Thursday, March 13, 2014


High altitude town of Sam Neua, where clouds pass below the peaks
Fast moving clouds flow quickly across the valley before me. I am so high up in altitude, that clouds are passing beneath the foliage covered peaks beyond. Just another beautiful morning in the Annamite Mountains of Laos, in the remote northeastern town of Sam Neua.

I admire the view in this obscure town, but I’m not staying. I’m only passing through, waiting to board a truck this morning heading further east. Growing impatient, I climb into the front passenger seat to wait. Looking down on the floor by my feet, I find an old US made ammunition case! Opening it up for a look, it's full of tools. It may be rusty, but ammo cases make great tool boxes.

Finally the driver gets in and we depart, driving east into the mountains. Outside town we pass a walled compound with new buildings, and looking in I notice a couple of Russian made military jeeps parked inside. 

During a chance meeting with a relative of the Vice-Governor, I was told me who’s in that compound. 

Old US made ammo case in my ride
“That Vietnam Army base,” the relative told me. 

Curious at the presence of Vietnamese troops still in Laos, I asked, "Why is that base there?"

“To protect the border,” he answered. 

Hmmm... We’re not that close to the border; by road it’s three hour's drive. If they are here to ‘protect the border’, then why are they based so deep inside Laos? I remember the Vietnamese 'general' that I had met on a train to Hanoi. He said he was based on the border, was he based here?

Back during the war, one of the rallying cries for the Pathet Lao rebels, was to put an end to ‘foreign interference’ in Laos. Those who actually believed in this idea were betrayed by the communist leadership after the war. 

When the Vientiane agreement was signed in 1973, all foreign troops were agreed to be withdrawn, and the American advisers and Thai troops left soon afterwards. The North Vietnamese Army on the other hand, remained. In the post war years, Vietnamese influence continued, and so did the presence of Vietnamese troops. As I’ve just seen on the road, that presence continues to this day, although in smaller numbers. 
New bridge in Sam Neua, Laos. Most of the workers are Vietnamese, not Laotian.

The Laotian government’s dependence had merely shifted. They were no longer reliant on America, they became reliant on Vietnam. Even with the cold war is over, some of that reliance continues. Fortunately, most of that reliance is now sent as economic aid, rather than military aid. 

I recall how back in Sam Neua the previous day, I had seen a new bridge under construction over the Xam River. This aid project is led by a Vietnamese construction company, and the laborers were Vietnamese. I had asked a local Laotian about them, and she admitted that those men weren’t very popular here. One thing hasn’t changed over the years; most Laotians continue to dislike the Vietnamese. 

As my Laotian ride takes me deeper into rugged Houaphan Province, I think back to my time in Luang Prabang, and the fate of the last Laotian king. His final years were spent somewhere in this region, in a secret jungle prison. In those post-war years, the bamboo gulags of Houaphan held more than 15,000 prisoners. They were former soldiers, policemen, government officials, and others that had opposed the communists. Some who held high positions were imprisoned for 15 years. Some never left alive. 
The king died in a jungle prison (photo:RLA)

These camps were located in this poor region by the communists, so that they could punish the prisoners through primitive living conditions. In some cases, prisoners were even forced to build their own internment camp! The remote location was also strategic. If a prison camp was located anywhere in western Laos, escape would have been easier with Thailand close by. Since the communists put the prison camps on the eastern border, escape to Thailand was nearly impossible. Anyone escaping east across the border to Vietnam, would probably be quickly captured and sent back to Laos. 

Those imprisoned here never had a trial, and were denied their rights. The Geneva Convention didn’t exist in Laos. Days were filled with hard labor, endless indoctrination sessions, and poor food. Some were executed. Others died of mistreatment, or from denial of medical care. If a prisoner didn’t survive, the government didn’t even give their family an official explanation as to how they had died. I wonder if any of these same prisons ever held any of the American soldiers that were missing in action (MIA) after they disappeared during the war. 

The most secret of these prisons was Camp 5, the gulag for highest level prisoners that were never released. It’s believed that the Laotian royal family were imprisoned there. The king, queen, and two princes died in the camp, and how they actually died was never explained to the public. It's believed that King Sisavang Vatthana died in 1980, from mistreatment, and from denial of medical care. The location of their graves remains secret to this day. Later accounts say the royal family are buried somewhere out here in unmarked graves, much as the Bolsheviks hid the bodies of the Romanoffs. 

Mountains that sheltered communist HQ during the war
In this post cold war era, almost all of the old prison camps in this region have been shut down, but unlike in Vietnam, there is no public access allowing me to see the old prisons that are no longer in use. Not all of these bamboo gulags have been closed though, there are still some prisoners held here, hidden from the outside world. Some sent here recently, were prisoners of conscience. 

When democracy movements began sweeping across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, some Laotians in high places began to push for democratic reforms. Much like his patrons in Vietnam and China, the old commie Kaysone squashed any attempt at democracy. Three intellectual government reformists were arrested In 1990, and quickly imprisoned. They included the Vice-Minister of Economics and Planning, Vice-Minister of Science and Technology, and a Justice Ministry official. All were sentenced to 14 years imprisonment in one of the old Houphan labor camps. One of the reformists died in prison in 1998, due to a lack of medical care. The open war in Laos is over, but the secret war against democracy continues.

As our truck rumbles along, the rural landscape opens up, revealing a group of karst mountains to the south. From my distant perspective, I can’t help but think that they resemble a giant six pack of beer. I’m unaware of their significance, but these mountains are my destination. Those towering peaks are Viengxay, and during the war this was the most important stronghold of the communist Pathet Lao Army. I'll be arriving soon. 

No comments:

Post a Comment