Monday, August 20, 2007

AMERICANS TRICKLE BACK TO LAOS—or should be

AMERICANS TRICKLE BACK TO LAOS—or should be

By Kevin Stoda


I had certain concerns and questions about crossing into Laos as an American—even as recently as a few weeks ago. I wondered what remnants of war and isolation I would find in a land where the U.S. tonnage of bombs in an illegal and covert war in the 1960s and 1970s had totaled 2 million tons of bombs. At that time, there was only a population of about 2 to 3 million peoples among the various ethnic tribes and groupings in the whole country of Laos. That means that the total tonnage per capita was unheard of (in a comparison to any other country on the planet).

Americans have to a great degree not acknowledged (or at least often have failed to recall) what sort of damage and continuing damage such a war crime of bombing has created not only for the psyches of the Americans who had to participate as perpetrators in such misguided bombings, but of the continuing legacy of personal injuries, deaths and destruction affecting Lao peoples for far too long. Further, the war effort and subsequent U.S. isolation of the region has stunted cultural, economic, political, and social development in Laos and its neighboring Indochinese lands

My own cousin, who flew as a bombing pilot for the Navy in the Vietnam era, once shared how he had asked his navigator never to even reveal to him where his plane was headed.

My cousin consistently repeated to the navigator, “Don’t tell me!”

This intentional act of not-knowing of my cousin is symbolic of the intentional lack of recollection by far too many Americans after April 30, 1975 of what we had done or had been doing in Southeast Asia. Now, because of this neglect of cultivating memory, young Americans of the past two generations have been led once again into the crimes of war by a new set of American regimes repeating the same sins and crimes in our present day—and again in Asia, but this time in Southwest Asia.


MY MEMORIES OF EDUCATION ON LAOS

Most Americans of non-Hmong or non-Laotian descent know only of the image of Laos (and the CIA) portrayed in the 1980s film with Mel Gibson, Air America. In This film, Gibson plays an American making money in the name of Patriotism in Laos on CIA run air strips. He sometimes even finds himself flying drug money in and out of the country on behalf of corrupt Lao generals.

However, from watching the film Americans then learn to recall only that America did well by getting thousands of refugee victims, including Hmong tribes, out of war-torn Laos in the final days of an evacuation—an evacuation that was the prelude to the disastrous and horrific evacuation of the Vietnamese capital seen some weeks later. Through watching the film, it is not clear to the viewer that the U.S. CIA was responsible for the growth of the drug cartels in Laos at that time. The U.S. CIA did this dabbling in and promotion of the drugs trade in Southeast Asia in order to raise cash that was free of congressional oversight.

I, myself, learned only of the Hmong tribal experience when I arrived to teach in Kansas City, Kansas around 1985. As part of my preparation for teaching in inner city KCK school district, I learned of how these Hmongs, often referred to in literature as a nearly stone-aged society in Laos, had worked hand-in-hand with both the fascist and anti-communist forces in Laos and Vietnam only a decade earlier. I realized then that their resettlement in America had been harder than for many other South East Asians throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Imagine having to learn to read and write in another language when you had never even had an alphabet in your own language!

Hmongs had arrived to America without a writing system of their own. Therefore, as might be expected, their youth and offspring—unlike many other Asian immigrants—did not do very well in school (as they were too culturally and educationally disadvantaged coming in).

Moreover, the modern United States offered no economic area that the Hmongs had a natural advantage in. The Hmong students whom I tried to teach either U.S. History or World Cultures to at U.S.D. 500 in Kansas City, Kansas in 1985 had had the potential to share o much insight into America’s Vietnam-ra educational,but their language skills and understanding of why education was important was extremely limited. Moreover, Americans just wanted to forget the bad old days and the stupidity of the Vietnam era.

In America of 1985, Hmongs and other Laotian tribal groups were continuing to be too internally focused. Talking to some of these students was like talking to someone in a drug induced haze--as though the members of the community were still in a mass state of shock even a full decade after resettlement in the USA. This was one reason why their children, even as high school students could hardly read nor speak English.

This meant that many young Laos and Hmong teens were still dropping out of American schools as soon as they hit the age of 16.


ANOTHER IMAGE OF LAOS

Luckily, in Kansas City, Kansas school district, I came to know a high school French teacher who had lived most of the 1960s in the capital of Laos: Vientiane. It appears that at that time, no one else from the USA wanted to do a Fulbright Scholarship in that corner of the globe, so this soon-to-be French teacher from Louisiana received a record total of 6 Fulbright’s and got to know the Laotians quite well. This French instructor told wonderful stories of his time in Laos and of the people he had gotten to know there.

In short, even during the darkest era of American covert-war as well as during the fighting between communist (Pathet Lao) and Laos governmental forces in the country of the 1960s and 1970s—a time when most of America’s images of the land of Laos was either that of a CIA-promoting opium producers or of fascist generals increasing the desire of the native peoples for a redistribution of society’s wealth and governance, i.e. through support of communism—life and people were good and pleasant to live with. My school teacher colleague’s portrait of a Laotian world filled with friendly and loving peoples, i.e. real people (not images) who made up the Landscape of Laos.

Finally, this past August 10, 2007—after having visited neighboring Cambodia and Thailand on numerous occasions—I made the trek to the International Friendship Bridge on the Mekong between the Thai village of Nong Khai and the tiny capital of Laos, Vientiane. Soon, I was spending very agreeable days traveling (first) in the capital and then in the rural regions of the “Land of a Million Elephants, known as Laos.”

My former French teaching colleague back in KCK was certainly correct. The people of the country are warm, helpful, and friendly. The country is pleasnt to live and travel in.

Moreover, NGOs—including the many who have been helping pick up (and detonate the) millions of American bombs and bomblets strewn all over the countryside in this beautiful and sparsely populated Southeast Asian land—have been particularly effective in partnering with local peoples and with local organizations in creating a fairly safe and easy country to travel around in. [Nonetheless, up to 30% of the mines and bombs around the country of Laos have not yet been detonated nor cleared from the landscape.]


EVIDENCE OF BOMBS EVERYWHERE

My first evidence of the continuing repercussions of bombing of Laos by American and other forces approximately four decades ago was noted in the jobs that youth with good skills were receiving in the nation’s job market.

I was enjoying a hot sauna and massage at one of the traditional forest temples, located at the outskirts of town, when a young IT specialist came in and sat across from us in the steam. I soon learned that he was from southeast Laos--near Cambodia. His first job has been in Vientiane with an NGO that worked to eliminate landmines and other unexploded ordinance in the country. He claims that the NGO will continue to work in the country for decades to come—even with financial support from some American governmental agencies in recent years increasing the amount of land area cleared annually.

The young Lao estimated that in the wake of the Japan occupation of Indochina in WWII, through the wars of independence in the late 1940s and 1950s , the subsequent American, Lao communist, and Vietnamese fights from the 1960s and early 1970s, and during the struggle to takeover of the nation that followed the Pathet Lao’s victory in 1975, it was still estimated that there existed several tons of unexploded ordinance per capita throughout the country. In short, from a political-economic standpoint for many years to come laborers and volunteers would be needed to clear this poor country of 6 million citizens of more tonnage than ever landed in Germany or its occupied countries during the whole of WWII.

Later, while crossing over a pair of private bridges on the Nom Song river in the village of Vang Vieng, I witnessed missile shell casings now being used to decorate both the exit and entrance ramps of both bridges. They served as a reminder of the nation’s past. By placing the missile casings on these relatively new private bridges of Laos’ hinterland, a point is made that the Land of a Million Elephants doesn’t forget so easily—or can’t forget easily.

The next day at the Buddhist Temple of Elephant Cave, upstream a few kilometers from Vang Vieng, I noticed a large bell created from the casing of much larger bomb casing than I had seen along the river bridges the day before.

I went up and rang the large bell. This weapon of war turned into a symbol of Buddhist reflection—and definitely sounded beautiful and soothing. It was certainly good to note how a history of war and the weapons of mass destruction used in Laos so long ago could be turned into something of beauty. As I rang the bell one final time, I knew that some of the bad memories had been forever transformed.

With this pleasant reflection, I proceeded back to the river, enjoyed a meal with our Lao guides, and continued on a kayak journey downstream back to Vang Vieng.

That evening in Vang Vieng, a small town which has become a major low budget tourist destination along one of the prettier parts of Indochina, I swung slowly on a hammock and observed Japanese visitors photographing the beautiful hills to the west at sunset.

As dusk surrounded me on the hammock along the river, I reflected that Laos now certainly seemed to be a place of peace. I thought that many other Americans, too, need to come here and visit this land—getting to know the Lao peoples of whatever ethnic identity. I felt they needed to come and leave some money behind and get to know one of the nicer and friendlier places on the planet to while away one’s vacation.

I thought, “Come & get to know the history & culture of this land and make some friends.”



POSTLUDE


In order to be fair and critical, it would certainly appear that the Laos government—still officially communist—has not gotten over the past in a totally positive manner either, i.e. similar to America and its tendency to carry war era-amnesia or not desiring to deal with making peace with the past.

As on August 10, 2007 I had been making the crossing over the Mekong River at the Friendship Bridge to Vientiane, Laos, the border entrance from the Laos side was being blockaded by several hundred elderly demonstrators. According to my guide that day, they were not being allowed to return to Laos.

He explained they were carrying out a 2 or 3 day-long direct action at the border in order to create awareness for their dilemma on both sides of the river. I found this fascinating: Even though, the Thai government is still under martial law, the border police on the Thai side were permitting this direction action by Lao refugees to take place.

I took pictures of these demonstrators singing traditional songs as they sat and occupied the international border. I reflected how difficult it would be in the USA or Mexico for demonstrators to block a major international border for 2 or 3 days—even with advanced permission from government officials on one side of the border. In any case, it is sad that older citizens of Laos, who had fled their homeland decades ago during times of war (or during communist persecution or retribution), were still being banned from returning to their peaceful land--nearly 1/3 of a century after the Asian wars or revolution or independence had ended.

Before I close, I also need to add that despite the years of bombing there is still goodwill towards Americans in Laos—i.e. despite the unwarranted and long-lasting devastation cause by our record number of bombings in search of the Ho Chi Minh trail decades back. I found local people surprised that I was from the US and traveling in their land—This is because our representation as tourists is too sparse. Only on the last day of my journey back to the Mekong border crossing did I even run into Americans for the first time on my entire trip.

I hope to go back to the Land of Laos soon and enjoy its laid-back peoples, and now that 4 years ago the U.S. State Department had finally taken Laos off its list of evil empires, more Americans should do so and soon—i.e. before everyone else discovers the joy of living and visiting there.

If a reader is interested in kayaking, hiking, spelunking, volunteering and getting to know Laotians and their land today, here are a few web sites:

Green Discovery
http://www.greendiscoverylaos.com/

Lao Travel Links
http://www.theboatlanding.laopdr.com/travelinks.html

Land of a Million Elephants and a White Parasol
http://laos.seeli.info/laos_main.php

By the way, Green Discovery is possibly one of the stronger soft tourism and ecotourism outfits I have found anywhere. (Laos is the 95th country I have visited in the past two or so decades.)

Green Discovery folks promote good local participation in the development of tourism and give tourists a lot of face-to-face encounters with local Laos of different ethnic origin, who are empowered to market their goods and their society in a more eco-friendlier way than other countries in the past have had the opportunity to do. In short, one can leave a positive social and economic footprint while visiting and departing from Laos as a tourist.

In addition, I should note not all things that America did in Laos in the 1960s were bad or ill-thought out. One night, I met in Vang Vieng a man who had helped build the main road artery going north from the capital to Vang Vieng and on to Louang Phrabang (a UNESCO world cultural city) under US funding during that era of civil war. This Lao resident was quite positive in sharing of his good experiences working with Americans—even though America appeared to have permanently abandoned the country decades ago.

More importantly for me the traveler , that national road has been well maintained—and I certainly enjoyed bicycling on it several days. I would hope that 20 or 30 years after America leaves Iraq that any such similar construction or development projects are appreciated and remembered by the Iraqis. (We know that the destruction we have wrought in Babylon has certainly adversely affected American image in Iraq and around the globe in recent years Maybe if we get back on a humanitarian focus in solving global problems, such tragedies can be avoided. In short, in the decades after the Vietnam War, the U.S. government has given less and less money benevolently abroad while giving more and more for supporting the weapons industry in the USA—the industry that produces bombs to drop on people)


In conclusion, I give a thumbs up to more Americans going to Laos and helping the country develop by taking their tourist dollars, being good human representatives of our land (i.e. no child pornography, drugs, or prostitution), and considering making some other long term investments in the region through private concerns or NGOs who can do so much good in countries around the world if they work on people-to-people exchange and not exchanges of weapons fire and drugs.


See this website for a list of some NGOs in Laos:
http://www.directoryofngos.org/

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