334th Meeting – Tuesday, May 17th 2011

 

The Most Secret Place on Earth: The CIA’s Covert War in Laos

A 75 minute DVD documentary directed by Marc Eberle

With a presentation by Rebecca Weldon

 

Present: George Ole Olson, David James, Mangkhoot Worapong, Jay Rabin, Suriya Smutkupt, Ken Dyer, Tanya May Weldon, James Bogle, Frank Wheby, Jack Giles, Naomi Inamoohi, Noriko Yabata, Edward Tio, Mig Sanif, Micah Morton, John Cadet, Reinhard Hohler, Alex Brodard, Patavee Viranuvat, James Peukert, Daniel and Mukda Bellamy, Klaus Berkmüller, David Steane, Jackie Foley, John Buchanan, Cliff Sloane, Siripan and Tony Kidd, Louis Gabaude, Caroline Marsh, Ratchanok Ketboonruang, Oliver Hargreave, Linda and Chai Santitharangkul, Glynn Morgan, Pat Corey, Harry and Margaret Deelman, Dorothy Engmann. An audience of 40      

 

Rebecca started with a brief introduction and some background.

“I am the daughter of two physicians, Charles Weldon and Patricia McCreedy, who administered the public health assistance program in Laos for USAID between June 1963 and September 1974.  Raised in Laos during the war and fluent in French and Lao, I worked as a summer intern for USAID/Laos between 1968 and 1973.  My duties included translation of Lao government documents, collation and research on the origin and personal histories of refugees from northeast Laos to the Vientiane Plain, research in Lao government archives to create a chronology of political and military events in northern Laos between 1945 and 1972 and translation from French to English of the first doctoral thesis written by a Hmong, Yang Dao. 

“In 1981 I worked for Joint Voluntary Agency (JVA) in the Nong Khai refugee camp, documenting events in Laos from 1975 to 1981 by collecting oral histories of Lao refugees, organized by social background and profession.  I also recorded oral histories of refugees in the holding center, recently released from “seminar” camps and was the first to record the story of the deaths of the King, Queen and Crown Prince of Laos.  

“With a background in material culture and museum studies, I have worked in Thailand from 1982 to the present as a gallery owner, curator and museological consultant.  

“Many people, across generations and around the world, have grown up in a war zone. I am one of those people. I do not pretend to have played any significant role. My father documented his work and experiences in Laos in his book, “Tragedy in Paradise”, and I recommend it as a personal memoir to those who would like to understand how a non-military, non-CIA, but, active participant, viewed the events that transpired in the north of Laos. It was through his work and my mother’s that I met General Vang Pao, the CIA officers, USAID officials, writers and journalists featured in the documentaries of the “Secret War”. My knowledge of the events in Laos was nurtured by conversation around my parent’s dinner table.  Many of them told stories I could never forget. On occasion, and because my father retired in Chiang Rai, where I live, I discussed and helped to illuminate for others, the story of the war. I was much amused to discover that Long Tieng was “secret”, for it never was in our family. I was distressed to read of attributions of Air America as “Air Opium”, knowing many of the pilots who flew the planes.  I joined the Air America Association, just to be with them when they met, as a representative of friends from the past. 

“Over the years, when researching the history of Chiang Rai, I met many Thai who fought the war; an immigration officer in Mae Sai, a businessman in Chiang Khong, even a T’ai Lue villager in Sri Don Chai.  These stories remain to be told and the generation who lived them is passing away.  I hope that there will be a time when modern Southeast Asian history is better understood by all who live here, a time when the politics of the situation will give way to facts.  This can only happen if the personal stories can be recorded and the documents be revealed.” 

 

The documentary - The Most Secret Place on Earth

It was known as the ‘secret war’, a covert operation waged by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) throughout the sixties and early seventies against communist guerrillas in Laos. And the most secret location in this clandestine war was the former CIA air base of Long Chen, in central Laos, a place still off-limits today. The Most Secret Place on Earth, which explores this little known conflict, includes images of Long Chen shot by the first Western camera crew to enter the base since the communists took control of the country in 1975.

Little is known about the Lao conflict despite the fact it remains the largest and most expensive paramilitary operation ever run by the US. It was completely run by the CIA using largely civilian pilots from the Agency’s own airline, Air America, and mercenaries recruited from the Hmong, an ethnic tribe living in mountainous areas in central and northern Laos.

Despite being the centre of the covert operation and at its peak one of the world’s busiest airports with a population of 50,000 people, Long Chen’s location was never marked on any map.

Long Chen remains off-limits to foreigners and most Lao due to clashes with remnants of the CIA’s Hmong army and until recently formed part of a special administrative zone under the direct control of the Lao army.

Renewed interest in the Laos’ secret war was briefly rekindled in 2003 when two Western journalists made contact with members of the Hmong resistance, the first white people they had seen since the CIA abandoned them 27 years ago.

 

After the documentary, Rebecca gave a personal perspective

“Watching this film about the war in Laos, a country of my most precious memories, of a society torn apart by conflict and global hegemony, I reflected upon how we experienced what happened there and who and what we became in the aftermath.  As apocalyptic bombing left trails of death and destruction and a legacy of dealing with the remains, so did the civil war evolve into a human apocalypse, affecting, ultimately; millions.  For those who lived the war in whatever capacity must, along with their progeny, daily live with the consequences of those events.  This is what we call history and history is ever present in ways both seen and unseen.

“There is no doubt in the mind and feelings of anyone who lived in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the war that it was a human tragedy.  Friends and family died, were lost, destroyed morally, psychologically and damaged physically.  Even those who came through it more or less whole live with the knowledge of failure and continue to wonder how they could have done things differently.  It is part of our human condition and constantly relived as we watch films and reporting of other conflicts both past and present, to say nothing of the feelings evoked by yet another documentary on the “Secret War”.    

“Indeed, it is when the unseen becomes apparent that we begin to find answers.  Opening the film with the remains of the Hmong resistance is perhaps the most revealing.  For these are the people who chose to stay and fight in the Phou Bia area.  They had become the stuff of legend upon which young, idealistic American-Hmong built a vision of their homeland.  To see the reality of what they had become must produce a pain their hearts far beyond the guilt felt by any other American.  The Hmong exodus was traumatic.  I can only imagine the reverberations in the General’s heart during his last supper at the table of the leftist Prime Minister of Thailand, Kukrit Pramote, before he took the plane to a new life.

“He, and, ultimately, over a half-million others, fully 20% of the population, citizens of Laos all, abandoned their homeland without hope of return.  Had Jerry Daniels, General Vang Pao’s last case officer, not ensured resettlement in the US, most of them would be dead.  Another 10% were incarcerated in “seminar” camps, along with friends, family and children of those who had made the revolution, believing they could overcome decades of social conflict and hold the new government to its promises.  The King, Queen and Crown Prince paid the ultimate price in their refusal to abandon their people, dying miserable deaths, unceremoniously buried in unmarked graves.  And, sadly, in the ultimate historic evaluation, no one can speak of this suffering, because the perpetrators clothe themselves in the righteousness of the catastrophic mistake of the war: the dumping of a World War sized load of bombs upon the “Ho Chi Minh Trail”.

“For those of us who know the Laos of the documentaries through personal experience, this is the biggest conundrum we face.  The existence of Long Tieng and the so-called secret war were not secrets to those of us who lived there.  However, we cannot speak without being portrayed as sympathizing with the CIA, their “mercenary” army and the worst bombing that has ever taken place on the face of the earth.  There is no truth and reconciliation in the Lao arena.  In my mind, this is one of the great injustices of history and one to which we all should feel a responsibility, in the final laying to rest.  The rituals should be performed, the epitaphs written with both knowledge and grace and the memorials made complete.  Yet, nothing is complete about the recent history of Laos.  Even the Asia Times review of this documentary makes the point that the Hmong story is not complete.  In the demonization of their role with the CIA, their common struggle, as well as that of other Lao citizens, for social justice through the full spectrum of political factions (left, right and center) is completely brushed over and unappreciated.  This is regrettable because it has implications for the current situation in neighboring countries.   

“Americans and Thai who worked there (as well as other nationalities never mentioned), who know how the events of the war transpired, should speak to enlighten all of us who share bits and pieces of the memories.  When the story is heard selectively, we have no perspective.  It is for this reason that my father, as painful as it was, wrote his book, “Tragedy in Paradise”.  But few know that, in the early 1990s, before he was eventually published by Asia Books, the manuscript was submitted to 25 US publishers who universally rejected the memoirs of a key participant on the ground in Laos during the war.  And, yet, in later years, virtually every serious writer on the history of Laos made it to his door.  His 40 year friendship and correspondence with Joseph Zasloff, the foremost political scientist of modern Laos, contributed to a sharp perspective upon the history of the times, one that is of fundamental benefit to those who struggle to connect the past with the present reality. 

“The two perspectives presented by Vint Lawrence and Fred Branfman are also useful.  Vint, as a young man, was the classic intelligence operative: smart, charismatic, well educated.  He was one in a long line of unusual men who have had a significant impact upon world conflicts in the past as well as today.  Unappreciated and regarded with suspicion by academics and journalists who prefer analysis to action, they are most always portrayed as perpetrators of a situation gone wrong and virtually never lauded when a situation goes right.  What is not understood is that, in the case of Laos, the informed knowledge and brilliant insights of Vint and others was superseded and ultimately rejected by middle-level military and intelligence managers desperate not to lose the war in Vietnam.  An analysis of this early stage in the civil war in Laos is well presented in Douglas Blaufarb’s book, The Counterinsurgency Era, within an international context of models for responding to conflict in the 1960s.  In fact, some of those lessons could be of benefit to those who currently fight the so called “War on Terror”.

“Fred Branfman has consistently told the story of the bombing of certain areas of Laos.  This has become an internationally appreciated narrative in the context of conventions to ban landmines and cluster munitions, the last conference concerning which took place in Vientiane.  In fact, Susan Walker, a daughter of the chief pilot of Air America in Laos, has been active in this field for decades on behalf of Handicap International and had the honor of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for her organization on this issue.  The truth and importance of Branfman’s mission, however, must also be linked to its PR value to the current regime in Laos.  While the successive governments in the pre-1975 period acquiesced to this disaster and were certainly a source of inspiration to revolution because of their corruption and in-fighting, their rule never approached the totalitarian nature of the current regime.  In fact, the film’s portrayal of “insouciant” dancing, wining and dining in an atmosphere of excessive spending in the pre-1975 era, is still, if anything, a hallmark of Lao society, practiced as assiduously today as in the past.  In addition, there is no possibility of anyone working in Laos today to question and critique the actions of the current government.

“Ultimately, we must all ask ourselves, as human beings, what each of us has done to create a better world and, by consequence, what opportunities we have thrown away.  I grew up with and attended school in Vientiane with many who hoped, idealistically, to create a better future for their families and their country.  They understood poverty and the lack of opportunity that characterized everyday life.  Each felt they could affect it in a different way: some through continuing the family business, employing people, paying their salaries; some by becoming teachers; some through government service.  Many sympathized with the impulse to change; the creation of a Lao, Buddhist, socialist society; utopic in nature, founded upon positive principles of their culture.  The whole spectrum was there. 

“It was not a vision of apocalypse, nor would they have condoned it, had they known it was happening.  No, it was the tendency of the Lao, as well as Americans, to leave the war to the military and let the politicians work things out.  What is not reported in this film is the fact that many of those who stayed to make the revolution work ended up in seminar camps when they exercised their right to express themselves in formal criticism sessions, only to be expelled to Thailand in 1981 and 1982 when those camps were closed.  They now make their lives in other countries around the world, yet, none of them were interviewed.

“This said, I do not believe that those who live with these memories are well served by the blaming and ultimate denigration of what they experienced.  We were all victims in a world that seemed to be ruled by a handful of men who made decisions that affected us all.  I say we, because, ultimately, we all share the responsibility, the memory, and work in our own way to create memorials for what we, as human beings, do to and for each other.  It is for this reason that the TLC Brotherhood has been building schools for the people yet living in Long Tieng, and was doing so long before the crew of this documentary ever visited the area.

“I still wait, as do all, for the films that speak of the positive, humanitarian actions taken on behalf of those who suffered from the war.  In the photographs flashed on the screen, I saw images of Edgar “Pop” Buell, the Area Coordinator at San Thong, a farmer who worked with the Hmong; Diana Dick, who trained the first hilltribe nurses and medics; the hospitals and clinics built and run by my parents, Dr. Weldon and Dr. McCreedy.  They worked desperately along with Jack Williamson and his team in refugee relief, flown in appalling conditions by incredibly dedicated pilots to dangerous areas to help hundreds of thousands of people for over a decade.  To have their work characterized as merely a “front” for the decisions of politicians because they worked for the foreign aid arm of the US State Department implies that those working for similar organizations in conflict areas today are merely “fronts” as well.

“Finally, I would like to suggest four websites for further study on the history of Laos and the “Secret War”. 

1.      The Asia Times review of this documentary: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/JH26Ae01.html

2.      The Library of Congress Country Study on Laos detailing Lao history, with a good focus on the post 1945 to pre-1975 period.  In it one can follow the successive political changes and read a brief description of the “Secret War”, detailing CIA involvement. http://memory.loc.gov/frd/cs/latoc.html

3.      George Washington University: The National Security Archive.  This provides background and links to the documents http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB342/index.htm concerning US government involvement in Laos and why the memoranda remained secret.

4.      The CAT / Air America Archive which contains photographs donated by Air America pilots and documents concerning Air America.  Most importantly, it provides the Air America Notebooks from the William Leary Papers.   UT Dallas has also received the CIA documents concerning Air America.  http://www.utdallas.edu/library/uniquecoll/speccoll/hac/cataam/cataa.html

And, a short bibliography of books written by and about those who were there:

Blaufarb, Douglas, The Counterinsurgency Era: U.S. Doctrine and Performance, 1950 to the Present, Free Press, 1977

Douglas S. Blaufarb, Organizing and Managing Unconventional War in Laos, 1962-1970. R-919-ARPA. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation, January 1972. xv, 102 pp. Reprinted (after declassification) by Dalley Book Service, Christiansburg, Virginia. Blaufarb was CIA station chief in Vientiane 1964-66.

Fred Branfman, Voices from the Plain of Jars: Life under an Air War.  New York: Harper & Row, 1972.

Timothy Castle, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: United States Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955-75. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. xvii, 210 pp.

Timothy Castle, One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. xiv, 371 pp. The fall of Lima Site 85, on top of Phou Pha Thi, on March 10, 1968.

Arthur J. Dommen, Conflict in Laos: The Politics of Neutralization. New York: Praeger, 1964. xiv, 338 pp. Rev. ed. New York: Praeger, 1971.

Bernard Fall, Anatomy of a Crisis: The Laotian Crisis of 1960-1961. New York: Doubleday, 1969. 283 pp.

Bill Lair, "Interview with Bill Lair." Oral history interview, conducted by Steve Maxner, December 11, 2001. The text is copyright by, and has been placed on-line in the Virtual Vietnam Archive of, the Vietnam Project at Texas Tech University, in two parts: pp. 1-93 and pp. 94-166.

Paul F. Langer and Joseph J. Zasloff, North Vietnam and the Pathet Lao: Partners in the Struggle for Laos. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970. xiv, 262 pp.

Don A. Schanche, Mister Pop. New York: McKay, 1970. A book about Edgar Buell, who played an important role in U.S. programs in Laos.

Souvanna Phouma, Papers of Souvanna Phouma, Prince of Laos, 1961 Jan. 1 - 1970 Dec. 31. Collection in the Library of Congress, which has both the original copies on paper, and the collection on 6 reels of microfilm.

William H. Sullivan, Obbligato: Notes on a Foreign Service Career. New York: Norton, 1984. 279 pp. His time as US Ambassador to Laos (1964-69) is on pp. 208-35. He later participated in the US negotiating team at the Paris peace talks.

Hugh Toye, Laos: Buffer State or Battleground? London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1968. xvii, 245 pp.

Roger Warner, Back Fire: The CIA's Secret War in Laos and its Link to the War in Vietnam. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. 416 pp. A slightly revised edition has been published in paperback under the title Shooting the Moon: The CIA's War in Laos. South Royalton, VT: Steerforth, 1996.

Charles Weldon M.D., Tragedy in Paradise: A Country Doctor at War in Laos.  Bangkok: Asia Books, 1999.  xiii, 284 pp.  Weldon was in Laos from 1963 to 1974.

Joseph Westermeyer, Poppies, Pipes, and People: Opium and Its Use in Laos. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

 

The engaged question and answer session brought to a close what had been a most interesting, thought-provoking and moving evening. The audience’s appreciation for Rebecca’s contribution was sincerely applauded.

 

Your Convenor writes: I have received a number of inquires from people interested in purchasing a copy of the DVD. I contacted Marc Eberle, the director, and received this reply:

 

The DVD is not published yet unfortunately. There will be one shortly. However I have no information about it as of when and what language versions will be included.
The website of the German publisher is:

http://www.zweitausendeins.de/thema/aktuell/am-172-um-2015-uhr-auf-arte-amerikas-geheimer-krieg-in-laos-die-groesste-militaeroperation-d.html

I cc the producer Christian, maybe he can help you.

best
marc

 

Next Meeting:

335th Meeting – Tuesday, June 14th 2011. Meeting starts at 19.30 at the Alliance Française

Twisting Buddhism Through the Christian Lexicon: ‘Ordination’

A talk by Louis Gabaude

 

It has become normal to talk about ‘ordination’ of Buddhist monks, to call for 'ordination' of Buddhist nuns, and even, last but not least, to 'ordain' trees! Using 'ordination' for a Buddhist ritual is just one case in many of twisting Buddhism with Christian words like 'sin', 'vow', 'prayer' and so on.

The talk will first focus on the history of these words in Buddhism and Christianity: it will recall the history and uses of the word ‘buat’ in Thai and of 'pabbajjâ' or 'upasampada' in Pâli. Then it will turn to the history and use of the word 'ordination' in Christianity on the one hand, and to the real Christian equivalents of 'buat' on the other. 

The use of 'ordination' to translate ‘buat’, 'pabbajjâ' or 'upasampada' just shows how the meanings of both 'ordination' in Christianity and those of 'buat', 'pabbajjâ' or 'upasampada' in Buddhism were forgotten due to ignorance, misunderstanding or interest by those, be they Catholics, Protestants or Buddhists, who first chose and then went on using this word ('ordination') for something (buat) which actually belongs to a radically different religious structure.

Louis Gabaude, a resident of Chiang Mai for 36 years, is a retired member of the French School of Asian Studies (École Française d'Extrême-Orient) where he specialized in the history of ideas in Buddhism (http://www.efeo.fr/biographies/cadrebtl.htm).

 

Future Meetings:

Nothing confirmed at the moment. If you know of anyone who mat be interested in giving a talk please ask them to contact me at brihubb@loxinfo.co.th