History in Laos
IN THIS SECTION
The Secret War
After the defeat of the French in Indochina in 1954, the United States, fearing a communist takeover of Indochina and eventually all of noncommunist Asia, became a major player in the region. Laos, strategically situated between Western-aligned Thailand, Cambodia, and South Vietnam and their neighbors Communist China and North Vietnam, became a key domino in the Cold War. President Eisenhower warned that “if Laos were lost, the rest of Southeast Asia would follow and the gateway to India would be opened.”
In the early 1960s, the United States, barred by a Geneva agreement from committing American troops to Laos, launched what later became known as the secret war, a 10-year air and ground campaign that cost an estimated $20 billion. Between 1968 and 1973, U.S. Air Force planes flying out of bases in Thailand dropped more than 2 million tons of explosives on communist targets in Laos, making that country one of the most heavily bombed nations in history.
The ground war in Laos was a CIA-run operation that began as a ragtag collection of a few hundred guerrillas and grew to an army of nearly 40,000. Most of the soldiers in this secret army were Hmong, who the Americans believed possessed an aptitude for warfare that the easygoing lowland Lao lacked. At first, the Hmong were used only to gather intelligence on North Vietnamese movements in Laos, but by the mid-1960s, under the leadership of Major General Vang Pao, Hmong soldiers were rescuing downed American pilots, flying combat missions, and fighting the ground war. Not all Hmong supported the American side, however: About 20% of the Hmong in Laos joined the communist side, under the leadership of Touby Lyfoung’s old enemy, Faydang Lobliayao.
Why did the Hmong join the American cause? Different answers have been proposed by different writers. Anticommunism is one answer that has been offered, and a fear of what life under a North Vietnamese-dominated government would be like for the Hmong is another. Other writers claim that Hmong leaders hoped that a U.S. victory would serve to improve the status of the Hmong in Laos, perhaps even earning them a measure of self-rule.
Whatever their reasons for supporting the United States, almost all Hmong share the conviction that their involvement in the war was part of a promise made to them by the U.S. government. While there is no evidence that the promise was ever written down, almost every Hmong who fought in the war can repeat some version of it. According to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,“[t]hough there are several versions of the ‘Promise,’ there can be no doubt that assurances were made to support the Hmong during the war, and to provide assistance in the event Laos was lost to the communists.”
The decision to support the United States in Laos cost the Hmong dearly. An estimated 30,000 people, more than 10% of the Hmong population in Laos, were killed in the war. (Had the United States suffered an equivalent proportion of deaths, 17.5 million Americans would have died in the war.) Another 30%—about 100,000 Hmong men, women, and children—became refugees inside Laos, settling into already-existing towns or in resettlement centers.
The Impact of the War and Relocation
War and relocation transformed Hmong social and cultural life. In the resettlement centers, Hmong were forced to live in small temporary huts, made from whatever material was at hand, rather than in their traditional houses carefully constructed according to principles of geomancy and with separate spaces set aside to honor a family’s protective spirits. As the number of war widows with children grew, the traditional but relatively rare custom of polygamy became more widespread as a form of social support, with surviving male relatives incorporating these fatherless families into their own.
The most drastic change brought about by life in the resettlement centers was the loss of self-sufficiency. With neither enough land nor enough able-bodied men to grow their own food, the once self-sufficient Hmong became dependent on U.S. food airdrops, and a generation of Hmong children grew up without the traditional knowledge of farming.
War and relocation also had the effect of uprooting the Hmong from their isolation, bringing them into increasing contact with the Lao, as well as with other ethnic groups. Life in larger settlements brought exposure to modern technology—to guns and planes, helicopters and trucks, farming machinery and electronic equipment—and to a market economy. In The Ravens, his 1987 book about the secret war in Laos, Christopher Robbins describes Long Tieng, the military center for the war and with a population of 30,000, the largest Hmong settlement in the world: “Some enterprising Hmong built an ice factory, while others opened restaurants. There were photographers and Hmong dentists; Hmong became tailors, bakers, cobblers, and radio repairmen. A new cottage industry, the fabrication of brooms, blossomed in the outlying villages giving employment to over 200 Hmong families.” Another Hmong enterprise flourished after dirt roads linking three of the major centers were constructed, and Hmong converted military jeeps into taxis.
For Hmong youth, life in the resettlement centers brought new educational opportunities. In elementary schools funded by the United States Agency for International Development, Hmong children learned to read and write in Lao and French. Graduates attended a six-month teacher training program; others went on to secondary-level schools in the capital city, Vientiane. A small number managed to get scholarships to pursue higher education in France, the United States, Canada, and Australia.
Under the Pathet Lao
The war in Laos officially ended in 1973, with the formation of the coalition government between the U.S.-backed Royal Lao government (RLG) and the North Vietnam-backed Pathet Lao. Under the terms of the agreement, the Pathet Lao brought soldiers and policemen into the administrative and royal capitals of Vientiane and Luang Phrabang. In April 1975, in concert with events in Vietnam and Cambodia, the coalition government began to unravel as the Pathet Lao gained strength. After the RLG defense minister resigned and then escaped to Thailand, several RLG generals followed suit. On May 14, Vang Pao, the Hmong military leader, also fled to Thailand, after airlifting between 1,000 and 3,000 of his followers from Long Tieng to Thailand.
With their leader gone, and amidst reports of Pathet Lao reprisals against the Hmong, tens of thousands of Hmong men, women, and children began a long and dangerous trek across mountains and through jungle, working their way toward the Mekong River and eventually into makeshift refugee camps in northern Thailand. Many died along the way. Some were killed in skirmishes with Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese soldiers; others died of disease and starvation or drowned crossing the Mekong River.
A larger group of some 60,000 Hmong retreated to the Phu Bia Massif south of the Plain of Jars. From there, remnants of the CIA’s secret army organized themselves into a messianic resistance movement, known as Chao Fa, or Lords of the Sky. Believing themselves immune to bullets, members of the movement attacked Pathet Lao soldiers, blocked roads, and blew up bridges and food convoys. In 1978, the new Lao government, with the help of the North Vietnamese air force, finally defeated the Phu Bia-based resistance, using napalm and possibly chemical agents. Because the resistance fighters lived with their families, many civilians were also killed and injured. The defeat effectively ended the resistance, although a small number of diehard rebels continued to fight on through the 1980s and 1990s, using the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand as a sanctuary and support base.
Not all the Hmong who had sided with the United States opted to flee or fight. Many quietly returned to their villages, hoping to work out an accommodation with the new regime. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Hmong were sent to re-education centers—known euphemistically in Lao assamana (‘seminar’) camps—reserved for members of the old regime. In these camps, political prisoners served three- to five-year terms or longer, working hard under rugged conditions with little food and medicine. While it is not known how many people died in these camps, many did not return. A 2004 report by Grant Evans for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) notes that “to this day relatives have never been informed officially of what happened to fathers, sons, or loved ones.”
Media accounts of the Hmong often portray their journey to America as a sudden and dramatic crossing from traditional to modern life—with no intervening exposure to change. “The Hmong have left their remote mountain villages of northern Laos,” goes one typical newspaper story. “Like Alice falling down a rabbit hole, they have suddenly found themselves in a strange wonderland where nothing is the same. Their preliterate society has been dropped into the age of technology.”
Such stereotypes ignore the varied backgrounds and well-honed survival skills that Hmong refugees bring with them. For the Hmong, the process of change—and the challenges of adjusting to it—began long before their arrival in the United States. As noted by William Smalley, the American missionary-linguist who helped develop the most widely used of the Hmong writing systems, “Adaptation to life in America continues the process that has been going on through the lifetimes of the Hmong who are here.”