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Vientiane-Corruption Capital of Laos During the Illegal War

October 14, 2016


During the time of the illegal war in Laos (from the early sixties until 1975), corruption was rampant in the administrative capital of Vientiane, Laos due to the laissez-faire attitude of Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma.  Perhaps, it was easy for the U.S. to turn a blind eye to it as "we were not there." In fact, in October 1969, Souvanna Phouma gave an interview in both French and English to the effect that there were no American troops in Laos. They were not wanted and the only troops in the country were North Vietnamese which were not welcome either. Now, he could have honestly said there were no "uniformed" American troops, only pilots in Hawaiian shirts working for Air America and various contractors for the U.S. Agency for International Development. Bear in mind, some have a theory that occasionally societies have to take several steps back with massive bombardment before they are prepared for development. That may be the basic premise of the "bomb them back into the stone age" theory.

Accordingly, the only official army that was opposed to the North Vietnamese and the Pathet Lao was the Force Army Royale (FAR), the armed forces of Laos. A better acronym would have been "FARCE." In any event, that is why the U.S. called upon Colonel Vang Pao and his Hmong hill tribe soldiers to keep the "bad guys" in check while turning a blind eye to their opium smuggling business. In the meantime, the FAR officers, government officials and anyone recognizing the lack of a solid retirement plan in Laos lined their pockets.

Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma is shown below with President Kennedy in the White House. Do you think they are talking about the illegal war or the corruption back home in Laos -- most of which was sourced by U.S. AID money that was funneled into the nascent economy of Laos?


Several examples of corruption come to mind. By night, Prince Panya, son of the Prime Minister was a successful playboy with his own cadre of guys with guns. By day, he was the Water Commissioner of Laos which does not ordinarily conjure up a lucrative position though it did not require regular office hours. However, one night a fire "unexpectedly" started in the central market and the fire department was feverishly trying to extinguish it. As Panya and his boys happened to be nearby, they pulled up and turned the water off. The Fire Commissioner objected but Panya's guys had the guns and demanded a special water tax at that moment. Moreover, Panya ignored his opponent's passionate pleas of having bought the Fire Commissioner position based on the expected fees he would receive for fire protection and he could not afford a water tax. Panya's response was "no water, no fire protection money" which was a most persuasive argument. Panya and I were the same age when this event happened though our paths never crossed.

In November 1975, Prince Panya swam across the Mekong river from Vientiane, Laos to Nong Khai, Thailand to escape the Pathet Lao. Perhaps his experience as Water Commissioner enabled him to make the one-hour swim as few Lao people would have known how to swim at the time. In actual fact, as he swam south and across the river, he would have gone by our old Esso facility at PK 18 where we put aviation fuel in bladders and drums to fly up north to help the friendlies. Do not let the fact that we used a number to designate that location as all of the supply drops were numbers, rather than names, imply the least bit of intrigue.

In the image below, you can see that Panya was a fit fellow. Actually, there are very few images of him and this photograph appears to be for a passport or visa.


On another occasion, the author tried in vain to collect a $10,000 fuel bill from the defunct Lao United Airline. Unable to do so, it was time to present a bank guarantee securing the airline's indebtedness to the grantor, Bank Lao Vieng. The author was joined by a Thai/Chinese guy, Khun Choochat, which was most helpful as all attempts to communicate with the bank manager in English, French, Thai and Lao were to no avail. We then seized on the idea of Chinese which worked. The banker was amused and asked if we did not know whose bank it was as it was owned by the Prime Minister. No bank guarantee had ever been presented to that bank for collection. We took two DC-3 aircraft instead that secured the bank guarantee. An attempt was made the same day to sell the planes to a well-armed Corsican dope runner but in the end he took the planes. Ultimately, I figured he would die soon enough given his fingers were blackened from continuous Gauloises cigarette smoking.

With this backdrop, I told Joey she had to go to Vientiane as it was the coolest place on the earth, a veritable Casablanca during the war in Laos. By the way, my friend Fred echoed my sentiments. I talked about the Lane Xang (million elephants) Hotel, the wonderful French and Chinese food, as well as the shopping treasures. Moreover, in the past both the good guys and the bad guys roamed freely without much friction unless it was alcohol induced which added to the charm.

However, the author must admit being in a late night situation in a Vientiane bar and noticing a number of guys glaring at him who evidenced a significant amount of animosity. Upon being told by a friendly Lao that they were Pathet Lao and the bar had a back door next to the restroom, it was time for a late night sprint back to the old Lane Xang Hotel. The American University Association Thai language school in Bangkok had once again paid handsome dividends and saved my Moo Shu Pork as it did on a number of occasions.

As you can see from the current Lane Xang image below, either my memory had been blurred by the good times long ago or the hospitality industry had yet to recover from the mass exodus of all expatriates that took place following the fall of the country to the Pathet Lao. As it was the first return visit to Vientiane in twenty years (Joey and I went in 1996 and then back in 2013 after the fall in 1975), all I can say is we were there too soon.


The renovated hotel has incorporated a few new amenities such as a teak entrance but it is uncertain that an elevator has been added though it should not be much of a consideration in these days of aerobic programs. In the old days, few people had much luggage, if any. However, you can check it out on Trip Advisor and I dare you to find better value most anywhere.

Three years ago we returned to Vientiane for the first time since 1995 and discovered our friend and one of the biggest treasures, Carol Cassidy's Lao Textiles shop. Carol has single-handedly revitalized the Lao silk industry and at the same time provided employment for a wonderful group of silk dyers and weavers creating very distinctive designer products. Drop in Carol's shop when you are next in Vientiane, or go to The Elephant Story in Comfort, Texas or have a look at www.the-elephant-story.com.

 

 

Carol Cassidy Textiles

 

Carol Cassidy Lao Textiles

An American, Carol Cassidy founded Lao Textiles in 1990 in Vientiane, Laos. There Carol blends her own artistry with ancient local techniques and traditions to create contemporary woven art. The team of fifty Lao weavers and dyers use hybrid looms, designed by Carol, to create intricate brocade, ikat and tapestry textiles.

Carol Cassidy Lao Textiles Started in 1998 in the remote northern Cambodian province of Preah Vihear, this Cambodia weaving enterprise employs over eighty Cambodian war survivors who function as spinners, dyers, weavers and finishers. The Preah Vihear project contributes to sustainable income for the artisans. With the income from the project, the community has built homes with electricity, clean water and put their children through school.- Cambodia