LOST HISTORY IN LAOS
By Uli Schmetzer
LUANG PRABANG, LAOS, December, 2007
Just four decades ago it was the world's most bombed country per capita. Yet today Laos is Asia's latest little tiger, a
nation chasing the greenback with the thirst of the long parched and anxious to forget its past.
For nine years during the Vietnam War U.S. warplanes rained an average two million dollars worth of bombs on
this landlocked country, accumulating a startling total drop volume of 2,093,100 tons of bombs worth 7.2 billion
dollars to the American taxpayer.
One of every three Laotians became an internal refugee during that nine-year bombing spree. Even now one of
these unexploded devices still blows up killing or maiming someone.
But no one talks about those dark days in a country where history seems to have begun with the communist
takeover after the Vietnam War.
The bombing atrocity is ancient news. In fact news does not exist here unless it is issued by the official news
broadcasts or printed in the official media by the all-controlling one-party regime of the Marxist-Leninist Pathet Lao.
As for the bombing the only apparent sign of rancor against the U.S. is the fact Amex cards are not accepted in Laos
though the American dollar is welcomed with open hands.
The Pathet Lao (like Pol Pot's Maoist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Vietcong in Vietnam) came to
power in 1975 thanks to America's botched Vietnam War venture.
Today one could draw a parallel to Iraq where Muslim fundamentalists are likely to take over once the U.S. is
forced to withdraw from another of its misguided military adventures.
History does repeat itself, one reason why it should be remembered and not erased from school text books or
rewritten by ideology.
The official Pathet Lao newspapers do not reach this ancient royal city, so young people here point out with
appropriately raised eyebrows. The news comes off the state television, one reason why the vast majority of the
public ignores it in favor of the live satellite transmissions of European football matches.
Football â€“ part of the 'bread and games' strategy practiced already by ancient Rome - obviously does not
stimulate political thinking or foster rebellion.
The 'bread' part of this strategy is the acceptance by Lao communism of People's Capitalism i.e. free enterprise
and private profiteering. This recipe was copied from the Chinese communists next door where it is called 'Socialism
with Chinese characteristics' when it really means Socialism with Capitalist characteristics.
No one in Indochina denies these days China has been rapidly ˜colonizing the region through
economic investments and exports. Last year alone Beijing invested 1.1 billion dollars in Laotian mining
projects and hydroelectric dams. Thousands of Laotians had to be transplanted to make space for the
hydroelectric catchments. In the official press the transferees are quoted as praising the party for
generously transferring them to modern accommodations.
Time flies fast in Asia. Just over ten years ago China was still a grateful recipient of global investments. Today the
Middle Kingdom is Asia's largest investor and money-lender.
With a seven per cent annual growth rate, solid credit from China and good prospects of additional tourism to
come, Laotians are not about to rebel against inferior education, lack of democracy, censorship and no freedom of
Nor are the Buddhist monks in Laos ready to protest as the monks did in neighboring Burma this summer. After
initially banning the traditional begging for food by monks in the morning, the Laotian regime changed the ban
thanks to popular indignation. Today the government even supplies a daily ration to those monks who may not have
benefited from public generosity and makes no objection to youngsters spending a spell as novice monks in
Buddhist temples, the wats.
But taboos there are.
'One does not talk about the dead king or the monarchy, if you know what's good for you,' said the manager of
a guest house.
The last king, successor to a monarchy that dated back 650 years, was starved and worked to death in a labor
camp together with his queen and the crown prince. The trio died mysteriously in 1977, two years after the Pathet
Lao came to power.
Mention of the king may be taboo but not his royal palace in central Luang Prabang, now the major attraction
for foreign tourists. For a mere four dollar entrance fee one can still admire the royal household and the portraits of
the royal trio painted by a Soviet artist in 1967. Most Laotians don't go anywhere near the palace after dark because
popular belief has it the old king's ghost still haunts the place.
Education is limited here to the basics of reading, writing and adding up two and two. It seems despite the
urging of international organizations to improve the standards of national education the eight-member politburo feels
the more ignorant people are the more easily they can be controlled and told what to believe and what not.
On the other hand there seems to be no law yet to prevent young Laotians with a smattering of English to
browse the Internet for news and information at a plethora of Internet Cafes in urban parts of the country.
Pragmatic Laotian communism has been successful in other ways.
The politburo managed to split the militant Hmong hill tribe, once trained by the CIA as insurgents against the
communists, into hostile Hmongs (who eventually fled the country) and friendly Hmongs (who are now represented in
the communist hierarchy).
And it adopted the Great Credo borrowed from China, Burma and Vietnam next door: Let people make money
by capitalist methods and let the party make money by trading off to foreign investors the country's natural
resources, a trade that has resulted in accusations of widespread corruption by party members in all three of these
The economy runs on supply and demand. Right now the demand is good: One million tourists pour into this
little country every year. Forty per cent of them visit this quaint French colonial city (the ancient royal capital here
was burned down by Black Flag Haw rebels in 1887). The tourist boom has doubled some prices in just a year and
created a new brand of up-market entrepreneurs flogging street market products as luxury products in their â
exclusive boutiques. It has also created the motor scooter craze.
Until recently a Japanese scooter imported from next door Thailand cost 1,500 dollars. Then China exported to
Laos its own brand of scooters for just 400 dollars. Now every toddler seems to be wobbling through town on a
Chinese motor scooter. Yet the hire of scooters to foreign tourists is prohibited because 'foreigners get drunk and
injure people' (while children driving motor scooters obviously do not).
And western NGO's and charity organizations are rapidly being replaced and phased out by Chinese investment
Lao communism also has also imposed limits on carousing: Bars, restaurants and nightspots must close by
10.30 at night.
After that hour Laotians have three choices: Go to bed, watch European football or help increase the population
of 5.2 million in Asia's most sparsely-populated nation.
As in China communist control has not been successful - despite its boasts - in preventing come-backs by old
evils. Drugs, including opium, can still be bought relatively easy in Laos and if caught the police levy a profitable fine
of $500 US, so the story goes.
In a region where prostitution became rampant during the Vietnam War, the Laotian communist regime prided
itself on having all but eliminated the scourge.
Yet strolling down Luang Prabang's main Sisavangvong avenue one night this month (before the 10.30 closing
time) a tuk-tuk driver sidled up and whispered:
' Want boom-boom Lao Lady?'