Thursday, August 11, 2011

Narratives, truth and the war for Laos

Almost 2,500 years ago, the Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote "The first casualty of war is truth."

In the 20th century, we saw that little had changed over two millennia. One of the most overt examples of this was the war for Laos. The Geneva Accords of 1962 established the neutrality of Laos, but it did not take long before politicians found ways to subvert the letter and spirit of this policy. 

One of the most well-known outcomes of these efforts was the creation of the secret armies of US-backed guerrillas drawn from Laotian minorities including the Khmu, Iu Mien, and the Hmong.

Many of the details of this conflict were not allowed to be known by the American public, much less the international community because of the outrage it would cause.

Today over 400,000 refugees and immigrants from Laos are rebuilding their lives in the US, as well as France, Canada, Australia, Japan, and even French Guyana, among others as a consequence of this secrecy.

Some of the names are well known, but others, such as Captain Chaomai Srisongfa from the Iu Mien, and Captain Kham Seth from the Khmu are quickly being lost as we approach nearly 40 years since the end of the war in 1975.

History is always difficult to reconstruct, but for Laotians, it has been especially difficult because of the efforts to deliberately obfuscate and contaminate the historical record in the name of political and social expedience.

Although we have a significant degree of technologically sophisticated equipment available to the families involved in the war, there is also a tragic lack of knowledge and education among our youth who are not being given the tools and opportunities to fully appreciate their history and context.

Many simply don't know where to begin asking questions while others do not see its relevance to their present situation.

As a result, we cannot be too surprised when many emerge with a warped sense of their heritage. But we can and must also do what we can to set the records straight and to bring the truth to light in our time. Thankfully, some, like Kenneth Conboy and Timothy Castle have done exceptional work to recover the record, but we Laotians, from all of our communities, must value our own stories.

We must treasure the journey we took together, and we must not exclude any of those voices that would add to the greater truth that others would strip from us.

1 comment:

Peter Vincent said...

As an expatriate living in Laos and something of an amateur historian, I have taken the time to study and immerse myself the amazing history and culture of this country. I have married into a Lao family and have been able to see and experience first hand and impartially, the attitudes and opinions of three generations. Your comments are absolutely spot-on. It is a crying shame (almost criminal) to see the way that the current government propagate a distorted and largely fabricated version of the country's history over the last 4 decades. The formal school curriculum includes little, if any, history prior to "the revolution" and the young kids thus have no understanding or knowledge of the former Royalist regime or the fate of their former Royal Family, of the reasons behind their country's decline into socialism, of the decades of economic and cultural damage that has been forced upon them by the communist regime, of the absolute failure of "the revolution", etc, etc. Sadly, although detailed first hand accounts of the country's recent history is widely available through published and online media, the population appear to have little incentive to learn the truth. Or perhaps they have simply experienced such a long and intense period of repression and intimidation that the will to know the truth has been lost? On the positive side, I have detected a slight shift in the outlook of the younger educated Lao, who are now (albeit tentatively) beginning to ask questions. So there is a small possibility that we may be on the cusp of witnessing the beginning of the end of 40+ years of lies and deceit from the government. We can only hope...