The Cost of Freedom

Recently, a friend email me and said that fourth of July is a time of reflection for him.  I decided he is right, I should reflect on my past, my former country and my people on this day.

Most of us are familiar with the story of America’s  fierce battle and eventual freedom from the British.  After years of struggle for equality, on July 4, 1776 the Declaration was signed, publicly read, and copies passed out to some of the colonists.  This powerful Declaration signified the actual birth date of the United States of America.  Many willingly sacrifice their lives to fight for a country they grew to love and many die to uphold those ideals they came to believe in.  Not all men and women (loyalist) living in America took part in that struggle for freedom from Britain. Many still felt like they were a subject to the Crown and had an obligation to follow the rules of law applicable to its citizens.  Some  view the fight for freedom as a treasonous act and chose  not to participate in this betrayal.  However, there were many Americans who strongly believed in gaining their independence even though they knew they could loose their lives.   This story of America’s struggle for independence makes me wonder how Laos lost their fight against the Communist regime.  America was outnumbered by a far more experienced British force, but yet Americans prevail.  Did Laos loose the fight against the invaders because they were outnumbered, outsmarted?  Did Laos loose because there were not enough trained men and women to fight?  Did Laotians became overwhelmed, overpowered and terrorized to submission by the Communist regime?

King Sisavang Vatthana image from google

Up until 1975, Laos was a monarchy.  Many people loved the king and queen of Laos, but they could not protect them from the invading Communist regime.  Some willing lost their lives to keep the monarchy in power, but without success.  Consequently, King Sisavang Vatthans was forced to abdicate his crown (1975) and according to many sources, he and his family was sent to a re-education camp by the Pathet Lao. Laos became Lao Dang ( Red Lao to represent  Lao Communist).  Pathet Lao backed by the communist North Vietnamese were able to control  an enormous area of Laos by  1970.  Once Cambodia and South Vietnam fell to the communist regime, so did Laos.  As a result, by 1975, the Pathet Lao government got rid of all the rightist and neutralist in Laos and brought the whole country under their control .  Maybe this would not have happened if the three princes of Laos would have kept the coalition they had formed based on the urging of King Sisavang Vatthana in 1961.  Maybe the king knew that the only way to keep the country under the rule of Laotians was  for the three princes to band to form a strong united front against a foreign entity. Unfortunately, the much needed coalition between the three princes dissipated less than a year later. Their disagreement on how to rule Laos, what the future of Laos should be like could  very well have contributed to it being taken over by the Pathet Lao.  If they had banded together as some of the colonist in  America did, would Laos still have a monarchy?  Did political disagreement make  the country weaker.  How could Laos hope to defeat the invaders when they could not even agree who should be King.  There are too many factors leading to conquest of Laos, but not having a strong central government definitely played a major role.

In  early 1960s,  different sections of Laos was governed by three different princes. Prince Souvanna Phouma, a neutralist, governed the Vietiane area.  He was recognized by the Russians as the legitimate heir to the throne.  Prince Boun Oum of Champassak, who was pro-U.S. was  understandablely recognized by the U.S. as Prime Minister of Laos.  He would later win the majority of the votes in the National Assemby and  gain the blessing of King Sisavang Vatthana as the head of the new government.  The third prince (right wing), Prince Souphanouvong, was backed by the Pathet Lao, the Communist regime.  All of them had different political beliefs and ideas and unwisely chose to not take the king’s advice of working together. Instead it seems they all allow other countries to interfer in what was unmistakenly an internal affair.

I was too young to remember what happened in 1974 ( about a year before the monarchy was overthrown) so I have to rely on the memories of those who lived through it like my father and mother. What I do know is based on what my parents have recounted during the rule of the Pathet Lao in 1974.  One thing that is prominent about this time is one of terror and heartache for many Laotions. They said people were terrified of the invading forces because  if they  were not submissive they were killed.  They had to comply with what the new government wanted for them to do or they risk their lives rebelling.  Here is what my mom witness in her village of the tactics used by the new regime to control the Lao people.

At the beginning of 1974, we were  still living in Saybaihing( spelling), a village between Pakse and Savannakit.  What happened to Ai Gea, one of the villagers convinced my mom that it was time to leave Laos.  She said the communist soldiers called for a town meeting so everybody went to the area where it was supposed to be.  When the villagers arrive, they saw Ai Gea ( 40 years old) with his hands  tied up and on his knees.  The head soldier told the villagers that Ai Gea committed a serious crime. They said he was  bad because he was a cattle thief, that he was stealing cows and taking it across Thailand to sell to make profit. When Ai Gea tried to get up and protest his innocence, one of the soldier slam the butt of his gun against Ai Gea’s head. Ai Gea’s wife started crying and rushed to her husband, but she stopped when they warn her to stop crying or they will kill her and her kids who were there.  Then they proceeded to state his crime and “asked” the opinions of the villagers if they agree or disagree that the crime of cattle thief was bad.  The villagers had to cast their  “vote” if they agree  or disagree by a show of hands.  My mom said the villagers were coerced, terrorized into agreeing that he was guilty.  If you did not raise your hand and voted then they accused you of siding with the victim and they would shoot you. My mom said they did this, asking your opinion, to put the blame on you instead of them so you can’t say they kill the “guilty” victim.  They would say, “hey you voted, we are just carrying out the law”. This emotional blackmail was difficult to bear for my mom especially when she knew he was not guilty.  When I asked my mom if she had “voted”, raised her hands… she paused and said yes.  I asked her why?  Why did she raise her hands if she knew he did not commit the crime.  She said, she was too terrified that they would dragged her away like Ai Gea and shot dead like him. She said all the villagers on that day knew, there was no chance of Ai Gea coming out alive of that situation because he was picked to to used as an “example” of what would happen if they did not obey the soldiers.  She said she her village was not the only one where random people were targeted and used as an example to frightened people into submission.

I tell this story of Ai Gea to remind us who have made it out of Laos that we should be grateful to live in a country where we no longer have to be force to witness the slaughter of our loved ones.  We are lucky to be able to live how we want, do what we want, say what we want without fear.  It is a blessing to live in a country where…” all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  I am just saddened that Ai Gea and many others like him will never know what it is like to live in the land of the free, whether it is here in the U.S. or in Laos.  All I know is the cost of freedom for Americans and Laotians have been great.

 May 20, 1970 a friend of the familyFourth of July is a time to celebrate with our friends and families, but it is also a time to remember those who are no longer here with us, those who have given up their lives so that we may enjoy this moment with our loved ones.  I love this country where I am living, but I will never forget the country where my heart will always call home.

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8 thoughts on “The Cost of Freedom

  1. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Laos: Reflections on communist invasion

  2. Dallas

    You many soldiers and lower rank commanders remain in Laos and Thailand after communists took over. They were waiting for any kind of instructions to counter attack. My father and his friends were some I know send their family to safety in Thailand while they remained but nothing came.

    We lost because:

    1) No real leadership (from the King, Princes, Generals, and government)
    2) Bad leadership (from the King, Princes, Generals, and government)
    3) Corruption (majority of the Generals)
    4) No sense of nationalism. Leaders didn’t care about the country but only themselves and which part of the country they control
    5) Not united for the causes from the Royal family down to the Generals
    6) Constant internal fighting. Coupe after coupe.

  3. Laotian Teacher

    Dallas, my stepfather (he was a sub-lientenant in the Laos army) left in 1974 after his uncle who was a Lientenant General was arrested by the Pathet Lao. He sent his family to Thailand for safety as well because he knew of the risk he was taking by staying. Many high ranking military officers were arrested along with my dad’s uncle. His uncle was imprisoned for ten years before they let him go. Many of the men arrested with him died from getting sick because there was no medical care. Some couldn’t handle the years of imprisonment and they went crazy.

    You are right that Laos lacked leadership and nationalism during that time. The internal fighting led to the coupes. Any country that is not united will be dominated by the outside force.

    When you mentioned corruption it reminds me of what is going in Thailand right now with the shady Prime Minister and his cabinets. Will Thailand be able to hold it together? Will people be able to come together for a common cause and make the government do what is right for the people? At least in Thailand at this turbulent time, there are people ( News 1 owner) who are not afraid to speak out against the Prime Minister and his lack of success. Too bad, Laos did not have a strong leader back then.

  4. amphone

    Finally got things under control when the French take over, tried to get everyone educated so every ones be on the same sheet of music, from 1898 to 1954 thats only 56 years, many were still trying to feel the sense of nationalism since everyone came from so many ethnic backgrounds and mindset, beliefs, and idea, then WWII broke out, the Japanese came, when the war is over, regroup again, trying to appoint who’s who in government, then that Konglair coupe, then the Vietnam War era, then the communist era was in full swing, only a few people read and write lead alone still worship trees and stuffs, ….

    Good topic teacher, something to talk about. The picture of the King looks good. Looks like he is a little stress or something. I don’t know what he is thinking. I read at somewhere that he did his best to save his little so call Kingdom.

  5. Laotian Teacher

    Amphone, you touched on some good points such as the fact that it was difficult for the people of Meuang Lao to feel a sense of nationalism because they were so diverese. This reminds me of Americans in the colonial period. It took them over a hundred years to really feel a sense of nationalism and pride. Yes, some of them briefly came together to defeat a common enemy ( the British), but seperated again after they won their independence. Each state wanted and did their won thing. Even though America called itself a United States of America, they were still bisected many their differences that led to a civil war.

    Your comment reminded me of the fact that it takes time for a country to develop a sense of nationalism especially if that country is so diverse plus if that country lacks a strong leader to pull everyone together. The interference of other countries like the U.S., French and Japan only contributed to the confusion and the amount of time it took Muong Lao to find its own identity.

    Meuang Lao can learn a valuable lesson from America and her growing pains. First, tolerating and respecting the diversity (religious, social etc) within a country can lead to the willingness of its people to form a common ideology that everyone can identify with. For example, the belief that everyone is equal and has the right to life, liberty, and happiness. Even though America is extremely diverse racially, socially, polictically, and religiously, it allows its people to live they way they want and in return they are willing to fight to uphold those rights against foreign entities.

  6. amphone

    I think things are better and better for those countries that have more Fulbright scholars studying and living in the US. In the past, many countries, including ours very own, sent their elites to learn all they can and go back to use what they learn.

    The Americans that ford and built this Nation and create blue jean are proud people. They wanted life, liberty, and happiness. They got it, we got it. They wrote a constitution that everyone agreed on and they uphold it. No one is above the law. They prevailed in all weathers. One example, the American Civil War. After a devastating war between the states,because more leaders were graduated from the same school of thoughts, no matter what their differences were, they worked it out and turned things around. Never to fight each other again. The American Civil War preserved the union and save a country their fore fathers fought for. A proud human history really.

    Thanks for the posting.

  7. John O'Sullivan

    I had the honour to be one of the 3 doctors to Ubon Regugee Camp from September 1978 to September 1979. My wife and I were employed by Save the Children and the third doctor (various during the year) by Medicins Sans Frontieres. We worked with a team of 4 expat nurses (2 general, I midwife and 1 health visitor) and by December 1978 had built up a wonderful team of nearly 50 Laotian volunteers to cater for the health needs of approx 50,000 refugees then in the camp.
    If any of you are doing further research on the period, I still have in my possession, my daily diary of the year and many photographs and we did publish 3 articles in various medical journals during 1980. The main ‘overview’ one was published in the British Medical Journal (Primary Health Care in Ubon Refugee Camp 15th March 1980) and a further 2 on the nuitritional status of the children in the camp in other relevant journals.
    I wish you all well.
    John O’Sullivan (josully@aol.com)

    1. APUSH Teacher

      Dr.Sullivan, I will definitely be in touch!! Thank you for what you did to help those of us there at tge camp. I am definitely interested in your daily dairy and photos, these things are invaluable. I will email you.

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