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.