Cover image for Harvesting Pa Chay's wheat : the Hmong and America's secret war in Laos
Title:
Harvesting Pa Chay's wheat : the Hmong and America's secret war in Laos
Author:
Quincy, Keith, 1941-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Spokane, Wash. : Eastern Washington University Press, 2000.
Physical Description:
xiii, 597 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm
Language:
English
ISBN:
9780910055611

9780910055604
Format :
Book

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Central Library DS559.73.L28 Q56 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
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Summary

Summary

U.S. military personnel their funding funneled through the CIA began operating covertly in Laos in 1957, training and leading troops against communist insurgents. Later, as America's involvement in Vietnam escalated, Laos was the focus of one of the largest and least publicized bombing campaigns in


Summary

America's secret war in Laos from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s sounds like the stuff of conspiracy theories, but it actually happened. Keith Quincy uncovers the secret war America denied for over 30 years. From the Hmong's war of independence with France to America's use of Laos as a military staging point during the Vietnam War, the Hmong were exploited because of their geographic location and passive culture. Harvesting Pa Chay's Wheat traces the history that led to the mass exodus of the Hmong people and their immigration into neighbouring Thailand and the United States in the early 1980s. Keith Quincy is professor of government at Eastern Washington University. He is the author of Hmong: History of a People and other books.


Author Notes

Keith Quincy is chairman of the Department of Government at Eastern Washington University, where he teaches political science and philosophy.


Keith Quincy is chairman of the Department of Government at Eastern Washington University, where he teaches political science and philosophy.


Reviews 3

Publisher's Weekly Review

The 13-year covert, American-run war against North Vietnam and the Communist Pathet Lao in Laos ended in 1973. Quincy's dense but rewarding studyÄwhich takes its title from a messianic Hmong farmer who led an armed rebellion against the French in the early 1920sÄgives a detailed history of political upheavals and wars in the region, beginning in the 14th century, but the focus is on the upland Hmong tribespeople who were U.S. allies for the Laotian campaign. Several other well-researched books have covered much of the same territory in depth. Quincy, chair of the department of government at Eastern Washington University, adds more voices to that research, using hundreds of interviews he conducted with the Hmong (many of whom now live in the U.S.) in the 1980s and 1990s to bring the corruption and brutality among the group's leadership further to light. (One researcher involved with the project has received death threats.) By 1977, more than 100,000 Laotian refugees, not all of whom were Hmong, had crowded into camps on the Thai border. Some remained for 15 years, Quincy argues, because agents of the exiled Hmong leadership "were able to persuade, cajole, and intimidate most refugees to forego resettlement... to provide guerrillas for the Neo Hom resistance, the magnet for financial contributions." This well-written narrative clearly shows that the secret war's biggest losers were the Hmong, who did most of the fightingÄand dyingÄagainst the North Vietnamese. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved


Library Journal Review

The Hmong people, also known as Miao or Meo, are active participants in and tragic victims of modern nation formation and the Cold War. Quincy (Hmong: History of a People), an established scholar of Laos and the Hmong, energetically relates their experience and the history of Laos over the last century with deep feeling, telling detail, and occasional dark humor, using written sources, personal observation, and interviews. The Hmong started as a tribal society in the south of China, where contending Hmong family leaders fought both against each other and the outsiders who tried to dominate, co-opt, or exterminate them. Eventually, they migrated to Laos, where they established themselves by force. French colonialists enlisted Hmong leaders as allies. Then American Cold Warriors took over the murderous battle against the Vietnamese and their revolution, until finally the remaining Hmong fled to Thailand and the United States. This sad but colorful story will appeal both to general readers interested in Cold War history and to scholars.DCharles W. Hayford, Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Library Journal Review

The Hmong people, also known as Miao or Meo, are active participants in and tragic victims of modern nation formation and the Cold War. Quincy (Hmong: History of a People), an established scholar of Laos and the Hmong, energetically relates their experience and the history of Laos over the last century with deep feeling, telling detail, and occasional dark humor, using written sources, personal observation, and interviews. The Hmong started as a tribal society in the south of China, where contending Hmong family leaders fought both against each other and the outsiders who tried to dominate, co-opt, or exterminate them. Eventually, they migrated to Laos, where they established themselves by force. French colonialists enlisted Hmong leaders as allies. Then American Cold Warriors took over the murderous battle against the Vietnamese and their revolution, until finally the remaining Hmong fled to Thailand and the United States. This sad but colorful story will appeal both to general readers interested in Cold War history and to scholars.DCharles W. Hayford, Northwestern Univ., Evanston, IL (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Chapter One Sowing Pa Chay's Wheat Geographically, Laos is not unlike the state of Idaho. Both are about the same size and shape with a bulge and panhandle, though the two are flipped images, with Idaho's panhandle in the north and Laos' hanging south. Like Idaho, Laos is mostly mountainous and, in the north, heavily forested with conifers. Laos even has its own Palouse, a heart-shaped expanse of rolling grassland known as the Plain of Jars. There is a demographic affinity as well. Like Idaho, Laos is sparsely settled with a population density less than the average in the U.S.     Here the similarity ends. Idaho is the gem state, whereas Laos is a fairy tale land, ancient and mysterious, a place at home in the pages of National Geographic , famous not for its precious stones or robust potatoes but for tropical jungles that spread over river valleys with kudzu-like exuberance, and for highland forests that once teemed with elephants, tigers, rhinoceros, and short-tempered gaur.     Deep in the Laotian jungles lie ancient tumbledown temples choked with Bombax roots and shrouded in lianas. Here and there flame trees line roads, and on river islands magical trees grow fruit that by legend turns monkeys into men. Strange lichen-encrusted limestone pots, some as tall as eight feet and weighing up to three tons, litter the sinuate hills of the Plain of Jars, memorials of an unknown race that used the pots to house their dead.     Everywhere there are wats (Buddhist temples) with rococo-tiered roofs that curl at the edges like lapping tongues, and legions of Bonzes (Buddhist monks) in saffron robes collecting alms from the faithful. The great Mekong River borders the nation, racing through its switchbacks in the north before unkinking into a gentle curve that cleaves Laos from Thailand, running narrow and swift, until it nears Cambodia, where it suddenly turns lazy and spreads out like a lake. Then there is the rain, monsoons that arrive in waves from May to November, drenching the lowlands and recharging highland aquifers until they overflow in geysers that shoot straight out of the sides of sodden mountains. A NATION OF MINORITIES     The people are as varied as the landscape. For much of its history, Laos has been a destination rather than a place of origin. Only the Khmu are native to the region. They occupied the river valleys before the T'ai began to arrive in waves from China, impelled southward by Kublai Khan's invading armies and the ethnic cleansing campaigns of the T'ang, Sung, and Ming dynasties. The T'ai migration began in the ninth century and continued in trickles, spurts, and occasional torrents until the thirteenth century.     The press of newcomers forced the Khmu into the highlands, where they became montagnards. The T'ai seized the Khmu's abandoned paddy fields and evolved into the lowland Lao, though a portion with lingering wanderlust pushed on into Laos' northeastern wilderness to live as montagnards and become the highland T'ai. Hmong, Akha, Lolo, Lahu, Yao, Yi, and a dozen or so other ethnic groups, with populations so small they attract the attention only of anthropologists, were latecomers arriving in drops and dribbles from the 1750s onward to settle in the uninhabited mountains of Laos' northern provinces. The last bit of seasoning added to this ethnic stew was the Vietnamese, brought to Laos by the French.     No group in this mix is large enough to make a majority, not even the ethnic Lao. At the start of America's secret war, Laos had a population of three million. Of this number only 1.4 million were ethnic Lao. The rest, a slight majority, were highlanders or montagnards. This included 750,000 Khmu and about 350,000 highland T'ai. The Hmong added another 250,000, and the Akha, Lolo, Lahu, and Yao montagnards another 250,000. Though a minority themselves, the ethnic Lao have nevertheless dominated politics and long ago placed their stamp on the national culture. This is not a testimony to their political skill. It was power by default.     Despite their common lot as hill farmers and victims of Lao prejudice and oppression, the montagnards have proved incapable of cooperation. United, they would have had a voice, perhaps even the deciding one, but they disliked each other as much as they despised the Lao. Highland T'ai warlords and bandits periodically savaged the Hmong and Khmu who, in turn, slaughtered each other. The worst conflict between Khmu and Hmong occurred at the turn of the century in a dispute over land rights: the Khmu claimed title to land occupied by Hmong, demanded tribute, and tried to intimidate the Hmong by killing scores of them in a raid. The Hmong responded with fury and butchered several thousand Khmu. The Khmu fled the area in great numbers, many resettling in northwestern Laos.     Even within particular montagnard groups there has been little real solidarity. Rivalries between clans, tribal prejudice, and ancient blood feuds between notables and their kin have made it difficult for Yao to unite with Yao, Khmu to join hands with Khmu, or Hmong to close ranks with fellow Hmong. On the rare occasion when a particular mountain minority has united as one people, it has been a fragile solidarity dependent on the leadership of a single charismatic individual, falling apart with his death.     Even among the Lao, spontaneous stirrings of ethnic nationalism have been rare. Laos existed as three separate kingdoms for two hundred years before the French assumed control. During these centuries, three royal families spawned twenty or so aristocratic clans, each jealous of its privileges and dedicated to denying them to rival clans. After the French forcibly reunified Laos, Lao politicians paid lip service to the larger goals of the nation only because French bureaucrats were looking over their shoulders. Backstage they continued to work to advance the narrow interests of a particular family line, such as the Champassaks, Voravongs, or Sananikones.     Nationalism did eventually take root, but only because it was nurtured by outside forces. The first groundswell of Lao nationalism occurred during the Second World War when the French promoted Lao cultural pride to counter Thailand's ambition to absorb all of the Lao, and the land on which they lived, into Thailand. What the French did not count on was a flurry of agitation for political independence following this exercise in consciousness-raising.     Nationalism received another shot in the arm when unrepentant Lao nationalists forced into exile by the French linked up with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Thailand. American instructors in the guerrilla training camps played on ethnic pride and nationalist sentiment to raise morale and fan hatred for the invading Japanese. The alumni of these camps formed the core of the Lao nationalist movement after the war.     Twenty years later North Vietnamese agents were in Laos' hinterlands, championing ethnic nationalism for the montagnards. The communists carried credentials. For over a decade the hill tribes of North Vietnam had enjoyed cultural autonomy: Hanoi did not interfere with traditional lifestyles or religion, and provided schools for montagnard children with courses taught in their native language. This idea appealed to Laos' montagnards, especially when the North Vietnamese preached hatred for Lao lowlanders to drum up support for Laos' own communist movement, the Pathet Lao. Within a decade highland T'ai, Khmu, Yao, and Hmong filled the lower echelons of the Pathet Lao's party bureaucracy and made up the bulk of the Pathet Lao's army. FROM KINGDOM TO DIVIDED NATION     As the dominant group in Laos, the ethnic Lao wrote the nation's history, portraying it as a pageant of their own race. The story begins with the ascension of Fa Ngum, the nation's first king. Fa Ngum's father was a politically ambitious Lao nobleman who came up the loser in a power struggle and fled with his family to Cambodia to enter the service of the Cambodian monarch Jayavarman Paramesvara. Jayavarman took an interest in the nobleman's precocious son, instructing him in Buddhism to make him civilized and drilling him in matters of war as preparation for the future command of an army which would invade the northern territories that would become historical Laos.     The military campaign began in 1340. It took Fa Ngum thirteen years to completely pacify Laos, a territory he called Lan Xang (the land of a million elephants). An army of Bonzes from Angkor streamed into the new kingdom to convert its people to Buddhism and instruct them in the ways of karma, the cosmic force that repays meritorious deeds with a better life in the next reincarnation. The mass conversions served a political purpose. Buddhism sustained an Asian version of the divine right of kings. Individuals born to nobility, or seated on royal thrones, were presumably put there as reward for moral virtue in past lives, transforming de facto privilege and power into moral entitlement.     Fa Ngum enjoyed unchallenged power for two decades, then suddenly lost all interest in politics. While his ministers happily pocketed tax collections and abused power, Fa Ngum frittered away his time in wild debaucheries that scandalized the royal court packed with straitlaced Buddhist converts. Forced into exile in 1373, Fa Ngum died within two years, a broken man.     By a combination of well-managed matrimony and good luck, the kingdom survived its founder's death and enjoyed relative peace for over three hundred years. The integrity of the western border was preserved by diplomatically inspired marriages with members of Thai royalty, while the good luck came in the form of the expansionist Chinese who kept the bellicose Vietnamese busy with repeated invasions of Tonkin (northern Vietnam).     In 1694, after centuries of holding powerful neighbors at bay, Lan Xang collapsed from within. Suligna Vongsa had ruled the kingdom for nearly sixty years. A stickler for law and order, he allowed his only son to be executed for adultery. This left two grandsons as heirs to the throne, but neither had reached maturity before Suligna's death. As the boys did their lessons and put on height, various nobles vied for control of the kingdom, plunging Laos into civil war. When the fighting was over, Laos had divided into three realms: Champassak in the south, Vieng Chan (Vientiane) in the center, and Luang Prabang in the north.     For two centuries the separate principalities survived by practicing the diplomacy of the impotent: they paid tributes to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand as bribes against invasion, and formed alliances with the ascendant power of the moment. It was a dangerous game with little margin for error. By the 1830s Vietnam had already annexed most of northeastern Laos, and Thailand occupied a large chunk of Laos' western provinces. France's decision in the late 1880s to add Laos to its Indochinese empire likely saved the tiny nation from being completely assimilated by its neighbors. FRENCH COLONY     The French were not the first Europeans in Laos. The Dutch preceded them by nearly two hundred years, first sending missionaries as shock troops to accustom the natives to European ways, determine their susceptibility to exploitation and, if time permitted, save a few souls. The missionaries found the people to be carefree and charming but resolute Buddhists with absolutely no interest in Christianity.     The businessmen who followed hoped for better luck. One Dutch trader looking for a good deal on stick-lac (a lacquer-like substance exuded by insects) and benzoin found the trade moderately profitable but the people entirely too promiscuous for a good Calvinist. He gave up evening walks because he could scarcely travel twenty yards without encountering "horrible fornications" in the bushes beside the road. Other merchants, more concerned with profit than morality, came away sadly disappointed. Except for a few odd items like stick-lac, there seemed very little in Laos worth exploiting, especially the native work force which would later be described in the Atlas des Colonies Françaises as "friendly ... hospitable and opposed to hard work ."     This dismal assessment deterred everyone but the French. They obstinately sent explorers to poke around the country to measure its potential. For a time it was hoped that the Mekong River could be used as a back door into China, where the British were making fortunes in trade while using their navy to control China's eastern seaboard and keep everyone else out. The French desperately wanted a piece of the action. In 1868 they sent an expedition up the Mekong to determine the feasibility of using the river as a trade route into China. After two years of braving rapids and hacking through jungle, a report was submitted detailing the treacherous nature of the river, especially as it nears the Chinese border where waterfalls and rapids arise every few miles.     After decades of drawing maps, sending expeditions upriver, and collecting ore samples, the French finally established an official presence in Laos in 1886 with a small vice-consulate in Luang Prabang. In that same year Britain seized control of Burma, preparing its own back door into China. Nine more years passed before France officially absorbed Laos into its empire. Territories lost to Thailand and Vietnam were restored and the three kingdoms joined into a unified state, with the city of Vientiane as its administrative capital.     Given the bleak economic forecast, it might appear something of a mystery why the French went to all the bother. In 1917 Albert Sarraut offered what would become a popular justification for French colonialism in Southeast Asia. Speaking before a predominately Vietnamese audience following his appointment to the post of Governor General of Indochina, Sarraut announced, "I want to give you the instrument of liberation which will gradually lead you toward those superior spheres to which you aspire."     The instrument of liberation to which Sarraut referred was capitalist economics seasoned with French culture, a mixture that was supposed to transform the backward natives of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia into civilized beings. This lofty goal, immodestly referred to as La Mission Civilisatrice , rang nearly as false then as it does now.     A more forthright explanation for colonizing Laos is that professional soldiers garrisoned in the country saw an opportunity to advance their careers by holding onto the territory and lobbied hard for colonization. The French navy, anxious for deep water ports in the Orient, had earlier campaigned against the abandonment of Vietnam for much the same reason.     Such lobbying efforts were successful because at the time Europe was obsessed with colonization, for political as much as economic reasons. Class struggle had become a dominant feature of European politics. This was particularly true in France, where the government habitually served the interests of the owning classes, making it difficult for French politicians to claim with a straight face that they ruled in the name of all citizens of the nation. Only in a French colony could state officials make such a claim, for it was only in Indochina or Algeria that a French bureaucrat or soldier, surrounded on all sides by alien peoples, might without obvious self-deception consider himself first and foremost a Frenchman and view his activities as service to the French nation rather than to a particular economic class. Through this contortion of reason, colonizing Laos became an unarticulated exercise in legitimizing the French state.     Still, the French felt obliged to find some way to make economic sense out of the enterprise, and desperately searched the country for hidden pockets of profit. Unlike Vietnam, with its tin and coal mines in the north, rubber in the central highlands, and rice in the Red River and Mekong deltas, there was almost nothing in Laos worth exploiting. Rice harvests were small, and mineral deposits of coal and tin were usually to be found only in inaccessible mountain regions. There was opium, of course, grown in abundance by the montagnards, but the French had yet to fully comprehend the drug's enormous economic potential.     For a brief period the fantasy was revived that the Mekong could somehow turn a profit. French bankers were persuaded to invest 100,000 francs (about $600,000) to establish trading posts along the river all the way to the Chinese border. Instead of French goods penetrating China, Chinese traders used the posts as outlets for their own products. The venture went belly-up after only two years.     The only lucrative enterprise in Laos of any significance was a small strip-mining operation for tin in the northern panhandle close to the town of Nam Pathene--and the mine did not yield substantial returns until the 1930s, when an international tin cartel forced up world prices. Even with inflated prices, the mine failed to generate enough revenue to pull the French administration in Laos out of the red.     It did not take long for administrative policy to reflect resentment over low revenues. While the French would invest vast sums in Vietnam to develop the nation's economy, they spent next to nothing in Laos to upgrade its infrastructure or to encourage economic development. While Vietnam had dams, bitumen highways, railways, vast irrigation systems, canals, dams, bridges, ports, and harbors, the only thing the French built in Laos was a crude road network (Routes 4, 5, 6, 7, 13, 42 and 72) of single-lane dirt roads that was generally unusable during the rainy season. Consistent with this bare-bones approach to governance, in the early years only seventy administrators were allocated to oversee the affairs of the entire nation. French bureaucrats unfortunate enough to find themselves assigned to this colonial backwater "generally spent most of their time chasing the local women, seeking or avoiding addiction to alcohol or opium, and dreaming of their return to Saigon or Hanoi" where promotions were possible and French cuisine available in the better hotels. Even the most libertine administrator was careful to set aside enough time from pleasures to oversee the collection of taxes. However, once this duty was fulfilled French bureaucrats were content to leave most of the actual governing of the nation to the royal court at Luang Prabang, where the principal source of power was the distribution of offices to members of the old elite of the defunct kingdoms of Champassak, Vientiane, and Luang Prabang--sinecures that were the object of intense rivalry, between and within these royal families, and that continued well into the future.     This is not to say that the French gave up on Laos. Contrasting the sleepy kingdom to energetic Vietnam, the French concluded that one obvious cause of Laotian poverty was its people. They were inferior: not just to Europeans, which was the standard view toward all conquered Asians and Africans, but to the Vietnamese as well. Serious and industrious, the Vietnamese were the object of grudging admiration. By contrast, the ethnic Lao, fun-loving and lethargic, were considered absolutely useless. Even lower in estimation were the Laotian montagnards. As one colonial official noted, "This savage race, indolent and superstitious, non-progressive," cannot "be called upon to play an important role in Indochina."     Race mixing seemed the logical remedy, so the French administration encouraged Vietnamese to immigrate to Laos. By French estimates, the population density of Laos was four people to the square mile. In Vietnam's Mekong delta the figure was close to fifteen hundred. Whereas Vietnam was cramped, Laos had elbowroom to spare. The French hoped Vietnamese would fill up the river valleys and mountains of Laos, interbreed with the natives, and create two hybrid races: lowlanders with intelligence and drive, and hardy montagnards amenable to civilization. To hedge their bet on the beneficial effects of hybridization, the French also intended to bring in sufficient Vietnamese to alter the demographics in their favor.     If judged by the ambitious goal to bring in so many Vietnamese that they would "reduce the Lao to a minority in their own country," the immigration program was not a complete success. Acclimatized to Vietnam's sweltering heat and humidity that can curl paper while you look at it, few Vietnamese were eager to venture into the rugged Laotian mountains where ice sometimes forms on winter ponds. Still, the French were able to fill up the tropical lowland towns with Vietnamese, bringing in traders and merchants to the major cities and appointing Vietnamese to mid-level posts in the colonial bureaucracy.     So successful was this effort that just prior to the Second World War the nation's largest city, Vientiane, had become 53 percent Vietnamese; the next largest city, Thakhek, 85 percent; further south in Pakse, 62 percent.     What the French could not know was that the Vietnamization of Laos would lay the groundwork for a determined communist movement in the country and guarantee that it would be controlled from Hanoi. (Continues...) Copyright © 2000 Keith Quincy. All rights reserved.
Chapter One Sowing Pa Chay's Wheat Geographically, Laos is not unlike the state of Idaho. Both are about the same size and shape with a bulge and panhandle, though the two are flipped images, with Idaho's panhandle in the north and Laos' hanging south. Like Idaho, Laos is mostly mountainous and, in the north, heavily forested with conifers. Laos even has its own Palouse, a heart-shaped expanse of rolling grassland known as the Plain of Jars. There is a demographic affinity as well. Like Idaho, Laos is sparsely settled with a population density less than the average in the U.S.     Here the similarity ends. Idaho is the gem state, whereas Laos is a fairy tale land, ancient and mysterious, a place at home in the pages of National Geographic , famous not for its precious stones or robust potatoes but for tropical jungles that spread over river valleys with kudzu-like exuberance, and for highland forests that once teemed with elephants, tigers, rhinoceros, and short-tempered gaur.     Deep in the Laotian jungles lie ancient tumbledown temples choked with Bombax roots and shrouded in lianas. Here and there flame trees line roads, and on river islands magical trees grow fruit that by legend turns monkeys into men. Strange lichen-encrusted limestone pots, some as tall as eight feet and weighing up to three tons, litter the sinuate hills of the Plain of Jars, memorials of an unknown race that used the pots to house their dead.     Everywhere there are wats (Buddhist temples) with rococo-tiered roofs that curl at the edges like lapping tongues, and legions of Bonzes (Buddhist monks) in saffron robes collecting alms from the faithful. The great Mekong River borders the nation, racing through its switchbacks in the north before unkinking into a gentle curve that cleaves Laos from Thailand, running narrow and swift, until it nears Cambodia, where it suddenly turns lazy and spreads out like a lake. Then there is the rain, monsoons that arrive in waves from May to November, drenching the lowlands and recharging highland aquifers until they overflow in geysers that shoot straight out of the sides of sodden mountains. A NATION OF MINORITIES     The people are as varied as the landscape. For much of its history, Laos has been a destination rather than a place of origin. Only the Khmu are native to the region. They occupied the river valleys before the T'ai began to arrive in waves from China, impelled southward by Kublai Khan's invading armies and the ethnic cleansing campaigns of the T'ang, Sung, and Ming dynasties. The T'ai migration began in the ninth century and continued in trickles, spurts, and occasional torrents until the thirteenth century.     The press of newcomers forced the Khmu into the highlands, where they became montagnards. The T'ai seized the Khmu's abandoned paddy fields and evolved into the lowland Lao, though a portion with lingering wanderlust pushed on into Laos' northeastern wilderness to live as montagnards and become the highland T'ai. Hmong, Akha, Lolo, Lahu, Yao, Yi, and a dozen or so other ethnic groups, with populations so small they attract the attention only of anthropologists, were latecomers arriving in drops and dribbles from the 1750s onward to settle in the uninhabited mountains of Laos' northern provinces. The last bit of seasoning added to this ethnic stew was the Vietnamese, brought to Laos by the French.     No group in this mix is large enough to make a majority, not even the ethnic Lao. At the start of America's secret war, Laos had a population of three million. Of this number only 1.4 million were ethnic Lao. The rest, a slight majority, were highlanders or montagnards. This included 750,000 Khmu and about 350,000 highland T'ai. The Hmong added another 250,000, and the Akha, Lolo, Lahu, and Yao montagnards another 250,000. Though a minority themselves, the ethnic Lao have nevertheless dominated politics and long ago placed their stamp on the national culture. This is not a testimony to their political skill. It was power by default.     Despite their common lot as hill farmers and victims of Lao prejudice and oppression, the montagnards have proved incapable of cooperation. United, they would have had a voice, perhaps even the deciding one, but they disliked each other as much as they despised the Lao. Highland T'ai warlords and bandits periodically savaged the Hmong and Khmu who, in turn, slaughtered each other. The worst conflict between Khmu and Hmong occurred at the turn of the century in a dispute over land rights: the Khmu claimed title to land occupied by Hmong, demanded tribute, and tried to intimidate the Hmong by killing scores of them in a raid. The Hmong responded with fury and butchered several thousand Khmu. The Khmu fled the area in great numbers, many resettling in northwestern Laos.     Even within particular montagnard groups there has been little real solidarity. Rivalries between clans, tribal prejudice, and ancient blood feuds between notables and their kin have made it difficult for Yao to unite with Yao, Khmu to join hands with Khmu, or Hmong to close ranks with fellow Hmong. On the rare occasion when a particular mountain minority has united as one people, it has been a fragile solidarity dependent on the leadership of a single charismatic individual, falling apart with his death.     Even among the Lao, spontaneous stirrings of ethnic nationalism have been rare. Laos existed as three separate kingdoms for two hundred years before the French assumed control. During these centuries, three royal families spawned twenty or so aristocratic clans, each jealous of its privileges and dedicated to denying them to rival clans. After the French forcibly reunified Laos, Lao politicians paid lip service to the larger goals of the nation only because French bureaucrats were looking over their shoulders. Backstage they continued to work to advance the narrow interests of a particular family line, such as the Champassaks, Voravongs, or Sananikones.     Nationalism did eventually take root, but only because it was nurtured by outside forces. The first groundswell of Lao nationalism occurred during the Second World War when the French promoted Lao cultural pride to counter Thailand's ambition to absorb all of the Lao, and the land on which they lived, into Thailand. What the French did not count on was a flurry of agitation for political independence following this exercise in consciousness-raising.     Nationalism received another shot in the arm when unrepentant Lao nationalists forced into exile by the French linked up with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Thailand. American instructors in the guerrilla training camps played on ethnic pride and nationalist sentiment to raise morale and fan hatred for the invading Japanese. The alumni of these camps formed the core of the Lao nationalist movement after the war.     Twenty years later North Vietnamese agents were in Laos' hinterlands, championing ethnic nationalism for the montagnards. The communists carried credentials. For over a decade the hill tribes of North Vietnam had enjoyed cultural autonomy: Hanoi did not interfere with traditional lifestyles or religion, and provided schools for montagnard children with courses taught in their native language. This idea appealed to Laos' montagnards, especially when the North Vietnamese preached hatred for Lao lowlanders to drum up support for Laos' own communist movement, the Pathet Lao. Within a decade highland T'ai, Khmu, Yao, and Hmong filled the lower echelons of the Pathet Lao's party bureaucracy and made up the bulk of the Pathet Lao's army. FROM KINGDOM TO DIVIDED NATION     As the dominant group in Laos, the ethnic Lao wrote the nation's history, portraying it as a pageant of their own race. The story begins with the ascension of Fa Ngum, the nation's first king. Fa Ngum's father was a politically ambitious Lao nobleman who came up the loser in a power struggle and fled with his family to Cambodia to enter the service of the Cambodian monarch Jayavarman Paramesvara. Jayavarman took an interest in the nobleman's precocious son, instructing him in Buddhism to make him civilized and drilling him in matters of war as preparation for the future command of an army which would invade the northern territories that would become historical Laos.     The military campaign began in 1340. It took Fa Ngum thirteen years to completely pacify Laos, a territory he called Lan Xang (the land of a million elephants). An army of Bonzes from Angkor streamed into the new kingdom to convert its people to Buddhism and instruct them in the ways of karma, the cosmic force that repays meritorious deeds with a better life in the next reincarnation. The mass conversions served a political purpose. Buddhism sustained an Asian version of the divine right of kings. Individuals born to nobility, or seated on royal thrones, were presumably put there as reward for moral virtue in past lives, transforming de facto privilege and power into moral entitlement.     Fa Ngum enjoyed unchallenged power for two decades, then suddenly lost all interest in politics. While his ministers happily pocketed tax collections and abused power, Fa Ngum frittered away his time in wild debaucheries that scandalized the royal court packed with straitlaced Buddhist converts. Forced into exile in 1373, Fa Ngum died within two years, a broken man.     By a combination of well-managed matrimony and good luck, the kingdom survived its founder's death and enjoyed relative peace for over three hundred years. The integrity of the western border was preserved by diplomatically inspired marriages with members of Thai royalty, while the good luck came in the form of the expansionist Chinese who kept the bellicose Vietnamese busy with repeated invasions of Tonkin (northern Vietnam).     In 1694, after centuries of holding powerful neighbors at bay, Lan Xang collapsed from within. Suligna Vongsa had ruled the kingdom for nearly sixty years. A stickler for law and order, he allowed his only son to be executed for adultery. This left two grandsons as heirs to the throne, but neither had reached maturity before Suligna's death. As the boys did their lessons and put on height, various nobles vied for control of the kingdom, plunging Laos into civil war. When the fighting was over, Laos had divided into three realms: Champassak in the south, Vieng Chan (Vientiane) in the center, and Luang Prabang in the north.     For two centuries the separate principalities survived by practicing the diplomacy of the impotent: they paid tributes to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand as bribes against invasion, and formed alliances with the ascendant power of the moment. It was a dangerous game with little margin for error. By the 1830s Vietnam had already annexed most of northeastern Laos, and Thailand occupied a large chunk of Laos' western provinces. France's decision in the late 1880s to add Laos to its Indochinese empire likely saved the tiny nation from being completely assimilated by its neighbors. FRENCH COLONY     The French were not the first Europeans in Laos. The Dutch preceded them by nearly two hundred years, first sending missionaries as shock troops to accustom the natives to European ways, determine their susceptibility to exploitation and, if time permitted, save a few souls. The missionaries found the people to be carefree and charming but resolute Buddhists with absolutely no interest in Christianity.     The businessmen who followed hoped for better luck. One Dutch trader looking for a good deal on stick-lac (a lacquer-like substance exuded by insects) and benzoin found the trade moderately profitable but the people entirely too promiscuous for a good Calvinist. He gave up evening walks because he could scarcely travel twenty yards without encountering "horrible fornications" in the bushes beside the road. Other merchants, more concerned with profit than morality, came away sadly disappointed. Except for a few odd items like stick-lac, there seemed very little in Laos worth exploiting, especially the native work force which would later be described in the Atlas des Colonies Françaises as "friendly ... hospitable and opposed to hard work ."     This dismal assessment deterred everyone but the French. They obstinately sent explorers to poke around the country to measure its potential. For a time it was hoped that the Mekong River could be used as a back door into China, where the British were making fortunes in trade while using their navy to control China's eastern seaboard and keep everyone else out. The French desperately wanted a piece of the action. In 1868 they sent an expedition up the Mekong to determine the feasibility of using the river as a trade route into China. After two years of braving rapids and hacking through jungle, a report was submitted detailing the treacherous nature of the river, especially as it nears the Chinese border where waterfalls and rapids arise every few miles.     After decades of drawing maps, sending expeditions upriver, and collecting ore samples, the French finally established an official presence in Laos in 1886 with a small vice-consulate in Luang Prabang. In that same year Britain seized control of Burma, preparing its own back door into China. Nine more years passed before France officially absorbed Laos into its empire. Territories lost to Thailand and Vietnam were restored and the three kingdoms joined into a unified state, with the city of Vientiane as its administrative capital.     Given the bleak economic forecast, it might appear something of a mystery why the French went to all the bother. In 1917 Albert Sarraut offered what would become a popular justification for French colonialism in Southeast Asia. Speaking before a predominately Vietnamese audience following his appointment to the post of Governor General of Indochina, Sarraut announced, "I want to give you the instrument of liberation which will gradually lead you toward those superior spheres to which you aspire."     The instrument of liberation to which Sarraut referred was capitalist economics seasoned with French culture, a mixture that was supposed to transform the backward natives of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia into civilized beings. This lofty goal, immodestly referred to as La Mission Civilisatrice , rang nearly as false then as it does now.     A more forthright explanation for colonizing Laos is that professional soldiers garrisoned in the country saw an opportunity to advance their careers by holding onto the territory and lobbied hard for colonization. The French navy, anxious for deep water ports in the Orient, had earlier campaigned against the abandonment of Vietnam for much the same reason.     Such lobbying efforts were successful because at the time Europe was obsessed with colonization, for political as much as economic reasons. Class struggle had become a dominant feature of European politics. This was particularly true in France, where the government habitually served the interests of the owning classes, making it difficult for French politicians to claim with a straight face that they ruled in the name of all citizens of the nation. Only in a French colony could state officials make such a claim, for it was only in Indochina or Algeria that a French bureaucrat or soldier, surrounded on all sides by alien peoples, might without obvious self-deception consider himself first and foremost a Frenchman and view his activities as service to the French nation rather than to a particular economic class. Through this contortion of reason, colonizing Laos became an unarticulated exercise in legitimizing the French state.     Still, the French felt obliged to find some way to make economic sense out of the enterprise, and desperately searched the country for hidden pockets of profit. Unlike Vietnam, with its tin and coal mines in the north, rubber in the central highlands, and rice in the Red River and Mekong deltas, there was almost nothing in Laos worth exploiting. Rice harvests were small, and mineral deposits of coal and tin were usually to be found only in inaccessible mountain regions. There was opium, of course, grown in abundance by the montagnards, but the French had yet to fully comprehend the drug's enormous economic potential.     For a brief period the fantasy was revived that the Mekong could somehow turn a profit. French bankers were persuaded to invest 100,000 francs (about $600,000) to establish trading posts along the river all the way to the Chinese border. Instead of French goods penetrating China, Chinese traders used the posts as outlets for their own products. The venture went belly-up after only two years.     The only lucrative enterprise in Laos of any significance was a small strip-mining operation for tin in the northern panhandle close to the town of Nam Pathene--and the mine did not yield substantial returns until the 1930s, when an international tin cartel forced up world prices. Even with inflated prices, the mine failed to generate enough revenue to pull the French administration in Laos out of the red.     It did not take long for administrative policy to reflect resentment over low revenues. While the French would invest vast sums in Vietnam to develop the nation's economy, they spent next to nothing in Laos to upgrade its infrastructure or to encourage economic development. While Vietnam had dams, bitumen highways, railways, vast irrigation systems, canals, dams, bridges, ports, and harbors, the only thing the French built in Laos was a crude road network (Routes 4, 5, 6, 7, 13, 42 and 72) of single-lane dirt roads that was generally unusable during the rainy season. Consistent with this bare-bones approach to governance, in the early years only seventy administrators were allocated to oversee the affairs of the entire nation. French bureaucrats unfortunate enough to find themselves assigned to this colonial backwater "generally spent most of their time chasing the local women, seeking or avoiding addiction to alcohol or opium, and dreaming of their return to Saigon or Hanoi" where promotions were possible and French cuisine available in the better hotels. Even the most libertine administrator was careful to set aside enough time from pleasures to oversee the collection of taxes. However, once this duty was fulfilled French bureaucrats were content to leave most of the actual governing of the nation to the royal court at Luang Prabang, where the principal source of power was the distribution of offices to members of the old elite of the defunct kingdoms of Champassak, Vientiane, and Luang Prabang--sinecures that were the object of intense rivalry, between and within these royal families, and that continued well into the future.     This is not to say that the French gave up on Laos. Contrasting the sleepy kingdom to energetic Vietnam, the French concluded that one obvious cause of Laotian poverty was its people. They were inferior: not just to Europeans, which was the standard view toward all conquered Asians and Africans, but to the Vietnamese as well. Serious and industrious, the Vietnamese were the object of grudging admiration. By contrast, the ethnic Lao, fun-loving and lethargic, were considered absolutely useless. Even lower in estimation were the Laotian montagnards. As one colonial official noted, "This savage race, indolent and superstitious, non-progressive," cannot "be called upon to play an important role in Indochina."     Race mixing seemed the logical remedy, so the French administration encouraged Vietnamese to immigrate to Laos. By French estimates, the population density of Laos was four people to the square mile. In Vietnam's Mekong delta the figure was close to fifteen hundred. Whereas Vietnam was cramped, Laos had elbowroom to spare. The French hoped Vietnamese would fill up the river valleys and mountains of Laos, interbreed with the natives, and create two hybrid races: lowlanders with intelligence and drive, and hardy montagnards amenable to civilization. To hedge their bet on the beneficial effects of hybridization, the French also intended to bring in sufficient Vietnamese to alter the demographics in their favor.     If judged by the ambitious goal to bring in so many Vietnamese that they would "reduce the Lao to a minority in their own country," the immigration program was not a complete success. Acclimatized to Vietnam's sweltering heat and humidity that can curl paper while you look at it, few Vietnamese were eager to venture into the rugged Laotian mountains where ice sometimes forms on winter ponds. Still, the French were able to fill up the tropical lowland towns with Vietnamese, bringing in traders and merchants to the major cities and appointing Vietnamese to mid-level posts in the colonial bureaucracy.     So successful was this effort that just prior to the Second World War the nation's largest city, Vientiane, had become 53 percent Vietnamese; the next largest city, Thakhek, 85 percent; further south in Pakse, 62 percent.     What the French could not know was that the Vietnamization of Laos would lay the groundwork for a determined communist movement in the country and guarantee that it would be controlled from Hanoi. (Continues...) Copyright © 2000 Keith Quincy. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Note on Hmong Wordsp. XIII
Prefacep. 1
Chapter 1 Sowing Pa Chay's Wheatp. 9
Chapter 2 Japanese Occupationp. 50
Chapter 3 The French Returnp. 71
Chapter 4 Exit France, Enter Americap. 106
Chapter 5 Backing the Wrong Manp. 135
Chapter 6 Colonel Billy Discovers Vang Paop. 159
Chapter 7 While Seeking a Political Solutionp. 195
Chapter 8 Warlordp. 214
Chapter 9 A Seasonal Warp. 254
Chapter 10 Reliance on Air Powerp. 294
Chapter 11 Long Cheng Besiegedp. 325
Chapter 12 A Communist Laosp. 356
Chapter 13 The Long Arm of Pa Chayp. 400
Chapter 14 Vang Paop. 443
Epiloguep. 480
Endnotesp. 480
Sourcesp. 559
Mapsp. 589
Indexp. 599
Acknowledgmentsp. 637
Note on Hmong Wordsp. XIII
Prefacep. 1
Chapter 1 Sowing Pa Chay's Wheatp. 9
Chapter 2 Japanese Occupationp. 50
Chapter 3 The French Returnp. 71
Chapter 4 Exit France, Enter Americap. 106
Chapter 5 Backing the Wrong Manp. 135
Chapter 6 Colonel Billy Discovers Vang Paop. 159
Chapter 7 While Seeking a Political Solutionp. 195
Chapter 8 Warlordp. 214
Chapter 9 A Seasonal Warp. 254
Chapter 10 Reliance on Air Powerp. 294
Chapter 11 Long Cheng Besiegedp. 325
Chapter 12 A Communist Laosp. 356
Chapter 13 The Long Arm of Pa Chayp. 400
Chapter 14 Vang Paop. 443
Epiloguep. 480
Endnotesp. 480
Sourcesp. 559
Mapsp. 589
Indexp. 599
Acknowledgmentsp. 637

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