Indochina War Refugees in Laos, 1954–1975—Documents and Reports

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Hmong refugees
Hmong refugees from the Frederic C. Benson Laotian Slide Collection (1968-1974)

During the period 1954-1975, a time of ongoing conflict and war in Laos, as many as 700,000 refugees, or about 25% of the country’s estimated population of 3 million, were internally dislocated. About half of the population of Laos is comprised of some 100 ethnic minorities, many of which were traditionally swidden cultivators who periodically relocated and were scattered across the largely hilly and mountainous country, including across the borders with neighboring countries. It was these people who bore the brunt of the war.

The “Indochina War Refugees in Laos” collection is a unique compilation of approximately 2,500 original documents which helps reveal the complex dynamics of the extraordinary refugee relief, relocation, and resettlement initiatives that were jointly undertaken in Laos by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and its Royal Lao Government (RLG ) counterpart, the Ministry of Social Welfare.

There are four main linguistic families in Laos: the Hmong-Iu Mien family (frequently referred to as the Lao Soung, including the Hmong and the Iu Mien), who historically predominately lived on mountain tops; the Tibetan-Burma family (frequently also referred to as Lao Soung, including the Akha and Lahu) who also historically often lived in high altitudes; the Mon-Khmer Family (frequently referred to as the Lao Theung or Lao Kang, including the Khmu, Lamet, Brao and many other groups), who lived on mountain slopes; and the Tai-Kadai family (frequently referred as the Lao Loum, including the Lue, Tai Phouan, Tai Dam, Phou Thai, and the Lao themselves), who frequently but not always lived in lower areas, including along large rivers valleys. For centuries, the Lowland Lao, or Lao Loum, resided mainly in the Mekong valley and comprised the governing class. Many of the minorities became assimilated as Lao due to the slave trade that preceded the French colonial period, which began in 1893.

Following France’s loss in the First Indochina War (which commenced in 1946) to the Vietnamese communists in 1954 and the ensuing Geneva Agreements, the newly independent Kingdom of Laos emerged in a power vacuum. Although the political factions fundamentally shared a common goal to be independent and free, internal bickering erupted between the relatively weak and fragile entities. The communist Pathet Lao (PL) faction, which mainly controlled highland areas away from the Mekong valley adjacent to Vietnam and China, and the Royal Lao Government (RLG), which predominantly controlled Lao populated valleys and plains along the Mekong River, split apart and sought economic, political, and military backing from powerful Cold War players—specifically, North Vietnam and the United States, which were destined to clash over South Vietnam.

As far as the U.S. was concerned, the ensuing Second Indochina, or Vietnam, War essentially had three purposes with respect to Laos: 1) Establish a neutral and independent Laos by providing political and economic stability and support that would bring about a peaceful settlement; 2) Interdict the passage of North Vietnamese soldiers and supplies headed for South Vietnam through the Ho Chi Minh Trail in central and southern Laos; and 3) Defend the RLG’s stronghold, the Mekong valley and, ultimately, neighboring Thailand. The strategy of Hanoi, on the other hand, was two-pronged: 1) Encourage PL participation in a coalition government in the interests of the “strategic relationship” between North Vietnam and Laos; and 2) Establish a secure line of communication with South Vietnam by developing trails, namely the Ho Chi Minh Trail, through Laos.

Unlike the RLG, the PL, as well as the North Vietnamese, recognized that all the ethnic minority groups were valuable resources and overcame the age-old animosity between lowland Lao and Vietnamese and upland minorities. To counter military initiatives taken by the Communists, and to provide a reasonable level of security throughout Laos, the U.S. initially took limited, low-key steps to support the RLG’s Royal Lao Army. However, as fighting accelerated the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) increasingly became more actively engaged in Laos in 1962 soon after the North Vietnamese violated the 1962 Geneva Accords, which stipulated that foreign troops were supposed to stay out of Laos. Namely, the U.S. thereby also decided to “bypass” the Accords, but secretly with CIA support. Thus the war in Laos came to be known as the “Secret War”. Like the North Vietnamese, the CIA took steps to train, advise, and support mainly ethnic minority paramilitary forces in northern, central and southern Laos. These paramilitary groups operated in remote areas deep in contested mountainous terrain, and their activities revolved around villages or groups of villages from which local chieftains and their followers were recruited. The paramilitaries which conducted offensive-type missions were known as Special Guerilla Units (SGUs), and those which served as local village militias were organized as Auto-Defense de Choc (ADC) teams. They were funded, trained, advised and sometimes led by CIA plain-clothed Americans working officially in other job in Laos, but actually there to support the war effort. Other Americans supported development aid work in Laos.

Since most of the fighting took place in upland regions of Laos between the Mekong valley and the borders of Vietnam and China, it followed that the people most affected by the war were upland ethnic minorities (i.e. people distinct from the lowland Lao) groups. As fighting intensified over the years, RLG paramilitary units were forced to retreat from one mountain to another, and sometimes into the lowlands. Accordingly, local villagers, many of whom were their dependents, also retreated with their personal well-being at stake only to be relocated to areas that often became new first lines of defense. Ultimately, entire minority villages were evacuated, often on multiple occasions, in what was to become a slow pull back toward the strategically important Mekong valley. Indeed, it can be said that in some areas of Laos, especially in northern tribal regions, the refugee relief program was, in fact, a very significant part of a larger integrated political-military war effort.

The collection here with is organized into twenty-four folders labeled with subject headings that are listed in alphabetical order and included in the table of contents. In turn, the folders contain a series of files, most of which include materials that are arranged in chronological order. The core folders include the following:

  • MR1-MR5 folders – Laos’ sixteen provinces were organized into five military regions (MRs). Included in these five folders are field reports and personal accounts written by USAID refugee area operations officers assigned to specific military regions, as well as extensive interviews of refugees who were displaced in these regions. Operations officers—most of whom spoke Lao, possessed detailed knowledge of the cultural environments in which they worked, accepted operational risks, and were dedicated to their mission—worked on a partnership basis with their like-minded and equally dedicated Ministry of Social Welfare counterparts and local authorities to identify needs and devise systems and procedures for coordinating and facilitating the delivery of emergency relief supplies and services to refugees (including medical assistance provided by USAID’s Public Health Division). The interviews, conducted by local co-workers, provide a glimpse of the life of ordinary villagers caught up in the middle of conflicting factions during the long, drawn out turmoil and war in Laos.
  • US Mission to Laos –This folder contains documents and reports issued by both the U.S. Embassy and the Embassy’s USAID Mission. The individual files contain a wide range of material, including directives, monthly reports, situation reports, project reports, facts on foreign aid reports, annual budgets, bulletins, and congressional reports. The refugee program was one of the Mission’s top priorities.
  • USAID Refugee Affairs—The Office of Refugee Affairs was a division of the USAID Mission, and this folder includes reports issued by the Office headquartered in Vientiane, including weekly and monthly reports, assessments of the refugee situation, statistical reports, contingency planning, and program planning.
  • USAID Air Support Operations—Critically important to the refugee relief program was USAID’s air support operations. In that adequate surface transportation infrastructure was largely absent in a geographical environment dominated by rugged terrain, foodstuffs and other essential commodities were airdropped by USAID-chartered Air America and Continental Air Services planes at remote villages and prearranged drop zones where most of the country’s refugees took shelter. Likewise, aircraft played a vital role in airlifting refugees situated at or near active war zones to secure areas. Refugee support personnel also depended on fixed wing STOL (short takeoff and landing) aircraft and helicopters to travel to otherwise inaccessible refugee sites in order to assess local conditions. This folder contains information about the history of humanitarian air operations in Laos, rice drop procedures, airlift data by drop zone, and locations and specifications of airfields, STOL airstrips, and drop zones, many of which local inhabitants carved by hand out of the sides of mountains, with some airstrips being as short as 500 feet in length and situated at altitudes of several thousand feet.

Joint Operations Graphic 1:250,000 scale maps of Laos printed in the 1960s by the Army Map Service, Corps of Engineers, which have been compiled and presented in their current format by Mr. Jim Henthorn offers context for this collection of documents. The map coordinates identify the map locations of many of the place names and airstrips which are referred to in the Collection’s documents. Some documents also refer to airfield “Lima” site numbers, the coordinates of which can be found in the Collection’s various editions of the Air Facilities Data for Laos.

Other information relevant to the refugee program is included in folders containing information about the cultures of the people of Laos, Lao government administrative structures, the war in Laos, as well as maps, gazetteers, and population statistics. Also included is a folder entitled Peace Talks, 1972-1973, which includes transcripts (written in Lao) of the critical peace talks between the RLG and the Neo Lao Hak Sat (the PL’s political party apparatus) that led to a ceasefire in 1973 and, ultimately, to the formation of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, or Lao PDR, in 1975.

Although the post-1975 era is not covered in this collection, what this collection does provide is a series of snapshots which, when pieced together into a mosaic, offer insights into the hardships experienced by ethnically diverse villagers whose search for peace and stability spanned a period of nearly two decades. The some 300,000 Laotians, mostly Hmong and Lao, who chose to escape from Laos after the Communists took over in 1975 were relocated to countries around the world where they encountered new sets of cultural challenges which, for the most part, opened the door and provided pathways for them to pursue new opportunities in accommodating environments. The main countries were, in order of the number of refugees resettled, the USA, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Notes:

Keyword searching will bring up words within a document assuming that the words being sought in faded documents are sufficiently legible to be detected. If in viewing a document, it doesn’t seem to display properly, switch to the “Page image” link option in the page’s left-hand column.

Additional materials will subsequently be added to this collection in accordance with University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center procedures. Given the fact that this collection is by no means complete, additional relevant materials are welcome from contributors who would like to make them available to students, researchers, and persons who are interested in learning about the effects the war in Laos had on people who were caught up in the turmoil and displaced by its impact.

Acknowledgements:

The contents of this website are drawn mainly from the collections of Frederic Benson and Ernest Kuhn, both veterans of the USAID/Laos Refugee Relief program spanning the years 1965-1975, and researched, compiled, organized, and scanned by Frederic Benson. Feedback about the collection as well as queries from anyone interested in contributing additional material are most welcome. Please contact Mr. Benson at  tamarind@infionline.net.

Frederic Benson went to Laos in 1968 with International Voluntary Services (IVS) and spent time at Vang Vieng (Vientiane Province) and Muong Phieng (Sayaboury Province) before being posted at Ban Thalat (the Nam Ngum 1 dam site in Vientiane Province). Due to local security issues, in 1969 Mr. Benson was reassigned by IVS to USAID’s Office of Refugee Affair’s team in Vientiane, from which he travelled throughout Laos, monitoring refugee movements. When his IVS service ended in 1970, he went to work as an Area Operations Officer at USAID’s Office of Refugee Affairs and spent time working in Xieng Khouang and Houa Khong (now Bokeo) provinces before being based in Luang Phrabang Province. Mr. Benson left Laos in 1974 to attend graduate school in the United States and pursue a career in international business, which included postings and years of engagement throughout Asia.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand, Ernest Kuhn lived 21 months in a Hmong village near the border with Laos. Based on his Hmong experience, Mr. Kuhn joined USAID’s Refugee Relief Program in 1965 and was stationed at USAID’s north-eastern Laos headquarters in Sam Thong (Xieng Khouang Province), from which he covered predominately Hmong areas in Sam Neua and Xieng Khouang provinces. During this assignment Mr. Kuhn received the USAID Superior Honor Award and the Order of the Million Elephants and White Parasol from the King of Laos for his service in Sam Neua Province. Between 1970 and 1971 he worked in Ban Houei Sai (Louang Namtha Province), and, subsequently, from 1972-1975, in Vientiane until the Mission closed in 1975. Mr. Kuhn was a Foreign Service Officer who retired in 1994 after serving in Thailand, Laos, Philippines, Egypt and Indonesia for over 30 years.

Valued assistance in preparing this introductory information has been provided by Larry Ashmun, Southeast Asian Studies Bibliographer, and Ian Baird, Assistant Professor of Geography, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and affiliated with the University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies. Assistance has also been provided by former USAID refugee relief team members Wayne Johnson, Bill Sage, and Mac Thompson.

By Frederic C. Benson

February 11, 2013