Monday, May 13, 2013


As I said in the earlier post Say was an MP and the Prime Minister's financial adviser. He also acted as ambassador to Russia for a time. He was an MP between 1967 and 1975. Until the Communists, known as the Pathet Lao, usurped the monarchy.

Say keeps active, studying Buddhism, Lao history, reading about the latest Chinese military hardware.

Like some other members of that pre-1975 Lao government he is allowed to live quietly. He had, his words, to leave politics and 'turn to social enterprise'.

Say was born into a diplomatic family. His brother was the Ambassador to Japan. His younger brother was also a diplomat. His brothers and sister are all dead now. A commanding portrait of his brother hangs in the parlour.

The parlour. Gleaming hardwood dinner table with seats for six. Huge corner sofa for ten people. Five or six bedrooms, two cars and a collection of children. Five grown-up children in Vientiane. Four in mid-life living in France. A French wife then a Lao wife. Pre and post Year Zero lives.

Say proceeds to show me the photo albums. Clearly he was a rake. Thinks he has many children who are unaccounted for. Floating around the planet somewhere. There is always a pretty woman next to him in the pictures. From France, Italy, England, Switzerland, Thailand.

Say is always well-dressed. Sometimes in black tie. Always at social engagements; dinner, parties, state occasions. With the Prime Minister. The King or his brother. A foreign minister from Vietnam. And one nasty looking guy. Always seems to be around and about him. His face. Like granite. The expression never changes.
This man worked for the Laos government. But also for the Thais and the Americans; 'not to be trusted' Say told me.

Say characterised politics as Danger, Death, Victory. An essential, but precarious activity. He knew the Laos and the Thais operated with what he called a 'backward spirit'. Nepotism was rife and based along family lines. Political culture was not advanced in Indochina he said.

Say wouldn't talk directly about the Re-education camps he was sent to. He spent seven years there.

Both the King and Queen of Laos died in 're-education' camps. The were reported to have died of illnesses. Other reports suggest starvation and neglect. Perhaps they were lucky. In Cambodia film stars and singers were just summararily executed. Remember this was only the late 1970s.

Imagine Russell Crowe or Scarlett Johansson being liquidated today.

Konsay Kaysone was someone who got caught by the winds of history.

Say looks at me. Says something in Russian. I add up the languages he has used while I've been with him. French, German, Lao, Thai, Italian, English, Russian. Seven different languages.
'It is about Iskra he says.' I don't know to what he refers.

'You know. Lenin's newspaper. Edited in London for a short time I think. It means spark. Something like that.'

Say suggests a history of being buffeted. The French desirous of creating new identitites for the Laos with their 'assimilationist' philosophy of imperialism.

His grandfather was in the military and had a Chinese-Lao name. This name was subsequently changed by the French to something that worked for them. Again I cannot specify the name.

Laos Re-education Camps and the death of King Savang Vatthana

Re-education centers, were the centerpiece of the new regime's policy toward the enemies it had defeated. The LPRP's Marxist-Leninist dogma allowed no respite in the class struggle, and those identified as its former enemies were the presumed saboteurs and subversives of the socialist phase of the revolution that was just getting under way. After its victory, the regime made people judged unfit to participate in the new society in their present frame of mind construct a series of camps, known only by their numbers.

These camps included included Camp 01 at Sop Hao; Camp 03 near Na Kai, newly given the Pali name Viangxai, meaning "Victorious Town"; Camp 05 near Muang Xamteu; and Camps 04 and 06 near Muang Et, all in Houaphan. A camp was also built at Muang Khoua on the Nam Ou, and others were built in the center and south. Say spent 7 years in the Phongsaly province.

There are no official figures on the numbers of people sent for re-education, because the camp network was kept a secret from the outside world. The only information was brought out by former inmates and their families. Various published estimates have put the number of inmates at 30,000, at 37,600, and at 50,000.

Even before the communist takeover, the first groups of high-level officials, including provincial governors and district chiefs, had been transported to the camps, arriving in full dress uniform. They had received letters signed by Souvanna Phouma ordering them to attend an important meeting in Vientiane. After an overnight stay in Vientiane, the group was flown to the Plain of Jars, where a festive atmosphere prevailed. The officials, about seventy in all, were feted with food and a movie, and North Vietnamese advisers were present. They were then flown to Houaphan, separated into small groups. Organised into work parties.

In August and September 1977, a group of twenty-six "reactionary" high-ranking officials and military officers in Camp 05 were accused of plotting a coup and arrested. These persons were taken away to Camp 01. They included Pheng Phongsavan, the minister who had signed the Vientiane Agreement and Touby Lyfoung, the Hmong leader. All died in Camp 01.

Thus, those who played roles in the modern history of Laos were relegated by the regime to the status of nonpersons and their fate placed in the hands of their prison guards. Others were held in seminar camps for fifteen years or more before being released. Souvanna Phouma was allowed to live quietly in Vientiane until his death in January 1984.

It was the skirting around the fact of the camps that upset Say so much.

'I only did what I did for Lao. Only for Lao.' All that he said on his tears.

An 83 year old man still shaken by the memories.

In neighbouring Cambodia he would have been liquidated in the first week of the new government. The ways to die in Cambodia. Horrific. As you will see in the next post but one.

It is quite startlng to see this man educated in Vientiane, Saigon, Paris and Zurich so upset.

And then, in a collegiate way he offered me his shoulder.
'Feel' he says. 'Feel.'
I squeeze his shoulder.
' Like Iron isn't it? I'm 83 you know.'
He recovers.
'You know we are Buddhists not Marxists. Marxism is just a way to hold onto power. Look at Vietnam cosying up to the US now China is coming. '
Children's games carried out by adults he says.
Say wishes Laos had diplomatic relations with Britain.
Wishes he had been ambassador to the UK. One of his regrets.
But he says finally.
'I have an open mind and I am your friend.'
'Is there anything more you wish to know?'
I tell him its enough.

He has the spark.

He  fishes a bottle of iced water from the freezer. Passes it to me.
And I go back out into the sunblind street.

Pointlessly trying to stay in the shadows.


By crossing into Vietnam the censoring of all social networking, including weblogging, comes into force. Only when I leave Vietnam will I be able to post again. In probably 3 weeks time.

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