Lao history finally unfolds after years of silence
Last updated 2-12-09 at 9:43 a.m.
By Channapha Khamvongsa
Special to Northwest Asian Weekly
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ nomination of “Nerakhoon” (or “The Betrayal”) for best documentary feature of 2008 brings national attention to the struggles of Laotian Americans for the first time.
The film is about the life of Laotian immigrant Thavisouk Phrasavath. It deals with the extensive repercussions that are still prevalent from the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War. When the protagonist’s family suffers persecution following the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia, his mother flees with eight of her 10 children to a life of poverty in Brooklyn.
The story of “Nerakhoon” is rooted in the shared experiences of Laotian American communities in Seattle and other areas of the country. Filmed and produced by Ellen Kuras and Phrasavath, the documentary chronicles a family’s journey over the course of 23 years, following their struggle to reconcile what they were forced to leave behind with a new and difficult life in a foreign land.
Phrasavath gives a first-hand account of his own survival of the war as a young boy, his escape from persecution and arrest in communist Laos, his miraculous reunion with his family, and their journey to America, where they faced other problems in the crime and gang-ridden streets of New York. Phrasavath’s mother provides a powerful testimony of her unflagging efforts to single-handedly raise and shepherd a family of 10 amid constant danger.
The Pacific Northwest is home to 20,000 Lao and Hmong immigrants — more than 7,000 in the Seattle area alone. Many share similar stories to that of Phrasavath. Few Americans know the history of Vietnam War-era’s “secret war” in Laos, why Laotian immigrants resettled in the U.S., or the difficulties they have faced in adapting to a new life.
For many years, the U.S. government supported the Lao government against communist insurgents in a long and bloody civil war. In violation of international treaty agreements, the U.S. armed and trained the Royal Lao Army, recruited Special Forces through the CIA, and carried out a massive bombing campaign.
From 1964 to 1973, U.S. planes dropped more than 2 million tons of ordnance on Laos — equivalent to a planeload of bombs every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years — leaving Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.
While the details of the conflict are now a footnote in the history books, the legacy of the war lives on. Up to 30 percent of the 260 million cluster bombs and an unknown quantity of conventional bombs, rockets, mortars, and land mines failed to detonate, leaving extensive contamination of unexploded ordinance (UXO).
Cluster bombs, or “bombies” as the Lao call them, and other UXO have killed or maimed more than 34,000 people since the war ended, and they continue to claim more than 300 new victims each year.
The wounds from the secret war are not felt only in Laos. When the U.S. withdrew from Laos in 1973 and the communist government took over in 1975, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled the country; many of them ultimately resettled in the United States. The Laotian American population is fragmented throughout the country and not as organized compared to other immigrant groups. Younger Laotian Americans in particular are hungry for opportunities to learn about and advocate for issues that affect their communities.
Legacies of War is a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to raise awareness regarding the history of the Vietnam War-era bombing in Laos, and advocate for the removal of unexploded bombs in Laos, to provide space for healing the wounds of war, and to create greater hope for a future of peace. The group uses a unique combination of art, culture, education, community organizing, advocacy, and dialogue to bring people together, and create healing and transformation out of the wreckage from the war.
Legacies of War applauds the Academy Award nomination of the documentary for bringing national attention to the history of the secret war and the Laotian American story. It is a story long overdue in its telling. (end)
Channapha Khamvongsa is director of Legacies of War. For more information, visit www.legaciesofwar.org.
Channapha Khamvongsa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.