Thursday, August 29, 2013


USSR built Kamaz truck, damaged by US cluster bomb attack
A dark green, Soviet made Kamaz 66 truck is in front of me, and it's a battle scarred ruin. Full of countless holes and dents, it was hit in a cluster bomb attack in northern Laos during the war. 

It’s a new day, and once again I’m seeing the effect of cluster bombs. When I went to the COPE center, I saw what cluster bombs did to Laotian civilians.  Here in the 'Lao People’s Army History Museum', I see what a cluster bomb did to a communist vehicle. A laminated caption with bad grammar tells the story: 

“In 1971, Camrade BounLap, a brave driver, of the 3rd Squadron of the 2nd Company of the Battalion 402 drove the truck to deliver ammunitions from Nonghaed District to Combat Operation Command...
in difficulties of the three serious days and nights admist enemy’s bombings, but he bravely broke through and safely arrived the destination even he was hit by US bombies”

Looking over this old Russian beast, there are numerous jagged shrapnel holes throughout the body of the truck. Most of the windows were blown out. With all this damage, I’m seeing visually how exploding 'bombie' shrapnel from cluster bombs could penetrate even thick steel. I doubt the caption’s dubious claim that the driver delivered his cargo of ammunition after the attack. Judging by all the shrapnel holes above the driver’s seat and through the driver’s door, he would have been very lucky to have survived at all. If this truck really had been carrying a cargo of ammunition, the bombies probably would have ignited them and blown the truck sky high. 

So when were General MacArthur & the USS Missouri in landlocked Laos?? (museum photo)
As I wander about and check out the army museum, I find most exhibits are similar to what I’ve seen in museums of Vietnam. Display cases are filled with the US made weapons, captured from Royal Laotian Army troops. There are also propaganda photos of Pathet Lao troops, posing and fighting. Some show real action, but others were obviously staged, presented as authentic. 

A caption beneath one photo is almost laughable. It has the following text: “Japanese fascist troops were defeated in Laos in 1945.” The photo here was not taken in Laos at all, it was taken in Tokyo Harbor. What the photo actually shows, is the Japanese signing their official surrender to the American military on the deck of the USS Missouri! That’s a long way from Laos. 

Vietnamese guerrilla weapons captured in 1989
Making my way upstairs, I learn about a surprising chapter in the history of Laotian and Vietnamese conflict, which occurred long after the Vietnam War was officially over in 1975. 

On display are captured rifles made in the US and USSR, from a little known conflict in southern Laos. The cases are full of captured evidence: binoculars, radios, documents, a canteen and compass. I quickly notice that some of these items are marked with a forbidden insignia: the red and yellow striped flag of the former Republic of Vietnam. These were captured from a rebel group called the 'National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam', a group well known in Vietnamese expatriate circles.

From 1987 – 1989, this group of anti-communist Vietnamese guerillas from refugee families inflitrated the southern Laotian provinces of Saravanh and Xekong. They hoped to establish safe havens in southern Laos, and then from there infiltrate Vietnam, just as the Viet Cong had done years before. The bold aim of these insurgents was to restore the former government of the Republic of Vietnam. 

Led by a former Navy Admiral from South Vietnam, Hoang Co Minh, the group crossed from Thailand into Laos, where there were a series of attacks and skirmishes. Hoang and as many as 100 of the rebels were killed. Others were caught and given long prison sentences in Vietnam, where some of them still are today. The Vietnamese and Laotian casualties from this hidden campaign aren’t publicly known. 

Other photos and exhibits here highlight the most recent conflicts Laos has had with their old nemesis, Thailand. This battle also happened during the 1980’s, when tensions flared up over small amounts of territory in the northern Laotian province of Xaynabouly. Fighting broke out 
Captured drone from the Thailand - Laos border battles of the late 1980's
in Botene and Paklay, and these weren’t just little border clashes. The casualties from these armed confrontations reached well into the hundreds. 

One caption beneath an old 23 mm anti-aircraft gun here boasts of Laotian success, “In 1987 – 1988 it was used to fight enemy at Botene battlefield which shot down 11 aircrafts of the Thai extreme rightist troops.” In an age of guided missiles, that’s an unlikely number. 

Captured during that time, is something I’ve never seen before: a pilotless drone! We know a great deal about drones today, but in the 1980's they were almost unknown. Used by the Thais, it must have landed somewhere on Laotian territory during the brief border conflict. Much more primitive than a Predator drone, this drone is far smaller. Driven by a propeller, it has a split tail. A camera sticks out of the nose; it was obviously used for reconnaissance. I wonder, who built it?

Statue of Pathet Lao fighters. Apparently some fought with crossbows and spears??
Although the current peace between Thailand and Laos is much improved, there are still occasional incidents from violent groups that are beyond the control of both governments. In 2000, a group of around 60 Laotian rebels crossed over from Thailand at the Chong Mek border crossing, and took over the Laotian border post. They were hoping for a popular uprising, which never materialized. The Laotian Army opened fire and killed five insurgents, while the rest fled back to Thailand. The Laotian government blamed the Thai government, and used the incident to crack down further on local dissent.

After seeing all of the museum, I found some chapters of their military history are missing. There is little information on the long war that the ‘People’s Liberation Army’ waged against one of the country’s own ethnic minority groups, the Hmong. 

I also didn’t find any displays on the thousands of North Vietnamese soldiers who died in Laos, as they fought alongside the Pathet Lao, against the Laotian army and their US supporters. They didn’t give credit where credit is due; the Pathet Lao never would have taken over the country without the help of the North Vietnamese Army. Their only tribute shown to the Vietnamese, is a bust of Ho Chi Minh. 

I wonder if their absence of appreciation shown here, is a reflection of the dislike that many Laotians still feel for Vietnam today. 

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