Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos Karen J. Coates and Jerry Redfern


Laos is a land steeped in cliché; of gilt temples and golden Buddhas, shimmering rivers and dazzling sunsets. There are saffron robes and colorful markets with exotic foods. The paddies gleam an emerald green, the people smile with ease. Consult a guidebook, and you will read these things. Travel to Laos, and you will see. The Land of a Million Elephants, as it is known, is also a Land of Infinite Light.

The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, as it is officially named, is a landlocked Southeast Asian country ringed by a necklace of economic and political rivals—China up north, Vietnam to the east, Cambodia in the south, and Thailand to the west. Touching the far northwest border is Myanmar, the longtime military state that is rattling the region as it opens its doors. All six of these countries share a single artery of life: the Mekong River, the Mother of Waters, which slices right through Laos’s hilly terrain.

Fifty-five percent of the country’s people are ethnic Lao, while a medley of distinct cultures and tribes (forty-nine of which the government officially recognizes) makes up the rest of the population. Even so, certain characteristics pervade Lao society: more than 70 percent of the country’s 6.5 million people live in the countryside and work as farmers, and one-third of all Laotians live below the poverty line. Many kids—adults, too—don’t get enough to eat. Nationwide, about 40 percent of the population is malnourished; in the countryside, every other kid is chronically so. These factors reflect the United Nations’ classification of Laos as a “least developed country.” [1]

It’s a country that also suffers from a troubled modern history and complicated politics. Laos endured French colonialism for more than half a century, followed by years of warfare as a sideshow to the Vietnam conflict. The United States government supported the Royal Lao government in its fight against the communist Pathet Lao. Meanwhile, the CIA covertly owned and operated an airline called Air America, while training Hmong soldiers in their struggles against communist forces. In 1964, unknown to the American public, U.S. forces unleashed a bombing campaign that lasted nearly a decade and ultimately devastated the country.

That’s the short story. The long story is substantially more complex. World War II occurred during the French colonial period, and in 1945, the Japanese took brief control of Laos. In the aftermath of war and Japan’s defeat, an independence movement known as Lao Issara emerged in an effort to prevent the return of French colonial power. When Laos was granted partial autonomy, the Issara movement split, with its more radical members going on to form the Pathet Lao under Prince Souphanouvong. It became a communist force aimed at ousting colonialism, allied with the Vietnamese independence league known as the Viet Minh.

Laos gained independence from France in 1953, and in the following year, the Vietnamese defeated the same colonizers at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. The Geneva Agreement that year marked the end of French dominion in Southeast Asia. The accords called for a divided Vietnam, as well as neutrality and reconciliation in Laos. A coalition government was formed in 1957, but the union was short-lived. Fighting resumed in 1959 between Laotians divided in politics. A second coalition government was formed a couple of years later, but that, too, fell apart.

By that point, the White House had a close eye on Laos. U.S. administrators and their allies feared escalating violence could destabilize the region. President John F. Kennedy took office in January 1961, and quickly delineated the threats he saw. “The security of all Southeast Asia will be endangered if Laos loses its neutral independence. Its own safety runs with the safety of us all,” Kennedy said. “I want to make it clear to the American people and to all of the world that all we want in Laos is peace and not war... a settlement concluded at the conference table and not on the battlefield.” [2]

But that did not happen.
Read More at: http://www.jpri.org/publications/occasionalpapers/op49.html

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