Journey into the Heartland - Essay on the Archeology, History, and Revival of Laos
Written and photographed by Xaixana Champanakone

Part Three: Muang Khoun, the Hmong & Tham Piu Cave

Part Three :  Muang Khoun, the Hmong and Tham Piu Cave

From Phonsavanh we drive 32 km through a very pleasant rolling countryside of recently planted rice fields adjoining dark green pine wooded hills to Muang (town) Khoun, formerly called Xieng Khouang, which used to be the old capital of the muang, or territory, of the Tai Phouan people until it was completely wiped out by the end of the Secret War in 1973.

Xieng Khouang was known as a proud and very substantial city, seat of the old Tai Phouan family which ruled for centuries over their kin inhabiting the territory of the Plain of Jars in large numbers. Of all temples only the Buddha statue of Vat (temple) Piavat and the Taht (stupa) miraculously remain standing. Everything you see today in buildings is of recent construction. You need to know the history of the locality to understand its tragedy, its significance in the scheme of history.

Like so many other places that had their names changed at the end of the war – to put an end to the war – the town known throughout history as Xieng Khouang became today’s Muang Khoun while ‘Xieng Khouang’ now demarcates the entire province.

The history of Xieng Khouang, by either name, is interlinked with the Tai Phouan. They are one of the Tai ethnic groups who are chronicled to have descended from the probably very real – though shrouded in the mist and myth of pre-written history - Khun Borom (Khun Boulom) whose offspring proceeded to found the various Tai principalities / territories throughout the wider region. The Tai Lao, Tai Phouan, Tai Shan, Tai Siamese, Tai Lue, Tai Dam, Tai Daeng, Pou Tai etc spread over the present day area extending from Southern China to Central Thailand and from Vietnam to Northeastern India, are represented in ethnic pockets or governing a sovereign country of their own like Laos and Thailand.

The first written evidence of the Tai Phouan’s presence and the arrival of Buddhism are inscriptions found in Tham Phra, the Buddha cave, which we visited earlier on our way here. (See Part One; due to lack of proper signage or guide we missed this historically significant evidence ! ) The dates inscripted on the walls at the cave’s entrance correspond to the sixth or seventh century AD. Taht (stupa) Foun, see hereafter, is dated to the same period; its shape is said to represent early ‘Phouan’ architecture. This surviving remnant of a substantial structure gives testimony to the advanced civilization at the time and region; or to the continued human evolution from the times when other, more ancient peoples had already carved out those Jars and erected those Standing Stones (See Part Four).

     

Over the coming centuries the Phouan people prospered, short of any historical record to the contrary, from the overland trade in salt, metals and forest products and were able to retain a high degree of autonomy.

From the 14th century onwards, though, they had to pay tribute to Lane Xang, the Kingdom of a Million Elephants, the first Lao state made up of several Tai ethnicities unified under king Fa-ngum with seat in Luang Prabang. Muang Phouan thus became the second kingdom of the four (not the usually mentioned and historically incorrect ‘three’) kingdoms of Lane Xang, with Champasak and Viangchan to follow in the early 1700s; all four ‘houses’ kept intermarrying. Over the next 500 years the ‘big-brotherly’ neighbours vied for suzerainty over this prime location; first-comer Lane Xang was joined in competition by Vietnam from the 15th to late 18th century, then by Siam coercing either Luang Prabang or Viangchan until 1893 when France, claiming Vietnamese prerogatives, put in a short-lived appearance. To maintain its independence throughout the centuries Muang Phouan had to pay off one or the other or even two at the same time, pliable and indestructible like the proverbial bamboo; at one time in the 1800s the whole family got carted off for an extended visit to Vietnam. Today they are prominent in government, business and society.

Nonetheless, from the 7th to the 17th century expressive Buddhist art and architecture flourished. The capital was dotted with temples in a distinct Xieng Khouang / Tai Phouan style. Muang Phouan was described as “a large and beautiful city protected by wide moats and forts occupying the surrounding hills and the opulence of the sixty-two pagodas and their stupas, of which the flanks concealed treasures, obtained the capital a fame that spread wide and far”.


This Golden Age ended around the turn of 18th century when Muang Phouan, weakened by internal succession strife, was twice devastated by Siam (and that’s a long story of its own, another time). The Siamese welcomed the free captive labour and deported large numbers of the inhabitants to dig the – now famous - klongs of then newly founded Bangkok. As a result there are more Phouan descendants living today in Thailand than in Laos.

Later that century marauding, horse mounted bands of Haw from China, also called the Black Flag, repeatedly laid waste to the countryside until the Siamese put an end to it, at long last - it needs to be said, to the very relief of the local population. With the arrival at around this time of the French and their subsequent occupation of Indochina, Muang Phouan was restored as a principality with members of the ruling house appointed as governors and not princes unlike during the 16th and 17th century when the Phouan family ruled as royalty on behalf of the Vietnamese while paying tribute to Luang Prabang.

Xieng Khoung was rebuilt to a shadow of its former glory in regards to its famous temples; other than that an imposing colonial palace housing the French governor dwarfed the Phouan governor’s building, and anything else. The revival was to be short-lived; when the French had gasped their last in 1954, the Americans eagerly took over to undermine Lao sovereignty, and by 1970 they had bombed the territory of Muang Phouan and its capital Xieng Khouang into oblivion. Anyhow, come 1973 they had lost the war.

     

     

When Mr. Chanthy and I visited Phonsavanh in 2001 we were not able to travel to Muang Khoun because Hmong guerillas were still carrying out wide spread acts of aggression in the surrounding countryside, a campaign of intimidation they had continued uninterrupted since the defeat of the Americans, their overlords, in 1973. The perpetrators were operating out of the mountains to the south, protected by vast and thick jungle coverage in this central region of Laos provoking the government’s forces to fight back; still no peace in sight for the long suffering local population.

In 2002 I traveled with Inthy, Mr. Chanthy’s oldest son, through this heartland of the Hmong rebellion then called the Saysomboun Special Zone for a good reason: ongoing fighting. With a large and very vigilant military escort we accompanied the German chief engineer, in charge of installing high voltage electric wiring from Phou Khao Kouay in the south all the way to Phonsavanh, on one of his regular inspection trips. As Inthy ascertained there was a fair amount of minor warfare going on all around us. The ticket vendor at Taht Foun related to us the constant attacks against the population until in 2004 the government forces finally succeeded, with carrot and stick, to put an end to this wanton violence. 2004 was the year when the electricity came on-line, bringing with it connectivity, comfort and peace, the very intention of the government as the German engineer had predicted. He had foreseen the ultimate benefits and put his heart into this project. Pacification by providing convenience, pulling the rug from under the instigators, turning their own people against them.

Having provided the foot soldiers for America’s Secret War, by the early 1970 the Hmong had already sacrificed some 17000-plus of their people to the extent that only kid soldiers were left to fight the lost war of their elders surviving at the total mercy of foreigners (for the children rice had become something that fell from the sky). After their paymasters were defeated in 1973 these abandoned the Hmong, all past promises to look after the welfare of their erstwhile willing cannon fodder conveniently forgotten. They were left with a choice: a) abandon their utterly destructive hillside slash-and-burn agriculture and join Lao society in the lowlands, meaning access to schools, healthcare and markets as full-fledged citizens subject to the same government authority as all other Lao peoples. b) insist on having it their own way, and therefore be forced to retreat into the inhospitable mountains for a life ultimately at subsistence level in a hopeless attempt to defy the Lao government in search of their Utopia. c) seek their luck in Thailand where they would vegetate for years in refugee camps before some were finally and grudgingly permitted to emigrate to the States … which made no effort, either, to oblige their whims or tolerate their defiance of State-side customs and government authority. Having been ruthlessly deceived by their self-serving leaders since the onset of the Secret War, they found themselves stranded halfway across the world as involuntary refugees in a radically foreign environment. Totally alienated, many simply could not manage to adapt while others continued steadfastly to refuse integration into the prevalent society, even in this their final refuge anywhere; they rather choose, or had no choice but, to subsist in splendid isolation sustained, nonetheless, by US government charity. Today second generation Hmong get on with their lives, America is their homeland; Vang Pao is dead!

Having suffered from brutal suppression in their native homeland in southern China, 200 years ago many Hmong finally saw no other way out but to flee. They found shelter on the Plain of Jars; Laos happened to be the country that accommodated them and provided them with the freedom to live their lives in peace. Those Hmong who now found themselves abandoned and hiding out in the mountains continued a pointless battle in pursuit of their Utopia that was to establish a new independent Hmong homeland, their heavenly promised kingdom-on-earth. They chose Xieng Khouang province in Laos, the very country that had only recently granted them a new lease on life, to fight for their assumed destiny against the established Lao government at the very expense of the tolerant, multi-ethnic indigenous population that they made to suffer so much in the process. With not a chance for victory ever, they extended their reign of violence for another 31 very long years.

Ultimately their sole purpose of existence was to cater to the ego of their leader, the warlord Vang Pao and his thugs who were by then safely settled in America. And for that very purpose they kept squeezing, by hook and by crook, the Hmong refugee community in America for their hard earned or scarce welfare money to provide the financing to cruelly prolong this senselessness endlessly – 31 years of terrible suffering inflicted upon themselves. In the inhospitable wilderness of the steep mountains and deep valleys covered by impenetrable dense jungle, the constantly harassed survivors lived life on the edge of extinction, death-by-natural-causes only a breath or a step away. 31 years, another generation ruthlessly wasted in pursuit of some ethereal ideal, instead of a life lived. The perpetrators used their bullets as much against government soldiers and Lao civilians as to subjugate their own people whom they rather saw starving, to death if necessary, than allowing them to descend down to the government resettlement areas waiting for them. They were supported by an insidious misinformation campaign about the make-believe horrific consequences of a surrender to the Lao authorities directed by Vang Pao from America. Receiving camps were set up to care for those willing, or rather allowed, to join civilisation by providing shelter, safety and comfort. There housing plots complete with infrastructure were allocated to the new arrivals together with agricultural land; the beginning of a new and settled life. I have heard harrowing stories how the Hmong mistreated their own ultimately for nothing other than to cater to Vang Pao’s vainglory. The lady at the Taht Foun expressed her deepest gratitude to this government to have ended this mindless violence so that all the peoples now can go about their lives in peace.

It needs to be pointed out strongly that Vang Pao only ever held sway over about half of the Hmong population covering a corridor of about 90km width running from the southwestern edge of the Plain of Jars northeast to the Vietnamese border. Here he enforced his reign of terror on his brethren by ruthless coercion of his various rival clan leaders: blackmail, nepotism, selective patronage, multiple marriages (polygamy), messianic demagoguery, deceit and assassination. These leaders, in response to personal favours or thumbscrews applied, kept replenishing Vang Pao’s private, CIA financed army with their clans’ male youth. (Vang Pao pocketed part of their CIA paid monthly salaries. The CIA did not approve of that practice but had to acquiesce because it brought in the much needed ‘able bodies’.) Other Hmong living further south in Bolikamsay province or further north in Pongsaly vehemently resisted his domination by threats and enticements. Unfortunately this internal resistance and the later easy accommodation with the new government by large numbers of Hmong have been totally ignored by the entire western press which was successfully manipulated by Vang Pao’s propaganda machine out of the US. This propaganda may not have always been unquestioningly swallowed in private but was certainly submissively accepted at face value in public. No journalist, like the deluded exiles themselves, had ever asked any probing questions, nobody had done any research whatsoever, and spoken up in public, about Vang Pao’s devious, self serving machinations for vainglory and profit; the shunned Royal Lao Army major out to prove his point - Hitler-like. Where propaganda threatened to fail, same old coercion was applied to émigrés and journalists alike. McCarthyism was very much alive (as self-censorship is to-date fashionable in America), especially after the Superpower had suffered an inglorious defeat in SE Asia at the hands of those very communists. These crimes against their own and the Lao people were his and the clan chiefs’ alone; and not the Hmong’s at large. Following herd instinct (to this day) it’s they who were made to suffer and die, or forced to succumb to the viciousness of life in the mountainous jungles of central Laos or mislead into involuntary exile in a totally alien country. Some returnees are now valiantly looking for acceptance in Laos but with no acknowledgement and regrets voiced for past actions undertaken by Vang Pao and his clique against this government and her people.

And then there are the other Hmong who have let one uprising after the other against the French occupation which lasted from the late 19th century until 1954. Those are the same Hmong who joined the Pathet Lao in great numbers from the 1940s onwards and who formed a substantial part of the Lao Liberation Army, which was largely made up by the men of various hill tribes, fighting their CIA pay-rolled kin in the course of the Secret War. Highly respected for their valiant contribution to the revolution many of them later rose up in the ranks of the new government.

Hmong of all three colours and descent today are successful businessmen/women in Laos while young Hmong make up a substantial part of the commercial college and university student population. They enjoy full Lao citizenship with the right to vote and hold Lao passports free to travel the world. In neigbouring Thailand their brethren are barely tolerated to this very day as stateless persons totally restricted in movement and commercial enterprise.

               

       


It’s day four, we are heading north-northeast along route 6 from Muang Kham to Samneua. After a short drive we do a left turn onto a track that takes us to Tham (cave) Piu and the memorial site for the innocent killed, here, anywhere. A small, grassy expanse at the foot of the steeply rising cliffs, exuberant vegetation, trees towering up high. Rainy season, the stream exiting the mountain above roars by, thundering through its gorge to our right. In the center back, the statue, the man, strong, resolute, carries with ease a wounded, dead victim, his wife, his daughter, his sister. Missile attack, 1968, straight into the cave, all 372 killed. To our left, a discreet little one room museum, near barren, enough space for each photo to scream, silence, the roaring river, rain dripping from the foliage high above, in memoriam.

Midway up the steps behind the statue leading to the cave there is a intricate funeral stupa for those killed; on the cleared, grass covered slope uphill simple wooden signs indicated the mass graves. Further to the right, an incongruous, sitting Buddha made of washed cement with decidedly not-Buddha facial features annoys with its total lack of aesthetics and inspiration.


       


At the cave entrance some 20 m above ground we turn to take a look across the plain in the rain stretching out to the near mountains. We enter; it’s a cave, another cave. Our eyes adjust to the dim light; we want to advance. There’s all that rubble strewn over the entire cave floor; we make out a path meandering among and around it, we follow. We can see better now. What is the odd incense stick doing there, sticking out of the rubble? The rubble takes on shape, triangular shape. Hundreds of little stupas, no more than 20 to 30 cm high, have been caringly piled up with stones, everywhere. One for each killed?


With the stream rushing ahead of us we descend and find ourselves in a rough open wooden shed serving basic refreshments. My usually ebullient friends are quiet. The shed’s one wall is plastered with large posters of sweet smiling Lao girls dressed in beautiful Lao silks, courtesy of Lao Tobacco. The proprietress and her friends start with the usual questions: married, how many children? The rain keeps pouring down. Then it’s our turn to ask the questions on our minds to overcome this feeling of shock and insecurity: how did this happen, how could THIS have happened, been done to people here, anywhere, today?


They describe vividly, and remember lividly (in the quiet Lao way) when in 1968 the American bombers concentrated their fury and frustration on this particular rugged area suspecting the existence of this cave that sheltered 300-plus civilians. They specify ‘waves upon waves’, how they targeted the thickly wooded hillsides all around with bombs and missiles, every day. It went on for three months until finally, the jungle having been systematically mowed down and thus exposing the naked cliff, they had the entrance to the cave clear in their gun sights. Nothing could stop them now and they launched; two or three missiles, direct hits right into the cave, were enough.


And people were left to carry them out and bury them; and live.


Like in the case of Tham Phra, visited earlier on this journey, and every other cave in the region, the population of the surrounding villages had sought protection in them from the unremitting aerial onslaughts, meant to make life insufferable for them. Only at nighttime could they leave cover to tend to their fields, to grow the food needed to go on living. The farming families had no fight with those directing the relentless attacks from the sky against them but they were not supposed to live.


It must have been Ogres sending these giant birds from across the oceans to sow utter destruction and sorrow on this other side of the earth. What had they done? It is difficult for Lao people to keep anger in their hearts; here they are angry to this day. Remembering their family members killed, they assured us that they have no relatives living in the States, No.