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The “silapa thahaan” (army artists). Kaysone Memorial Cave Office, Vieng Say

The students’ laughter rings out across the lake, and I wonder if the inmates of the reeducation camp next door can hear them. Surely they can, only tens of meters away. I wonder what they are thinking, or are they beyond thought now? Shackled hand and foot, they lie in houses with windows boarded over, doors padlocked. Hotel Number One, where some claim that the last King of Laos died in detention, is now a renovated and privately-run hotel catering for an international clientele. On the approach to the hotel there is now a restaurant on the lake. The backyard of the hotel, meanwhile, leads up a rise to five buildings that still today contain prisoners.

This is the first installment of observations recorded during a recent stay in Vieng Say, Huaphan Province, Lao PDR. Notorious among Lao diaspora as the location of the most ferocious of reeducation camps, Vieng Say is also widely regarded as the heartland of the Lao revolution. The Pathet Lao administered the liberated zones and directed their military campaigns from this area, often from caves formed in the limestone karsts that give the area its unearthly charm. Vieng Say bore a torrent of US bombing, and the craters are still evident on the landscape. The district is now also front and center in international opium eradication efforts, anxieties about shifting cultivation, and the resettlement of highland minorities. With the plans for a tourism boom in the near future, Vieng Say offers tantalizing glimpses into some of Laos’ most significant historical events and her most pressing current issues.

A disclosure: I am by no means a Vieng Say expert. This is my first journey to the highlands of northern Laos. My usual stamping grounds are in the southern lowlands. Another disclosure: in my posts, some names, places, and dates have been altered to protect confidentiality. Now, to begin.

I can think of no more suitable place to start than with Mentur, who has taught me so much about Vieng Say, despite his being in some ways one of its most recent residents. I met Mentur when riding a bicycle through his village, which lies some seven kilometers from Vieng Say town. Baan Naa Hay is a resettlement village for Hmong relocated from their highland homes. The village starts beside a large road, and continues up the slope of a mountain. The village residents are allocated land to farm on the other side of this mountain and along neighbouring ridges, and they make daily treks to the ridges, valleys, and slopes beyond it to collect firewood, tend their crops, and care for their pigs.

Mentur was walking along the road when I rode into town. He and his wife were carrying woven backpacks. When I asked him where they were going, he replied that they were going to their “hay” (upland field) to carry down the harvest. I asked if I could go along. Mentur agreed, and as we walked the steep path up the mountain, he sketched out the story of his life. (His wife, it seemed, spoke very little Lao, and remained silent until, once in the “hay” I offered to help carry some rice down. At that point she laughed).

Mentur was born in the mountaintops. He does not name a village where he was born, saying instead only “phu d╔Ф╔Фy” (mountains). When we crest the first mountain, he motions out to some peaks in the distant north, indicating that that is where the remains of his mother and father lie. In 1988 the Lao government advised Mentur’s family that they would have to move into Baan Naa Hay. It was not an invitation: it was an order. But Mentur was happy to experiment with moving to the lowlands. He wanted to be closer to services like the hospital, roads, and electricity. He also wanted the chance to farm wet rice in an irrigated field. But when he arrived, he found that he had no access to any of these lowland features: the wet rice fields were already full, the hospital was too expensive to use, and he could not be sure he would have enough cash to pay his electricity bills. As for roads, he found that they were for the rich with cars and motorcycles: at fifty years of age, Mentur had never even ridden a bicycle, and he did not think he would ever have enough money to acquire one. But he was proficient on horseback: in the mountains he had horses as well as cattle, but fearing the diseases of the lowlands, he had left them in the phu d╔Ф╔Фy. In the lowlands, Mentur’s income declined dramatically. He did not have access to fully recovered hay fields anymore: he was allocated a part of the village farmland, which was already overtaxed. Moreover, Mentur had been deprived of his opium crop, an ideal cash earner because of its high value yield and was ease of transport.

Experiencing intolerable poverty, Mentur asked permission from the government to be resettled elsewhere, and in 1990 he was moved with official permission to another region, Baan Huay Naa. There he had plenty of irrigated fields and forest to use, though it was very far from any road or government services. The government, he claims, quickly reversed this decision, and ordered him to return to the outskirts of Vieng Say. He says that the plan to resettle him back to Vieng Say was simply a land grab by lowland Lao who coveted what had turned out to be very productive area.

The poverty that Mentur had experienced already at the Baan Naa Hay resettlement site meant that felt he had no real choice: he refused to return there. In 1995 he was arrested and sent to “seminar” (reeducation) in Vietnam for one year. He claims that the camp housed people from China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, and many of them were Hmong. He describes horrific conditions: he was not allowed to speak except to the guards. They spoke only Vietnamese, a language foreign to Mentur’s ears. He eventually learnt the words for “eat”, “wash spoon and bowl” and “shower”, and no more. He was shackled unless using the bathroom. After a year he was transferred to the prison at Sam Nuea for three months.

Upon release, he returned to Baan Thong Naa. He found that many other householders had left in fear. But his own family, and fifteen other households remained. His family wept when they saw him: they had assumed he was dead, having heard no news of his whereabouts. Mentur became the village chief, and he and his family lived in Baan Thong Naa quite well, though they feared more retribution. Ten years later, the event he and his family had feared occurred: he was arrested again. The rest of the householders were forcibly removed to Baan Naa Hay.

This time, he was sent to seminar in Vieng Say. I exclaimed with surprise: “in 2006 there was a seminar in Vieng Say?” Mentur replied in the affirmative. I asked him where it was, and he traced a map on the palm of his hand with his finger. “If the hotel is here,” he stated, “seminar is just here,” he indicated a set of buildings directly next to the hotel. He claimed that he was shackled in there for three months. His wife bought him food once a day. His family was required to buy his freedom, at the price tag of 3 million kip (about 300 USD). His wife sold all their livestock (cattle, pigs, horses) to raise 1.5 million kip. They borrowed a further 1.5 million from a distant relative in the USA. He still owes that money, and now he is poorer than ever. He is staying at a relative’s house at the Baan Naa Hay resettlement site. He has no livestock, no house of his own, no good fields, and no hope of accessing better fields or work.

When I rode back to Hotel Number One to rejoin a group of students from my university that afternoon, I could make out the buildings Mentur had indicated as the seminar distinctly. But they seemed innocuous – no guards, no fences, seemingly no people. As the students grew boisterous with Lao Lao, Beer Lao and music, the incongruity between the festivities there and the suggested suffering just beyond did not seem to tally up. Surely Vieng Say’s reeducation camp is not located next to Vieng Say’s only hotel?

Is Mentur’s story true? It seems that he had little serious motivation to lie. From my position here in Vieng Say, it is impossible for me to verify the most serious of his claims: that an international reeducation camp has recently operated in Vietnam. But I can take some steps to test his claim that a reeducation camp is open and running in Vieng Say itself, and his claims that Hmong are being forcibly resettled into poverty. To these topics I will return in future additions to New Mandala. For now, over and lights out from Vieng Say.