This lady doesn’t dwell. She doesn’t prick her memory or search her soul. Or tell her story.
I hope she forgives me. As I try to re-imagine ‘her Life in Laos’.
‘I’m born in the mid 1940s in French Indochina. My siblings and I, my parents and grandparents, work the fields of our colonial masters. They call us ‘coolies’. But we belong to the Hmong hill tribe, a mountain people. Dreams of ‘liberation’ come in whispers; confusing whispers. Pieces of news stumble and stutter. We hear independence gains ground around the world. But France hangs on doggedly. It’s the 2nd World War and Japan invades us. The Allied Forces defeat Germany. Our aspirant Liberators in Laos divide; it’s the ‘Royalists’, the ‘Communists’ and the ‘Neutralists’. The French eventually leave, in a hurry, in 1954. But liberation doesn’t come. Our strongmen battle even harder. The Vietnam War begins! The French support the ‘Royalists’. Vietnam and Russia prop up the ‘Communists’. The USA funds the ‘Neutralists’.
The Americans start to bomb the Ho Chin Min trail. It carries Communist supplies from the north of Vietnam to its south. The trail lies its full length in eastern Laos. Large B52 bombers storm our skies and pock our land. Today they say a bomb falls every 8 minutes from 1964 to 1973. I believe it. We loose people. People loose limbs, sound, sight. People run. My sister’s family hides in a cave for years. The CIA recruits men from my Hmong Tribe for mountain warfare. The world calls my Hmong the ‘secret army’ of the Americans. But our men fight on all sides. Then the Vietnam War ends in 1973. And it is Americans out and Communists in.
The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party seizes power in 1975. It declares control of the new Lao People’s Democratic Republic. This change of regime ignites fear. So many Hmong flee. Two of my brothers escape to refugee camps in Thailand. A cousin gets to the USA. The Royal Family vanishes to labour camps in the mountains. We never hear of them again. A young prince escapes across the Mekong River to Thailand and then to France. Persons in positions of authority disappear for re-education. Our new regime introduces collectivism. The state now owns the land, the buffaloes and the ploughs. My sister’s husband rather slaughters his livestock! On top of three years of droughts and floods. We stay hungry. All around me, people attend ‘the seminar’. They leave happily into the mountains to learn a new political line. Some I never see again. But most return after five years! After 6 months behind wire. After 4 years of hard labour for a peasant family. Some get their old jobs back; but one rank lower.
We get on with life carefully. Very carefully, as our picks and ploughs pierce and blow up UXOs. These unexploded bombs from the Vietnam War still lie in wait. Everybody knows the economy is in tatters. We hear China opens up. Our communist government fiddles with market reforms in 1987. Slowly our world opens up too. No real political reforms. But, at least, the camps close in 1994.
We join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1997. Today, my grandchildren are on second hand cell phones and on Chinese scooters. They chatter about Laos being like Thailand in 30 years time! They natter about electricity generation, gold and copper and gem mining, timber harvests. They blabber about jobs in tourism.
But we shut the rumours OUT. They arrest a dissenter. Another Hmong community suffers a revenge attack in 2009. A community development worker disappears in 2012. Murmurs pass us by about another land-grab. A word of the whole-sale of a forest blows in the wind. No, we don’t think too hard. The UXOs don’t lie very deep. The past has no place today.’
You must agree. It is … a hell of a lot … a lot of hell.
But here, I remember for us not for her.
Why, indeed, unearth UXOs that lie deeper than 25 cm. Deeper than the length of an agricultural pick. She simply stays shallow enough to get on with ‘her Life in Laos’.
Her life and all other Lao lives, too. We read Lao re-remember their history. Their one party communist state re-invents itself. Their big personalities dis-appear from public memory. Their revolutionary leader is re-nown in a single statue.
And it seems to work.
In Laos, the future has never looked brighter!
Their growth in GNP (gross national product) is 7.5% in 2014.
Their growth in GHP (gross happiness product) astounds us too! Despite the past, we see Lao work, eat, drink and laugh. They dish out Smile and Peace Signs like cheap sweets. And we fall in love … with Lao.