|The Government of Laos has seized upon natural resource exploitation and development to breathe some life into their struggling economy. Unfortunately, the government lacks the training and skill set to exploit the resources in an environmentally friendly and physically safe manner. The responsibility for this situation rests with those outside of Laos. From the outset of the withdrawal of the U.S. in 1975 and their support for the Hmong mercenary forces fighting the North Vietnamese and the local Pathet Lao forces, Kaysone Phomvihane, became the head of the country with no experience or training in the basic tenets of government. He led the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party until his death in 1992.
Moreover, the Pathet Lao were dominated by the North Vietnamese in the illegal war in Laos and lived in caves for most of their fighting years. Furthermore, most educated business and political leaders in the former corrupt Royal Lao Government either fled the country or were killed by the Pathet Lao. Hence, there was no foundation upon which to build a competent Lao administrative base as the country had been rudderless and engulfed in wars run by absentee war lords since World War II.
The depth of depravity of the U.S. during the war in Laos is difficult for most anyone to comprehend. The most glaring example was Antony Poshepny, more commonly known as illegal war in Laos, who was assigned to Laos following an initial eleven-year career with the CIA. He then became a legend by specializing in recruiting and commanding Hmong forces in Laos from 1961 until 1974 and becoming more infamous as he gradually spun out of control. His trademark was requiring the ears of the enemy killed by his Hmong mercenaries as confirmation of death that ultimately evolved to their heads being mounted on stakes around Poe’s camp. At times he allegedly attached the trophy ears to field reports that were sent to CIA headquarters to illustrate the success of his program.
Tony Poe is believed by most to have been the model for Colonel Kurtz who was portrayed by Marlon Brando in the film Apocalypse Now. Although Francis Ford Coppolo has denied that belief, what else could he say as the CIA role in the war in Laos was classified until 2016. Tony, as shown below is long past his prime, but you can easily discern the Marlon Brando make-up similarities. Although the CIA allegedly tried to assassinate Poe twice, his approach to “off the books” warfare became the CIA model for years to come. Martin Sheen is believed to have played the role of one of the two assassins sent to kill Poe in the Coppolo film.
On the other hand, one cannot say that the Pathet Lao were innocent. Like the Hmong hill tribe forces of the U.S., the Pathet Lao communist fighters and the North Vietnamese soldiers took no prisoners of war. The author had an unnerving experience in 1969 in Vientiane, Laos when a Lao acquaintance in a late-night bar said two Lao guys across the room were Pathet Lao and were planning to kill me when I left the bar. Fortunately, there was a back door next to the washroom which provided a convenient means to flee into the night-chapter one in the guerrilla warfare bar escape manual.
To leap forward from then to now, Laos adopted what was considered to be a quick and easy economic model, building hydroelectric dams along the Mekong with foreign investor funding to become the “battery for Southeast Asia.” Some fifty dams are planned to be in operation by 2025 representing twice the current level. However, there has been a lingering concern about potential environmental damage as well as quality of construction and the safety of the program.
The current Lao dams export two-thirds of the hydropower produced for sale to Thailand and Vietnam generating much needed foreign currency. Opportunistic foreign companies from all around the Far East have jumped into the building fray with some of them lacking adequate environmental and safety practices. Over the past three years, three dams have burst with the most recent being the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower project in Attapeu southern Laos. The dam was 90 percent completed when it failed.
The collapse of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam caused great havoc and may have burst the “free lunch battery bubble.” Interestingly, the Korean contractor building the dam was aware that the foundation was sinking before the failure but did not notify anyone at that time. Sadly, the word Namnoy in Lao, representing the name of one of the two rivers feeding into the dam, means “little water” which proved not to be the case when the dam broke. The consortium building the dam consists of Korean and Thai companies with the local partner, Laos Holding State Enterprise, having responsibility for environmental and safety standards.
At least 27 people were immediately found dead but, when an observer was asked by the local media about the expected loss of life down river, the response was “all of them” which the image below might lead people to jump to that conclusion. Some 7,000 people have been displaced in the Lao province with some 131 people still missing. The flood waters have found their way 100 miles downriver into Cambodia which will likely force the evacuation of a vast number of people.
As one would suspect in such an impoverished area, the evacuation capability is extremely limited. Moreover, those evacuated fled with little more than the clothes on their backs. Perhaps a greater future danger is the fact that Laos is one of the most heavily bombed countries in the world as a result of the American bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War era. Moreover, it is common knowledge that unexploded bombs and anti-personnel mines move in flood situations from known danger areas to areas that were previously assumed to be safe.
A significant relief effort has begun with the Koreans taking the first initiative being followed by Thailand. However, it might have been more helpful had the Koreans alerted everyone of the initial dam failure as it began to sink and could have saved significant lives. Nonetheless, the Koreans did say, if they were deemed to be at fault for the collapse, they would assume responsibility and make amends. It would seem from the vantage point of this observer that would be most appropriate.
It is interesting that a veil of secrecy has descended over the Lao Government’s communications. A non-communicative regime that is unaccustomed to scrutiny was immediately cast upon the world’s stage. Interestingly, the Vientiane government was shocked by news of the flood that appeared on Facebook with associated government criticism by the young Lao authors of posts. Further, there are cries of “fake news” by the Lao regime which is reminiscent of the mantra in Washington, D.C. for unpleasant news.
In reality, it is the former warlords that must take the responsibility for any dam failures in Laos as they have the knowledge and experience to build proper dams in an era of climate change which is destroying the traditional weather patterns of the past. Therefore, we would say the foreign parties in these endeavors are the ones responsible for their consequences and by no means should the Lao government be held accountable. When a foreign natural resource exploitation company has a problem most anywhere in the world, they are held accountable and not the host government.
The bottom line is one of sadness as most Lao people are kind, gentle folks that have been downtrodden by foreign invaders for as long as anyone can remember. Moreover, foreign control limited the training required to structure proper governmental administrations. Lastly, it is very difficult to jump start an impoverished economy that lacks most everything but natural resources. The Lao people could make it work with a bit of compassion and a helping hand from the outside world. It would be more than appropriate for the U.S. to provide war reparations for the “illegal war” in the form of education and guidance regarding the proper exploitation of hydropower generation capability which seems to be working in Bhutan under Indian guidance. The country that built the Hoover dam could readily offer such advice in return for attempting to bomb the country back into the Stone Age over fifty years ago.
Colonel Kurtz portrayed by Marlon Brando can be directly compared with Tony Poe in the following video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNgByeOcrHQ
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