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A Gentleman in Laos Long Ago

June 25, 2020

We have long talked about the illegal war in Laos and the impact it had on many of us. There were legal complications that few could have envisioned. As Esso was engaged in a profitable business brought about by an illegal war, they chose to keep no financial records in Laos should the country be overrun by the bad guys and their role exposed. On the other hand, Lao law required that anyone doing business in Laos was obliged to keep their accounting records in Laos so as to be available for immediate audit and scrutiny by the Lao Ministry of Finance. A compromise was reached whereby Esso would invite a large number of Lao “auditors” to Bangkok for a couple of weeks of fun and frivolity that would also include an amount paid to the team for all of their travel discomfort and time away from home. I always had a large show of hands to be the Thai hosts, but the successful ones regretted it in the end, as I required the hosts to be in the office at 7:30 a.m. Coincidentally, their Lao visitors were finding their way to their hotels about that time.  
There was a notable exception to the Lao ministry staff and that was Prince Sisouk Na Champassak, the Minister of Defense and Finance during my time in Laos, whom I came to know and respect. In fact, I have learned much more about him now that I did when we were connected. I found the book he authored, Storm Over Laos, which focused on the period between the two Geneva conferences in 1954 and 1961 that portrayed the difficulties of a fledging “independent” country of Laos. North Vietnam used the Pathet Lao rebels to shield overt Laos aggression in their own pursuit of a united Vietnam.  
The intervention of the United States began in 1961 in contravention of the Geneva Convention Accord with the initiation of unmarked Air America B-26 bombers dropping “hot soup”(bombs) on Pathet Lao positions. One can only wonder what the outcome would have been if President Truman had not been persuaded by Eisenhower’s prediction of the Chinese domino theory to ignore Ho Chi Minh’s plea to recognize Vietnam as an independent democratic country after WWII. A whiff of history would have supported the position that the Vietnamese had been at war with China for hundreds of years and would do anything to support their own republic, particularly if that support was underwritten with recognition by the United States. Eisenhower supported a return to French colonization with French troops after WWII which ended very badly in 1954 at Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam. In the movie, We Were Soldiers, the U.S. soldiers spoke derisively about the French Army being defeated by the Vietnamese saying, “French Army-what is that?” Fast forward to 1975, the U.S. Army suffered the same result.  
Minister Sisouk is shown below in an early image when there was a failed attempt to merge Pathet Lao soldiers into a unified Laos force and build a coalition independent Lao government. Fast forward to 1968 when I first met Minister Sisouk, it was my pleasure to host him in Bangkok occasionally to nice meals while his people were out cavorting with my Thai staff. Once in Vientiane toward the end of my tour in 1970, he took me to a restaurant/night club that could have been taken right out of the movie Casablanca. He proposed walking from his office to the nightclub after dark and I raised the question of whether it was safe. He then opened his suit coat to show a 38-caliber revolver and said we would be fine. As both Minister of Defense and Finance, you would expect him to have his own personal protection-kind of like we folks in Texas.  
Two years later, I hosted him in Tokyo for the Winter Olympics. We were in a fine dining establishment when an Esso executive was seated at an adjoining table. The next day he told my boss he had seen me having a meal with Minister Sisouk speaking what sounded like Thai. My boss responded, “Yes, he is strange” and he was not talking about the Minister.  
Minister Sisouk fled Laos in May 1975 as the country fell to the Pathet Lao. It all happened at the same time some other folks I know were fleeing Vietnam. He immigrated to France and eventually joined General Vang Pao, shown below, in California where they became the key political leaders against the communist Lao Peoples Democratic government. The highly charismatic Vang Pao also left Laos at the same time as Sisouk to settle in California.  
The image of Vang Pao is about the same vintage as that of Minister Sisouk as they were only a year apart in age. However, Vang Pao was the leader of the CIA-backed Hmong hill tribe army that was focused on fighting the Pathet Lao.  
Vang Pao’s Hmong forces were tough mountain people that were fighting to preserve their own tribal way of life rather than supporting a loftier cause of an independent Laos. Their tribal clothes are illustrated below as a group of them are waiting to testify to U.N. observers regarding Pathet Lao aggression in 1960. Moreover, their smiles provide a reason for anyone to visit Luang Prabang, Laos today as they are great people even though they suffered immeasurable hardships in the past.  
Sisouk joined forces with Vang Pao in California in 1981 where they became key political leaders of the resistance against the communist Lao Peoples Democratic Government. Sadly, Sisouk died in Vang Pao’s Santa Ana, California home in 1985. So now comes the year 2007, when the U.S. government indicts the 78-year-old Vang Pao, accusing him of being a terrorist for plotting to overthrow the communist government of Laos. The U.S. government participated in a sting operation to sell “hard rice,” a term used for munitions from the Air America era, to Vang Pao as leader of the Hmong resistance efforts representing the Hmong beleaguered survivors of the illegal war sponsored by the U.S. It may have been one of our darkest chapters. Fortunately, the following year, the indictment was withdrawn. Vang Pao passed away peacefully in 2011 to wide acclaim as a hero, not only a result of his war efforts, but also his humanitarian programs to resettle Hmong refugees.  

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