forces off of the Plain, they took the teachers for ten days to Phonesavan. They instructed them in teaching methods, and told them they must teach in Lao, not French. “They explained that Lao is our own language and Laos is our country and we don’t need foreign languages.” They also gave them political education.

They taught us that under the French a French-style education was taught because they wanted people to love France. But now they taught us that our country was liberated and we have a liberated style of education and education would teach people to love their country. Education was now for everyone, not just for the rich. In the old days education was mainly in the towns and cities. Many villages had no schools. When the Pathet Lao came in they trained many teachers and many more people were educated, though schooling was still not universal.

Language teaching and mathematics were made more demanding than before and four grades were to be instituted for everyone. The teacher was required to run an adult literacy program on Saturdays and Sundays. Villagers who knew how to read also became literacy instructors. They described the literacy campaign as very good, and virtually universal. Before there had been just mechanical teaching of reading, with no content. Under the Pathet Lao, the texts dealt with agriculture and livestock and love of country. The political content was something like this: “Before, under the French, we had to pay taxes and money was sent to France. Now we’re building our own country and are not working for foreign people.” The intention was to extend education to grades five to seven, but this program could not be carried out, because of the war.

An older man, formerly quite well off, added that the Pathet Lao made them study before work, and took some men from the village to study.

They taught us mainly agriculture. One must produce more. Build the economy. One man should do the work of ten. If you produce more you can exchange it for clothes and money. Then we can exchange the produce with other countries.

In theory, he said, it was a good idea, but he wasn’t happy about it, particularly because of the taxation. The Pathet Lao took 15 percent of everything above subsistence. This was for the soldiers, teachers, and medical personnel whom they trained and returned to the village.

Another refugee who had lived in Phonesavan gave us additional information. The activists, in the early period, were intellectuals from Vientiane and Sam Neua who had studied in France. The Pathet Lao tended more to live among the people and recruited peasants from the area, while the intellectuals were, for the most part, with Kong Le and the neutralists. At first the Pathet Lao kept their identity secret. Later they began speaking more openly to people whom they felt they could trust. They always spoke nicely (this he reiterated over and over), and gave long explanations before suggesting any action. They lived like the poor peasants, for example refusing to ride in trucks as the Kong Le soldiers did. They were very prudent.

The Pathet Lao cadres encouraged the people not to be afraid of important men or to use honorific forms of address.

The Pathet Lao changed many things. They helped the villagers farm rice and build houses, and gave rice to people who didn’t have enough. They changed the status of women. Women became equal to men. They became nurses and soldiers. Wives were not afraid of husbands any more.

At first some husbands got angry, but they were told that there was to be no more oppression: “Look, she’s human, you don’t have special rights.”

Before, everything was for hire. After the Pathet Lao came, money wasn’t necessary. They tried to induce cooperation among the villagers and to bring families to cooperate in agricultural work. They used no force, but tried to shame people into helping if they refused, to encourage them to see that all would benefit from cooperation.

They formed “Awakening groups” of cadres from the village that were responsible for encouraging cooperation and collectivization. By 1967, virtually everyone was involved in collective farming, though they also kept private plots. The cadres never insulted anyone. They tried to make you like them. They would never take out guns and money to impress people. In 1967 they suddenly replaced all outsiders with local cadres drawn from the Awakening groups, many of whom had been taken away for training for a month or so.

Each village had a complicated system of organization: political, administrative, defense (police), young boys, young girls, women, cleanliness, education, cooperation, etc. Everyone belonged. They elected their own leaders. There were also technical organizations concerned with irrigation, livestock, agriculture, adult literacy, forestry. Representatives of these groups would deal with experts from the outside in matters such as irrigation.

The first bombing began in May, 1964. Phonesavan itself was bombed in 1965. Between November, 1968, and January, 1969, the town was completely evacuated and destroyed. The Vang Pao army came through in September, 1969.

During 1964 and 1965 only very few North Vietnamese soldiers were in the vicinity. By 1969 there were many North Vietnamese. The soldiers maintained a very strict discipline and kept away from the villagers. People felt sorry for them because of their enforced isolation. The Pathet Lao taught them that the North Vietnamese were their friends who had come to give them technical assistance and help them to survive. They had enormous respect for the North Vietnamese. To illustrate, he told a story of a North Vietnamese irrigation adviser who was condemned to death by the Pathet Lao after he had killed a water buffalo. The people objected and protested to the General, who affirmed the sentence. The man then killed himself. In general, they regarded the North Vietnamese with awe.

The Pathet Lao also taught them not to hate the American pilots, some of whom were captured and led through the town, but “only their leaders.”47

I asked one man about fifty years old, who looked strong and healthy, why neither he nor anyone else seemed to be working, why they were just sitting in the sheds when surely they should be preparing to farm. He said:

Let the war end and we can return to our village. I don’t know how to farm here. No one comes to explain or help or tell us how to do it. We don’t have the strength to cut down the trees. The Government says nothing. They don’t tell us whether we can ever go home. We don’t know. All the land has trees or bushes. We are too tired to cut the bushes and the trees. There are no hills or mountains here. It is all flat. When we do Hai (upland farming) where we come from, the trees all fall in one direction and it was easy to burn them. Here they just fall in all directions. We do not know how to farm here.

In fact, these people know well how to farm in this area, and the work would not be beyond their strength, at least if they had enough to eat. But as the above account indicates, they are demoralized and without hope. The only time that I saw work being done in the village or its surroundings was during one visit, when I watched some men and women constructing private huts with wood that they had cut in the forest. Some women were sewing, and others were cooking or collecting food. The rest sat quietly, their interest somewhat aroused by our presence, but apparently with no plan or hope for the future.


A correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review has summarized the situation which produced the refugees as follows:

…The area is a carpet of forest dotted by villages and a few towns. Refugees report that the bombing was primarily directed against their villages. Operating from Thai bases and from aircraft carriers, American jets have destroyed the great majority of villages and towns in the northeast. Severe casualties have been inflicted upon the inhabitants of the region, rice fields have been burned, and roads torn up. Refugees from the Plain of Jars report they were bombed almost daily by American jets last year. They say they spent most of the past two years living in caves or holes.48

It is doubtful that any military purpose, in the narrow sense, is served by the destructive bombing. The civilian economy may have been destroyed and thousands of refugees generated, but the Pathet Lao appear to be stronger than ever. If anything, the bombing appears to have improved Pathet Lao morale and increased support among the peasants, who no longer have to be encouraged to hate the Americans. The situation is exactly like that in Vietnam, where, in the first year of the intensive American bombardment in the South (1965), local recruitment for the Viet Cong tripled to about 150,000, according to American sources. And, as in Vietnam, the indigenous guerrilla forces are now more dependent on outside assistance as a result of the destruction of the civilian society in which they had their roots. The correspondent quoted above comments:

By depriving communist forces of indigenous food stores, the bombing has caused them to rely on more dependable supplies from North Vietnam. For all that it has undoubtedly demoralized civilians, refugees report that the bombing has raised the morale of Pathet Lao fighting forces. Unlike most other soldiers in Laos, they finally have a clear idea of what they are fighting for. Refugees also say that volunteers for the Pathet Lao army have doubled…in the last few years. Before, many village youths were reluctant to leave their villages. Now the attitude has become, “better to die as a soldier than to die hiding from the bombing in holes in the ground.49

As in Vietnam, there is a military purpose to these tactics in a broader sense. Here again we see the tactic of “forced-draft urbanization” at work. To fight against a people’s war, it is necessary, here as in South Vietnam, to eliminate the people, either by killing them, destroying their society and forcing them into caves, or “urbanizing” them by driving them into refugee camps or urban centers. Who can tell whether this tactic may not succeed?

We discussed the bombardment with Prince Souvanna Phouma. He denied that any destruction is taking place:

There is no destruction. We only bomb the North Vietnamese. We have “teams” scattered throughout the country. When they see the North Vietnamese convoys they call for bombing. Laos is not like the United States. It is not densely populated, with many big cities. No cities or villages are destroyed. 700,000 refugees have come to our side. There are no people on the other side. Maybe a few huts destroyed, but no settled areas. People flee when they hear that the North Vietnamese are coming.50

We mentioned specifically that refugees have told us that their villages were destroyed long before they left them. He replied:

No, no. Sometimes North Vietnamese mix in with the population and we have to make a sacrifice of them and bomb the village, that’s true. For example, recently in Paksane some North Vietnamese held a village and it took us three days to dislodge them. In that case unfortunately the villagers got bombed also.

He then showed us a large relief map of Indochina on the wall, and repeated: “You see those mountainous areas controlled by the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese. Nobody lives there.”

According to American figures, over a million people live there, well over a third of the population.

Part of the population of Laos lives in urban centers, Vientiane being the largest. Others live in the Pathet Lao-controlled areas under the conditions I have described. Still others remain in refugee camps. In addition, there are the Meo tribesmen who have been organized by the CIA, and that part of traditional Lao peasant society that is still untouched by the war.

Reports from the Vang Pao army of Meo indicate that they may be nearing the end of their ability to continue fighting. Several years ago, Robert Shaplen quoted Edgar “Pop” Buell, the American who is primarily responsible for the Meo operations:

A few days ago I was with Vang Pao’s officers when they rounded up 300 fresh Meo recruits. Thirty percent of the kids were 14 years old or less and about a dozen were only about 10 years old. Another 30 percent were 15 or 16. The rest were 35 or over. Where were the ones in between? I will tell you, they are all dead. Here were these little kids in their camouflage uniforms that were much too big for them, but they looked real neat, and when the King of Laos talked to them they were proud and cocky as could be…. They are too young and are not trained. In a few weeks 90 percent of them will be killed.51

Since then, the Vang Pao forces have suffered serious losses, and all credible reports indicate that their situation is far worse. By inciting large numbers of Meo to fight against the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese, the United States may have brought about their destruction as an organized group.

Pop” Buell recently reported that “all his friends from his early days in Laos have died in combat.”52 He added:

The best are being killed off in this country and America will never be able to repay them for what they’re doing.

The American policy of sacrificing the Meo to America’s anti-Communist crusade must be regarded, in my opinion, as one of the most profoundly cynical aspects of the American war in Indochina.

To try to get a sense of traditional Laos, we visited a village just a few miles from Vientiane which—incredibly—seems virtually untouched by the war, indeed by the modern age. We visited the home of an old peasant couple where our guide had lived for several years as an IVS volunteer. When we arrived, the old man was sitting on the large open porch outside the sleeping quarters, carving Buddhist verses on long strips of bamboo. He was so engrossed that he was unaware of our presence until our guide tapped him on the shoulder in greeting. The man and his wife seated themselves before us and wound knotted strings around our wrists, wishing us health and good fortune. The old woman explained that she had just received these particular strings from a Buddhist monk at a shrine where she had spent several days.

Water buffaloes, gentle beasts, trudged slowly along the dirt paths, past knots of people talking and laughing in the quiet of the early evening. The villagers greeted our guide warmly, joking and chatting with him as we walked through the village. Several were at least half-stoned, contributing to the atmosphere of tranquility and abandon. We had brought some meat for dinner, which the peasant woman cooked. After a leisurely meal with the old couple, we returned, late that evening, to Vientiane.

Superficially, such a village seems a haven of peace in the turmoil and misery of Laos, but there is more to the story. Our guide, who had studied the village with great care, estimated that infant mortality may be as high as 50 percent. Dysentery is endemic, and much of the population is always ill. In fact, as we strolled through the village we saw ceremonies on several porches for those who were ill. There is no sanitary water supply, and very little medical care.

The life of the village is less than delightful in many other ways. The old man we visited told us that he walks a long distance to fetch water. This seemed surprising, since there was a large pond nearby. When we walked to the pond, we discovered that it was fenced off, as was a large area surrounding it. Our guide explained that some years back a man had come to the village and simply taken the pond and the surrounding land for himself. When the villagers went to the village chief, they were told that that is the way it was to be.

The older inhabitants now speak sadly of the days when they could sit beneath the tall trees near the pond and they complain of the difficulty and inconvenience and the loss of good land, but there is nothing that they can do. When he arrived in the village and learned of the situation, the IVS worker tried to convince them to go to the city, barely five miles away, and begin a law suit. The man was quickly told that this was impossible. The village chief had agreed, indicating that higher officials were involved in blocking the pond. Complaints would not be heeded and might even bring soldiers to the village. It is such abuses as these, typical of a traditional society and, if anything, given added harshness by colonialism, that the Pathet Lao seek to end.

Loring Waggoner, a community development area adviser who has worked in Laos for a number of years in the USAID program, touched upon such matters in his testimony before the Symington Subcommittee Hearings (pp. 574f.). He described the peasants as “village oriented,” and not concerned with Laos as a nation. With regard to the RLG:

The villager looks at the Government officials in Vientiane as people who have attained a position where they can ask and take things without consultation with the villagers, with the local population. They rarely make protests about this type of corruption or skimming off the top unless, of course, it begins to pinch them fairly badly.

He went on to describe the corruption of the elite in their dealings with the villagers, and observed that the villagers describe the Pathet Lao as “honest with them” though “much more authoritarian than the Lao Government seems to be.” The villagers tend to view the Pathet Lao as traditionalists who emphasize “the old way of life, making it all Lao.”

When I arrived in Laos and found young Americans living there, out of free choice, I was surprised. After only a week I began to have a sense of the appeal of the country and its people—along with despair about its future.


Improving IVs September 24, 1970

  1. 47

    This is a constant refrain among the Communists of Indochina.

  2. 48

    April 16, 1970. See note 7.

  3. 49

    This paragraph is taken from the original text, parts of which appear in the Far Eastern Economic Review, April 16, 1970.

  4. 50

    See note 42.

  5. 51

    New Yorker, May, 1968, quoted in Symington Subcommittee Hearings, p. 552.

  6. 52

    Henry Kamm, The New York Times, February 5, 1970.

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