By Susan Cunningham
Granted, it’s a small, goofy police state.
You probably wouldn’t want to live in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. You probably shouldn’t invest money there.
Understandably, few foreigners have been so inclined, even though the last country to succumb to communism, in 1976, was also the first, in 1986, to give up on a command economy. Landlocked, Laos is heavily reliant on foreign aid. Per capita income runs around $337 per year. Flush with the new spirit of free enterprise, the military and revolutionary elites are enjoying the rewards of corruption with a vengeance.
So what? It’s still a terrific country for tourists. Laotians are chatty and relaxed, with neither the rapacity of the Vietnamese nor the trip-wire tempers of the Cambodians. Much of the countryside is wild and untended and the jagged karst mountains suck your breath away.
Whether on the plains or the highlands, most of the 4.5 inhabitants live much as they always have. In fairy-tale villages, they spend their days subsistence farming, weaving intricate sarongs and chewing areca nuts. They die of tuberculosis, malaria, dysentery and in childbirth. In the evenings, they dust off the satellite dish for a nightly three-hour dose of electricity and Thai soap operas. What’s more, about 40 percent of Laotians aren’t Lao, but minority people. They belong to the Hmong, Mien, Lao Theung, Khmu, Black Tai and many other tribes–and often dress in photogenic handmade attire.
So why do only 200,000 foreigners visit each year? The country suffers from a serious lack of publicity. No Hollywood movies or Club Meds have been set here. There are few books about Laos and the good ones are densely academic.
Christopher Kremmer’s Stalking the Elephant Kings has finally put things to right. Now a Delhi correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, Kremmer made a series of visits to Laos between 1993 to 1996. He’s a wonderfully evocative writer. Wandering around the lanes of Vientiane or the artisan villages surrounding the old royal city of Luang Phrabang, he lulls us into the drowsy Lao rhythms.
On the Plain of Jars or the desolate northeastern frontier, we can sense the mountain chill, hacking coughs and the rotten roads–and never forget that the land is pockmarked with unexploded ordnance. The “bombies” are a time-delayed reminder of the US bombing campaigns against the occupying North Vietnamese troops.
Kremmer has a talent as well for setting off the startling penchant of Laotians, official and otherwise, to blurt out irreverent remarks about the “government” or to giggle at all the wrong moments. Perhaps it wasn’t the tottering state of the Soviet Union that drove the Vietnamese Big Brothers in 1989 to pull out most troops and advisers and scuttle home after 30 years in Laos. Very few Laotians ever had a grasp of communist ideology. As the re-education camps and crazy economics took their toll, 10 percent of the Laos’s population fled to Thailand and beyond. For the Vietnamese, their protegés’ lack of discipline must have driven them to exasperation.
Resisting the charms of listlessness, Kremmer assigns himself mission near impossible: to discover the fate of Laos’s last king. In March 1977, more than a year after the Vietnamese-sponsored communist Pathet Lao victory, King Sisavang Vattana, his wife and two of their sons were arrested and removed from Luang Phrabang. Like up to 40,000 Laotians associated with the old regime, they were shipped off to re-education camps. To this day, many Laotians (between snickers) say the royal family remains on “seminar.”
It’s long been surmised that the family was flown to the remotest camps of northeastern Houaphan Province, better known as Sam Neua. Close to the Vietnamese border, this was where the Pathet Lao won their first foothold in the early 1960’s. Although there were prisons and labor camps all over the country from the late 1970’s, Sam Neua was where the highest-ranking Royal Lao officials and officers starved to death or performed hard labor for a decade or much more.
Perhaps inspired by the American journalist Bob Woodward, Kremmer claims to have extracted the fatal details from a Pathet Lao cadre during a fantastic meeting deep in the heart of the Lao gulag. For anyone familiar with Laos, the telecommunications and logistics required at the time for such a meeting are inconceivable.
But the general outlines are persuasive. The four family members first spent several months in Viengsai in so-called “Number 1 Re-education Guest House” (where Kremmer spent a night, amid falling plaster and “miserly light bulbs hung down on nooses,” trying to tape up the shattered windows with yellowed pages of the Vietnamese Communist Party newspaper). Probably unable to adjust to his reduced station, Crown Prince Vong Savang may have died here.
Shortly after, the king and queen, and perhaps the remaining son, were moved to harsher conditions in Sop Hao district. Still the highest-security area today, it’s within 10 kilometers of the Vietnamese border. The king was assigned a patch of land to cultivate. Although the old man was an accomplished gardener, the couple and remaining son probably died of ill health within a year.
The story is a journalistic coup. It’s dismaying that Kremmer feels the need to elevate its significance. He rhapsodizes over “the one symbol capable of uniting Laos–the 600-year-old monarchy”–and yearns for a royal restoration as a resolution to Laos’s problems.
It is probably telling that Kremmer is British. Whether in Laos or overseas, the remnants of the Lao royal family he interviews seem more worldly. They shrug off Kremmer’s nostalgia for hereditary hierarchy. The man with the best claim to the throne, now the manager of a Renault factory in France, tells Kremmer he hopes for a conventional democracy in some not-too-distant future. To buttress his romantic myth, Kremmer slides over Laos’s history. In fact, King Sisavang Vong, the last king’s father, only became a constitutional monarch of the entire country in 1947. At the time of the French conquest in 1893, the Luang Phrabang kingdom, a beleaguered vassal of Siam, hadn’t extended beyond a few northern provinces for two centuries.
Under the French, the Luang Phrabang was technically a protectorate and the king retained some ceremonial ruling functions. Although the French directly ruled the southern provinces, the Champasak royalty there continued to perform important rituals as well. In such a primitive country, with so many languages and peoples, it’s doubtful that the animist minorities strongly identified with a Buddhist Lao king in faraway Luang Phrabang. Surely loyalties to village, clan, tribe and region would hold stronger sway. Kremmer says that he interviewed dozens of camp survivors in Laos and overseas. Yet we only get a glimpse of a handful of bitter, voluble ex-inmates, drinking away their memories in a Vientiane cafe … ๑
This story was published in a now-defunct Japanese online magazine. It’s a review of two books about Laos, Stalking the Elephant Kings: In Search of Laos by Christopher Kremmer and The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos Since 1975 by Grant Evans. Both are published by Thailand’s Silkworm Books.