Obama's Visit to Laos a Watershed Moment for L.A.'s Lao Community

Sayon Syprasoeuth, 49, is a Laotian-American artist born in Cambodia. Syprasoeuth and his family fled the Khmer Rouge in 1975, living in a refugee camp in Thailand for a time; they relocated to the United States in 1980, ultimately settling in Long Beach's Cambodia Town.EXPAND
Sayon Syprasoeuth, 49, is a Laotian-American artist born in Cambodia. Syprasoeuth and his family fled the Khmer Rouge in 1975, living in a refugee camp in Thailand for a time; they relocated to the United States in 1980, ultimately settling in Long Beach's Cambodia Town.
Jason McGahan

Last week, Barack Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the nation of Laos in Southeast Asia when he attended an economic summit in the capital city of Vientiane.

But perhaps more important to the tens of thousands of Laotian Americans who live in Southern California and across the nation, Obama used the opportunity to break the official silence around the U.S.-sponsored secret war waged in the country in the 1960s and ’70s. He became the first American president or official to make public reference to the United States’ role in the war that was conducted without the knowledge of Congress or the American people. 

"Even now, many Americans are not fully aware of this chapter in our history, and it’s important that we remember today," Obama said in remarks at the Lao National Cultural Hall in Vientiane. "Over nine years — from 1964 to 1973 — the United States dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs here in Laos — more than we dropped on Germany and Japan combined during all of World War II. It made Laos, per person, the most heavily bombed country in history." 

The president made the statement on Sept. 7 during his speech to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). The historic acknowledgment came as a prelude to the announcement of a $90 million aid package for a program to clear tens of millions of unexploded landmines left behind after the war. It is part of what Obama called a new partnership with Laos, which, he said, also will include programs to address girls' education, women’s empowerment, child malnutrition, sustainable development and human rights.

About one-third of Laos remains contaminated with unexploded weapons left behind from the Vietnam War, including about 80 million cluster munitions, according to the nonprofit group Legacies of War, which raises awareness around the issue. The cluster munitions, known as "bombies," are small explosive devices released from cluster bombs, each about the size of a tennis ball. Eighty million of them have sunk into Laos' soft soil. The Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme reports 934 casualties and 279 deaths from accidentally detonated cluster bombs since 1999; more than half of the victims are children. 

President Obama also saluted what he called the "unlikely bond" between the United States and Laos, formed by the hard journey of many Laotians from "the anguish of war" through refugee camps and relocation, to build new lives in a new country. "And as a new generation has come of age," Obama added, "more Laotian Americans have made the journey here to their ancestral homeland."

Last week, President Obama became the first sitting president to make a state visit to the nation of Laos, in Southeast Asia.
Last week, President Obama became the first sitting president to make a state visit to the nation of Laos, in Southeast Asia.
The White House / YouTube

Bryan Thao Worra, 43, of Pasadena, is one such Laotian American. Thao Worra was born in Vientiane and fled the war as a child after being adopted by an American civilian pilot who brought him to the United States. Today he is the author of six books of poetry, a co-founder of the National Lao American Writers Summit, an editor for the blog Little Laos on the Prairie and the first Laotian American to receive a Fellowship in Literature from the National Endowment for the Arts. He says Obama's historic trip to Laos is cause for "guarded optimism." 

"Part of the challenge is this is a complicated story," he says. "There's several different communities we see whose stories are at risk of being lost in the narrative, even as we try to recover." 

Laos descended into civil war in the 1960s, during the period when the U.S. military was escalating troop levels in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese were moving troops and arms across the border into Laos and south en route to South Vietnam, along what was known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Laos, however, was a neutral party in the war, and an international treaty prohibited the presence of a foreign military in Laos. 

So rather than send military personnel to Laos, the United States opted to bolster the Lao monarchy and disrupt North Vietnam's supply lines by sending local civilians, with the Central Intelligence Agency as advisers, Thao Worra said. The CIA advisers trained and supplied a guerrilla force of mostly hill tribesmen of the Hmong ethnic minority in Laos, whose ancestral lands abutted the border area overlooking the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The town of Long Chen, site of a secret CIA air base, became one of the largest cities in Laos.

"Part of what made the conflict so tragic was the way the way Hmong secret army was designed to harass the supply lines," Thao Worra says. "It was effective at guerrilla tactics; hit hard and fade back into the jungle. It wasn't designed to engage in head-on confrontations. But as the war went on, they changed strategy and these special guerrilla units got chewed up pretty hard out there." 

Thao Worra says President Obama's call for reconciliation with Laos has caused a surge of optimism among Lao Americans. He says he hopes it leads to the declassification of documents about the war and the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission, like the one formed in South Africa in the 1990s.  

"It's been dubbed 'the secret war,' but it wasn't a secret to us or to our supporters," he says. "But when we came to the U.S., no one had ever heard of it. Today when I'm talking to veterans who were part of the war, it still hurts a lot of them that no one knows what they did to support the United States. Instead, it was like this yellow-horde fear, of being invaded by refugees, and no one knew where they came from." 

The war and the aftermath of the U.S. military withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 caused a violent disruption that is still felt by thousands of Californians today. California has the largest population of Laotian Americans of any state, 58,424, according to data from the 2010 U.S. Census. More than 7,000 Laotian Americans live in the Los Angeles area, with more than 4,000 in the Inland Empire. Also, 31,771 Hmong live in Fresno, the second-largest concentration of Hmong in the United States (Minneapolis is first). 

The CIA armed and trained the hill tribesmen of the Hmong ethnic minority in Laos, seen here in 1961, to harass the North Vietnamese supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.EXPAND
The CIA armed and trained the hill tribesmen of the Hmong ethnic minority in Laos, seen here in 1961, to harass the North Vietnamese supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
U.S. Air Force / Public Domain

Upcoming Events

Sayonsaid Syprasoeuth, 49, is a Lao American artist based in Long Beach's Cambodia Town. He was born in Cambodia, in rural Muanteysrey province, during the civil war and President Nixon's secret carpet-bombing campaign of that country from 1969-73. 

"A lot of Lao friends are really happy and excited about the visit," he said. "They feel inspired to have President Obama acknowledge the secret war, that it took place." 

Syprasoeuth was so young at the time that he consults an older sister to corroborate a memory. He has one very early memory of an explosion and the crackle of gunfire. He guesses he was about 3 or 4 years old. He remembers a military march of teenage boys with rifles; his sister tells him those were soldiers with the Khmer Rouge, whose reign of terror was imminent. 

He fled to a refugee camp in Thailand with his parents and seven brothers and sisters. A Lutheran church in Clayton County, Iowa, sponsored their application for asylum, and he remembers how on the night they landed, Syprasoeuth saw his first snowflakes and his first Christmas lights. 

After so much crisis at such a young age, Syprasoeuth has stayed put in Cambodia Town. He sits on the board of directors for Arts Council for Long Beach and works as the program coordinator for Living Arts Long Beach, at the United Cambodian Community Center. The center sits on East Anaheim Street, near the apartment where he lived with his family when they first arrived in the 1980s. 

Since 2013, Syprasoeuth and German artist Michael EB Detto have curated GHOSTS, an annual group art show that ponders the effects of war trauma on memory.  They showed at Arena 1 Gallery in Santa Monica in 2013, at the Goethe-Institut Los Angeles in 2014 and at the Orange County Center for Contemporary Art in Santa Ana in 2015. 

Syprasoeuth, thoughtful and soft-spoken, says the war in Laos remained a secret because for many years Laotians and Cambodians in the community didn't allow themselves to grieve. The community elders had come to regard stoicism as a survival mechanism, and they were reluctant to give it up from the safe haven of the United States, for fear of seeming ungrateful. Their children tended to abide the silence, out of respect for the elders. 

"It becomes a crippling thing on the new generation of kids that grows up here," Syprasoeuth says. "But I’m optimistic because I see a lot of young people active and vocal. And there’s justice to be argued for, like, why did this happen?"


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories
    Send:

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >