28 March 2009

Bombs, Drugs and History

The Vietnam War and all of it brutality and ugliness continues today – in the landlocked country of Laos. I do not mean the effects of the war continue: this is not about a damaged national psyche, and I am not even referring to a mounting death toll caused by environmental or chemical hazards – the country that was the scene of the most clandestine of all of the Asian/American conflicts literally has bombs exploding daily. This is still a live battle ground, but in a very different way than you'd expect.

Laos is an achingly pretty place. Mist shrouded mountains descend into the brown rivers of the Mekong and the Nam Ou, bamboo thatches spring up on the edges of electric green rice paddies and haunting karst rock formations jut out of the land. Though it seems paternalistic and cliche to say, the people are kind, funny and deeply spiritual, almost esoteric – as a famous French saying goes “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow.” In the week or so we have been here the locals have been almost embarrassingly nice to us – even though we have predominantly been in backpacker enclaves along the “Banana Pancake Trail” (the cities in Asia most visited by Westerners in their 20's, and that serve comfort foods like granola and pizza, dotted with internet cafes and bars serving buckets of booze – Kathmandu, Ko Samui, Siem Reap etc.) For Lao people, this form of tourism, or any tourism for that matter, is a new sight to see – the county's borders were closed to foreigners until 1995. At that time, the restrictive form of communism that had been in power for 20 years was relaxed, and now Lao people are experiencing a third wave of colonialism that will perhaps be more insidious that the first two.


The French strolled in over one hundred years ago and claimed Laos in the same way that they did Vietnam and Cambodia, first splitting the 3 countries into 5 pieces and then lumping them together into a region called French Indochina. But unlike its two companion states, Laos didn't get much out of the deal – highly inaccessible to the French, the journey by river from Saigon (the seat of the French government) to Luang Prabang took longer than Saigon to France by steamship. Laos gained little from the French other than the superfluous “S” tacked onto the end of its name – no railways, no grand boulevards or basic infrastructure – they just took what they wanted (opium and coffee) with little benefit to the people. While this is arguably a better deal (most Vietnamese and Cambodians would have preferred less French meddling) it did ensure that Laos would remain less developed, as they were not even permitted to use their own resources for their advancement – the resources belonged to the French.

And then we all know what happened in Vietnam. The French, fighting off the Northern “Viet Minh” (communist guerrilla soldiers threatening the more Catholic and Frenchified South with a socialist revolution, led by Ho Chi Minh and backed by the Soviet Union) were bitterly humiliated at Dien Bien Phu (wiki that one for a laugh) and left Vietnam in a hurry. The Americans – terrified that the spread of communism in South East Asia would mean a domino affect throughout all of Asia (which is ultimately kind of did) rushed in – and if you don't know the rest of that story, I don't have the space to tell you.

But Laos – sweet, pretty Laos was actually the bloodiest victim and they don't even get mentioned in the name of the war. Facing their own smaller and quieter communist revolution, this country was used as a supply route for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and was increasingly a battleground between the Viet Cong and the US (sneaky guerrilla soldiers don't respect borders, and drew the US in and out of Laos like cats and mice.) Laos claims the dubious honour of the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of the fucking planet – the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes was dropped on this country for NINE FUCKING YEARS. It was razed – left black and smoking and flat - in a highly classified secret war. An American reporter at the time who was accidentally flown over Laos on the way to Thailand described it as a 'moonscape', and then was forbidden from reporting about it. No one in America knew this was happening, and after the war was over in 1974, Laos was left to try to pick up the pieces without much help, and with a newly crowned communist leader more interested in his own pockets than the plight of his poorest countrymen.

So now Laos is the poorest country in Southeast Asia by far, with World Health Organization statistics on par with Sub Saharan Africa. It is not an obvious poverty like India or even Burma, but the people in villages away from the tourists are sick, illiterate and hungry. If we get sick here, the closest hospital that we can go to for serious treatment as Westerners is in THAILAND. This poverty makes the bombs keep exploding. This poverty shreds skin and breaks bones.

You often hear about UXO's (unexploded ordinance – leftover bombs) and land mines killing children because they are mistaken for toys and wee hands can't resist picking them up when they are unearthed. I knew that education work by NGOs was focused on this problem, and I assumed that the impoverished toyless children must be momentarily overcome with excitement when they saw a shiny object and then BOOM! I thought when I first saw a small rounded 'bombi' in photos that kids must think it was a neat looking ball. I thought it must be rare and completely shocking when a child was injured.

In Laos, people are so poor that children search out and dig up unexploded bombs to sell as scrap metal.

This is not a hard thing to do. An estimated third of all bombs dropped on this country did not explode on contact. Rice paddies, villages, farms, country roads are all FULL of UXOs – most deep beneath the surface. But farmers accidentally unearth them, heavy water buffalo step on the surface and their weight causes detonations and children and adults alike collect them eagerly to sell to unscrupulous scrap metal dealers despite an official ban. Hundreds of people die each year and many more injured in a country where disability may mean you and your family go hungry. This is what I mean – this war continues every day in a real and tangible way.

Sean and I got off of the beaten backpacker track in Central Northern Laos, and headed to a town called Phonsavanh, home to one of the world's greatest unexplained mysteries – The Plain of Jars. Literally thousands of monolithic stone jars cover great swaths of land and no one has been able to proved definitively what these 2500 year old jars were used for. The scenery from Luang Prabang through the mountains was stunning, but occasionally disturbing. Small villages were inhabited by traditionally costumed hill tribe women selling fruits and embroidery – and their husbands who had semi-automatic weapons strapped to their backs.

So, it turns out I came to Phonsavanh to see the ancient jars, but left with much more of an education about UXOs than prehistory. The city hosts a MAG (Mine Awareness Group) museum, where we watched a documentary and saw pieces of UXO and bombs up close for the first time. It wasn't the last time – our guesthouse was decorated liberally with bomb casings, ammo and shrapnel, even a barbecue fashioned from a hollowed out 500 lb bomb. There is a Hmong (a Laos hill tribe) village where all of the houses are constructed of bombs – even the school bell is a UXO. Bomb craters are everywhere – most filled in and used a fish ponds, and trench lines are still clearly visible in fields. During our walk around the Jars we had to carefully follow a demarcated path – red on one side, and white on the other – stay on the white side or boom. Never had I been so aware of my footprints.

So this should be enough to terrify anyone into steering far away from any metal found buried in the ground – and indeed some villages are crippled by poverty when it becomes too dangerous on a regular basis to farm the surrounding fields. But danger begins to seem relative when your family has no food for supper and a Vietnamese trader will pay you 2000 kip (35 cents CAD) for a kilogram of metal. A 500 lb bomb can be enough to feed a family for THREE MONTHS – no wonder people are reluctant or refuse outright to call MAG or the government to report artillery found in the rice paddy – they want the chance to take it apart themselves and earn a lot of extra money. Children gather around, are curious about the process and are then shown by example that bombs are really nothing to be afraid of. MAG does entire presentations for local kids and pleads with them to never ever touch a bombi, the children nod excitedly and swear that they never will – only to innocently present the MAG workers with bombis (and worse) minutes later. With millions of pounds of explosives still planted shallowly beneath the surface of Laos the problem can only get worse.


Tourism is one industry that is thriving, and that seems like an answer to at least some of the poverty in Laos. After the tsunami in 2004 devastated a lot of Southern Thailand's beaches, Laos became the next party stop on the map, with towns like Vang Vieng transforming into a Mekong river playground packed full of pizzerias, bars showing Friends 24/7 and bikinied girls puking in the gutters after a long day of tubing and 'happy shakes'. And while this behaviour is filling some local pockets with the profits from overpriced bags of Lay's potato chips imported from Thailand, it also is deeply offensive to the traditional social mores of this country. While horrified Lao people look on, young Westerners engage in behaviour that runs the gamut from mildly distasteful all the way to willfully ignorant, pretending that this is in fact Southern Thailand and not conservative Laos. Frankly, I don't think that most of them would care even if a Lao person pointed this out.

Luang Prabang is a good example of this new colonialism. While Vang Vieng has been created as an intentional stop on the party circuit, beautiful, historical Luang Prabang is an ancient capital city with over 60 temples and monastery, and is a UNESCO world heritage site. Its location halfway between the most common backpacker border crossing in the North and Vang Vieng has made it a requisite stop on the circuit, yet most of the people we met there were not interested in seeing the beautiful Wats and the great museum or Royal Palace. Despite signs everywhere reminding people that this is not Vang Vieng and to please be respectful, partiers rage on all night, heading to illegal afterhours and river parties. The penalty doled out to a local caught dealing drugs is death, and the production and consumption of opium is destroying small villages, sapping more and more people of their motivation and hanging the heavy weight of addiction around their necks. Yet spoiled backpackers laze around smoking opium, oblivious to the exploitative and one sided nature of encouraging the drug trade in a poor country where hope is in short supply yet poppies are everywhere. We get to go home and leave the problems behind, like we always do.

This is a relentless 24 hour tourism, because as these backpackers stumble to bed, eager Japanese and Western tourists are just getting up to watch the procession of monks receiving morning alms. Again, despite posters and literature pleading people to stand back quietly and allow the locals to give alms in peace, Sean witnessed people shoving flashing cameras in monk's faces, trying to get the perfect shot in the pre-dawn light. People jostled and pushed and shoved as if this was a parade and not a solemn religious ceremony, and made a mockery of the ritual by trying to simultaneously offer food and take photos, ignoring the signs posted everywhere asking people not to do so. Sean came back to bed in a state of disgust.

This is all in a deeply spiritual and meaningful city for Lao people, people who would probably like to tell us to “Fuck Off,” go home and leave their country alone for once, but who need our precious American dollars to buy food for their families. Like the decision to take apart dangerous live bombs, the decision to deal drugs to tourists or the 'decision' to do anything that is made under the duress of crippling poverty, this is structured choice. That is to say, there is not really any real choice involved.

While we all play a part in this, it is the Americans who irritate me the most. Many are here as part of package tour groups (though it is a ridiculously easy country to travel in) and pronounce the country “Louse” or “Lay- oss” - if they even know that much. I witnessed a girl talking on the phone to her mother and drawling “Um, I dunno what city I'm in. L-U something? It doesn't really matter....” They, like all people, LOVE Laos for its easygoing and sweet nature, but it hasn't really cottoned for them that the reason this country is as poor as it is is BECAUSE OF THEM. They don't leave the tourist ghettos to go see the real damage that they caused, the limbless children and endless bomb craters, the spoiled farmland and drunk old men. They're all about the party, man. They stay on the party circuit and sit and smoke opium with drug dealers desperate to sell to them to support their own habits, eat manufactured tourist food in video cafes and then claim to have seen the 'real Laos' and have communed with locals. All the while, I can't help but see images of the war everywhere, the war that they desperately pretend did not happen here - if they even know about it at all.

Almost adding insult to injury is how genuinely nice Lao people are – they do not judge us as Westerners even though they have every right to. They do not all make the connection between our bulging fists of dollars and the erosion of Lao culture, between the poverty that drives them to risk explosion and death and our extreme wealth. If they too believe America, not MAG or Laos, should be paying to disarm all of these UXOs then they do not mention it to us. But it is true – the United States should have been held accountable by the World Court and forced to foot the entire bill long ago. Lao people were not combatants in the war – Laos was a sovereign nation attacked immorally and illegally and they are still attacked daily – by poverty and the bombs it helps unearth.

1 comment:

person within said...

I am deeply pained by the observation which you made. It pains me when a country for no fault of theirs have to suffer so much.
Ah Laos!! When art thou getting your due!
Yo Americans, atleast now apologize and work for their upliftment.