Paul Lo, who escaped Laos after the communists took over, came to our office. I asked him how he had escaped. Lo told his story in his very broken, but good English. (See THE ESCAPE in this issue) Lo is a vivacious, outspoken advocate for Laotian refugees, specifically the Hmong. He has a wonderful sense of humor and a real zest for life in the United States. When the U.S. pulled out in 1973 after the CIA’s secret war against the Pathet Lao was ended by the signing of the Paris Peace Accord, his father, a colonel in the military, was at risk after the collapse of the U.S.-backed Royal Laotian Government (RLG).
Operating out of the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane with the help of the U.S. Ambassador, the CIA was providing the RLG with aircraft and personnel in their fight against the Pathet Lao and the Viet Cong. I asked Lo what life was like under the communist regime after the U.S. pulled out and the RLG collapsed.
LIFE UNDER THE COMMUNISTS IN LAOS
“Initially, after the communists took over, life in a big city like Vientiane wasn’t too bad. But where my family lived in the village, it was very bad. We knew how the communists behave. Once the Pathet Lao and Indochina’s communists took over Laos, we lived under different circumstances than they did in Cambodia. Life on the countryside became harder and harder. Slowly, people could not travel from village to village. Those who traveled alone or in a group of less than four or five were ambushed. One of my uncles was killed because he was traveling alone to the next village to buy some pigs. The Pathet Lao tactic was to isolate each village so the villagers could not communicate about what was happening in the neighboring village. The young like me couldn’t even visit our girl friend after dark.
“Every day pressure on the population to spy on each other increased. Each member in the family and neighbors in the village needed to watch each other for any wrong doing according to Pathet Lao rules.
THEY DISAPPEARED, EVAPORATED
“Many were arrested because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Two of my cousins were arrested and send to nowhere. I say nowhere because no one knew where they were after they were arrested. They were disappeared, evaporated. My cousins had been snatched when they were at a military post a couple days after it was attacked to offer some food and help. They were accused of being the attackers. I knew for sure that they weren’t the attackers, because they were with me at the time that post was attacked.
“We didn’t even know that an attack against the military post was in the works. I had been going to the military post almost every week to help out. The attack was well prepared, and it was carried out at night. I was never allowed to stay overnight while I was in the post. The attack had killed one general who was there at the time. This could be the Pathet Lao’s own act to eliminate some of their own. No one in our village or the neighboring one knew that the general was there that night, but the Pathet Lao did.
LITTLE GIRLS UNDER FIRE
“One time I was at the post to help with paperwork, because many Pathet Lao were unable to read Lao. Four Pathet Lao brought in six girls, two of whom were about five to six years old. The girls were accused of trying to escape to Thailand. The girls were kept at the post overnight. I went back to the post the next day and tried to convince the commander to let the girls go. I knew that the girls weren’t trying to escape, because in those days no parent was willing to let six girls that age flee the country together. Escape attempts did happen if there was one old sister with one or two younger brothers or sister.
“The commander heard my pleas and let the girls go back home.
TAKE MY RADIO, CUT THE ACCUSATIONS
“Life back then was tenuous. No one in the family or in the village knew what may happen to the other.
One time my fourteen year-old sister was traveling to my uncle’s village. She was stopped and sent back home. But the Pathet Lao kept her suitcase, because she had a radio in the suitcase. I went to the post’s military checkpoint. Although I was very angry at the commander, I managed to keep calm. The commander accused me and my family of hiding the radio and listening to it. But I knew that he wanted the radio.
“I told him, “My good older brother, if you want the radio, you just need to ask me nicely.I’ll give it to you or I’ll go buy one for you, but you can’t accuse me. I do not accept that and we won’t be brothers anymore. He finally let me have the suitcase with the radio.
“When I got home my parents were very upset at me, especially my father. I told my parents that I was right. They were terrified of retaliation from the Pathet Lao commander. There was so much frustration among the young generation. No one was allowed to complain or say any bad words about the communists.
THE MAN ON THE ROOF KILLED, HIS FAMILY DISAPPEARED
“One time I was with one of my friends on our way to hang around with some girls. There was a man who was fixing his roof. The man was arrested, his hands were cuffed behind his back, and two Pathet Lao escorted him to the military post for interrogation. The man was accused of being on the roof to spy on the two Pathet Lao coming into his village. The man’s wife, with a little baby on her back, accompanied the three, crying and disoriented. I was trying to talk to the man and the two Pathet Lao but I soon realized that I shouldn’t get involved in that matter. I tried to convince the man’s wife to go back home and wait there for her and the baby’s safety. A couple of days later the man was found dead in a ravine next to their village. No one in their village knew what happened to the wife and the little baby.
THE REEDUCATION KILLING CHAMBER
“We were constantly worried that they would take my father to the reeducation camp. The Pathet Lao propaganda was that people like my father just needed some briefing. But we knew that it wasn’t just a couple days of briefing. We found out later what really happened in those reeducation camps. What we knew at the time is that whoever went to the briefing would never come back. The Pathet Lao just kept telling the family that he wasn’t quick enough to learn the communist system.
“That’s how the communists operated then and now. It was just for one day, then a week, then a month, then a year, then forever. The Pathet Lao were saying that communism was so good, that if someone wanted to know the real communism, it would take your whole life to learn. That is why some people would never complete the program and come back to the family. Or the Pathet Lao would tell the family that he was so good and learned so quick that he was sent to a new position in the government. That meant that the person was dead.
SOME SURVIVED FOR YEARS
“One uncle on my mother’s side and several other people whom I knew that were taken to the reeducation camp. My uncle was told he would be in the camp for only a couple of weeks. My uncle spent seventeen years in the reeducation camp in Mouang ViengXy, Samneua province. All the others perished in the reeducation camp with illness or were shot for trying to escape.
“I know a colonel who like my father served in the Special Guerrilla Group (SGU) and now lives in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He spent seventeen years in the reeducation camp in Mouang ViengXy, Samneua province. He went to the briefing in August 1975, and wasn’t let go until May 1992; he came to the US in December 1994.
LIFE IN THE CITY DISINTEGRATES
“In the big city like Vientiane, things didn’t get so bad until 1976 and thereafter. All the high ranking officers of Lao Royal Army were taken to the reeducation camp and spent ten to seventeen years there. Many of them never came back to their families. All the lower ranking officers were taken into many reeducation camps and spent at a minimum two years there. Many of them also never came back to theirs families.
“The king, queen and their crowned son also perished in the reeducation camp. All personnel of high position in the Lao Royal Government were also been taken to the reeducation camps and spent from one to fifteen years there; some of them also never came home. Most persons who tried to cooperate with the Pathet Lao at the takeover time were killed or jailed. Only a few of them who were willing to turn in their family, cousins and friends to the Pathet Lao survived and now occupy high positions in the Lao Democratic Republic Popular government.
“I have a friend here in Colorado who was arrested, beaten, tortured, and spent some time in jail four times during the period 1976 to 1980, when he ran a hotel back in Vientiane. His father, who was only at the rank of sergeant in a Lao Royal Army transportation unit, spent four years in a reeducation camp. It is very difficult for me to explain most of the situation back then. But I can say to Soldier of Fortune that it was terrible. You remember, in my story I talked about unrepentantly meeting my girl friend. Not because we did have time to talk, but because we were not supposed to talk for a longer period of time when two persons from two different villages met. I wanted to leave my country.
NO CHOICE BUT TO FLEE
“My father did not want to leave, but we didn’t have much choice. With the kind of attitude I had and have with my mouth, if I had chosen to stay in the country, I probably would have died a long time ago. Despite my wiliness, I knew that I would never survive and become one of the Kay Danes’ torturers or be in a Lao Republic Democratic Popular government high position today. (Kay Danes and her husband, Australians working in Laos for a security firm, were imprisoned and tortured for a year in 2002. We met Lo when he came with Kay to the SOF office.)
“I believe that the Communist Lao Republic Democratic Popular officials are the most corrupt individuals in the country and in the world now.”