Reading about Hillary Clinton’s recent visit to Laos brought back vivid memories of a month I spent in that beautiful country four decades ago and where I celebrated my 25th birthday.
It was 1974 when I flew into Vientiane with my colleague Suresh Khatri. We were the advance team for the Initiatives of Change stage production Song of Asia with a cast of young people from many parts of the continent. Our job was to record the dialogue of the show, which had been translated into Lao, so that the cast could perform the scenes to playback.
On arrival we were given the facilities of the radio station and a team of local actors. Without understanding a word of the language we recorded the scenes, marking the tape so we could identify the sections. The first performance for a huge crowd in a stadium was so successful that many of the audience actually thought the actors were speaking Lao. (The second performance had a few frantic moments when someone accidentally kicked a cable, disconnecting the tape recorder that I was operating.)
At the time, Laos was coming to the end of a long period of conflict. The leftist Pathet Lao insurgents were allied with North Vietnamese and had taken control of the northern part of the country. The U.S. dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laos between 1964 and 1973 – about a ton of ordnance for each Laotian man, woman and child. That exceeds the amount dropped on Germany and Japan together in World War II. Secretary Clinton pledged to help rid the country of millions of still unexploded bombs.
Song of Asia, with its dramatic sketches, dances, and songs portraying true stories of reconciliation and forgiveness gave a powerful message for a war-torn country. A Provisional Government of National Union had just been formed when the Prime Minister Prince Souvanna Phouma and his half-brother, Prince Souphanouvong, who led the leftist forces, came together in a show of reconciliation.
Our chief host was Secretary of State Chanthone Chantharasy, who was committed to the principles of Initiatives of Change and was highly regarded for his integrity by many of the students who flocked to the performances. He arranged a special performance for the King and Queen in the royal residence. I still have the lapel pin given us on that occasion.
In the summer of 1974 a hand-picked group of Lao students were sent by Chantharasy to Asia Plateau, the Initiatives of Change training center in India. Many of them had life-changing experiences. I roomed with a young man named Oukham whose father was a high official in the Lao government. Oukham was a rascal of the first order who had led a fast life with girls and drugs as on one of the privileged elite of his country. During the days in Asia Plateau he decided to get honest with his father about how he had sometimes “borrowed” his Mercedes, skipped school and spent days in a hotel with a girlfriend.
Oukham and I corresponded for a while after he got home and he told me how he had put things right with his dad. Then we lost touch. Sadly, the Provisional Government was short-lived. The communists took control in 1975, and Chantharasy and his family were forced to flee, finally making a new life in Australia. His life was probably saved by a warning from some of the young people whose lives he had touched.
I was glad to read of Clinton’s pledge to help cleanse the country of the massive and deadly residue of our military intervention. The Lao people are among the gentlest and most gracious on earth. They deserve a future of peace and safety.