The “seminar” in progress. Kaysone Memorial Cave Office, Vieng Say

On my way here, during the flight from Bangkok to Vientiane, I was seated next to a friendly couple from Portland, Oregon. We chatted in Lao: both were born in Vientiane, and moved to the US as refugees when they were still children. They asked me where I was headed to in Laos, and when I replied “Vieng Say” their faces fell. “Seminar,” they said. And to be extra clear, the husband translated for me, “That is where they have the reeducation camps.”

In my previous post to New Mandala, I introduced Mentur, and his claims that he had been held in seminar in 1995 and in 2006, the first time in Vietnam and Sam Nuea, and the second time in Vieng Say. To investigate his claims further, my first port of call was the group of buildings that he had indicated as one of the locations in which he was held. A path led from the backyard of the hotel up a short incline to the buildings. In total there were only five buildings. The doors were padlocked from the outside, and the windows were boarded over. There were no clear perimeter and no guards. In fact, the place seemed deserted. But there were some signs of life – fresh cigarette boxes in a bin, clothes drying on a line, vegetables growing in fenced yards. If this was a prison, it was like no prison I had seen before: no guns, no razor wire, no turrets. The most visible sign that this was a place of detention was, in fact, literally a sign. On the second building, a notice informed visitors that:

When coming to visit the accused:

  • You must have identification and permission papers;
  • You must not use minority languages at all;
  • Do not call out to the accused: if you have work here, talk to the head;
  • When you bring food, you must adhere to the scheduled times, and you must have it inspected by the head first. The morning starts at 8.00 am –10.30 . . .

The rest, including the schedule for the evening mealtime, had been scrubbed out. But this sign was enough to indicate that this building was some kind of penitentiary.

I invited a contact in the Provincial administration to lunch and asked him about what I had seen. He had no hesitation in telling me that it was a functioning prison. He explained that the inmates were people who have broken the law. When I asked why it appeared quite unguarded, and he replied that there is no need for a guard or fences, because the prisoners are shackled hand and foot. They cannot stand or even move, because the shackles cause wounds around their wrists and ankles, and these cause pain with even the slightest movement. Prisoners, he told me, are only unshackled to eat once a day. Others in the restaurant joined in our conversation. Eventually a man who seemed to have some authority on the matter explained that it was not a prison, but a holding place for interrogation. The real prison – for people with established convictions – was in Sam Nuea. There was no shame in telling me any of this: these were, after all, common prisoners.

But Mentur had described the place as a seminar, and the usual translation for seminar is reeducation camp. And reeducation camp, in much of the English-language literature on the history of Laos, has come to be synonymous with a concentration camp: a barbaric holding pen for political prisoners.

But the equation between reeducation and a concentration camp is contested, to say the least. At the Kaysone Phomvihane memorial in Vieng Say, photographs celebrating the revolution are decaying in an upstairs storeroom. Two staff from the office let me sift through the fraying frames. They drew my attention at one point to a photograph of rows and rows of men sitting at desks, as if at school. They told me it was seminar. The people in the picture did not look terribly happy, but it would be a stretch to call this a concentration camp. This photograph, stored with other publicity shots of revolutionary life, probably served to publicize the government’s own positive spin on seminar. The staff who pointed the picture out to me told me that the people there learn to love their country, learn the new ways of thinking, and would return to their own villages to be productive members of a new society.

At the memorial I also spoke to a former guard at seminar. He worked during 1975, 1976, and 1977 as the secretary for three seminar in the Vieng Say area. I ask him if the seminar was like a gaol, and he stated vigorously that it was nothing like a gaol. It was more like a school – people could walk around freely (not shackled). They could bring their families along. The government provided food, but there were also restaurants if they wanted to buy more. It was a place where people who had previously been sided with “Vientiane” or saharat (America) could be transformed through study into loyalists. They would learn to “love their country”. He explained that some of the best civil servants and doctors practicing today spent time at seminar. There was no evasiveness in telling me these stories. He even commented, “I see a lot of foreigners are afraid to ask such questions. Don’t be afraid to ask me anything, or to ask anything in Laos: there is nothing to be afraid of.” He was happy to tell me these stories of reunification and reconciliation: the “enemy” had through this process become “friend”. Indeed, he counts as personal friends many of the former inmates of the seminar that he administrated. Many of them have settled in and around Vieng Say, and many more return to visit from Vientiane regularly.

As for current day seminars, he said simply “all the seminars are closed now. The seminar people have all gone back to Vientiane.” The other staff at the memorial concurred. For these officials, the seminar was a fleeting institution, one that took place directly after the 1975 Pathet Lao victory. It was for them a necessary intervention in the process of reforming and reintegrating former enemies into the newly (and finally) unified Lao state. For them, seminar is history.

But for Mentur, seminar happened this year. I sought a second conversation with him. In this meeting he used the word khuk (prison) more often, but he maintained explicitly that his imprisonment was politically motivated. I asked him if he ever broke the law, and he stated vehemently that he had committed no crime. Instead he claimed that his repeated arrests were connected to land. Specifically, he wanted me to understand his contested rights to certain parts of land that the Lao government has now allocated as forest reserve. Later, when we are speaking with some Khamu people, he said, “in Laos, it is the Hmong and the Khamu who are poor. The Lao take all the good land. It has always been that way. It is the policy of the government to keep it that way” I will write more about the question of land in my next contribution to New Mandala). He also mentions that his brother was a known soldier fighting for Vang Pao, but was killed by Vietnamese. He wonders if his singling out for harsh treatment was connected to this history. Either way, he is sure that his imprisonment was political. He refers to the gaol as seminar and khuk interchangeably. It seemed not to matter much to him the word used: the important fact to him was that he was held in intolerable conditions for unjust reasons.

The term seminar, then, holds many meanings. For officials, it indicates a necessary and positive intervention in the post-1975 period. The seminars facilitated the reunification of the nation by reforming former enemies. For marginalized people, such as Mentur, the term seminar indicates the repressive, punishing face of the current regime. Prisons, interrogation centers, and other forms of detention are equated to seminar. This kind of seminar is a far cry from the purely educational facilities described in official histories and memories. But this is not a confused mistake on behalf of people like Mentur. It instead indicates how some marginalized members of the population of Laos continue to perceive the current regime as one maintained through coercion rather than consent.