Decorations in the dining room of the Maly Guesthouse
Garden fence, Laotian style
The Fixer’s son:
An interview with Sousath Phetrasy
I met Sousath Phetrasy in Phonsavanh, a frontier town in Central Laos. Cowboy hats were common place; there were even bullfights. Built in the late Seventies to replace the old provincial capital, which had been bombed out of existence during the secret war, the place was a modern concrete grid construction, dust-caked and crumbling already, the sky awash with power lines. Full of Vietnamese road crews who liked to spend their wages getting soused in the towns’ only nightclub, the biggest business in Phonsavanh was UXO clearance. Two rumours were doing the rounds at the time; one was that a prominent local tour operator had recently raped the Japanese ambassador’s daughter, the other, more quietly whispered, was that the purpose of the new road was to allow the Vietnamese easier access should the Laotian regime ever step out of line.
Sousath ran the Maly Guesthouse, named after his daughter, its walls decorated with a plethora of discarded munitions from the war. Before this he had been a gold smuggler and an opium dealer. As a child of the Communist insurgency’s top-brass, he’d been smuggled out of the country to China at a tender age.
‘I didn’t want to stay in China on my own with no news from my family and friends,’ he explained, ‘so I traveled back to Laos when I was twelve. At the border between Vietnam and Laos, the bus in front of me was hit by enemy fire. I saw all the passengers burnt alive.’
For thirteen years the CIA ran a covert war in Laos, using the native Hmong people as the bulk of their forces. As Brigadier General Harry C. Aderholt said, ‘it’s easier to lose your Hmong people than to lose Americans’.
The biggest paramilitary operation in the agency’s history came to an abrupt halt in 1975 when, withdrawing from neighbouring Vietnam, the United States abandoned their Hmong allies to their fate.
For several years Sousath lived in the caves around Sam Neua, the Communist Pathet Lao headquarters in North Eastern Laos, surviving on insects and rodents. American POWs taught him English. Eventually arriving at the Plain of Jars, he felt he’d finally found a home.
‘I used to go to the sites with my knife and dig. Later I got a metal detector. We removed 2,500 kilos of UXO by hand, just me and my family. Eventually I got help from UNESCO. I knew I’d be able to do great work on Laotian history; that I could open up the Plain of Jars to the world’.
The Plain of Jars takes its name from the giant sandstone jars that have been lying there for thousands of years. Nobody knows what their original purpose was. Some say they were hooch urns, others that they were tombstones. Still others say that they were cups for the giants to drink from. Phetrasy pioneered tourism in the area, making small tracts of the sprawling site safe.
‘There are still millions of bombs waiting,’ he told me. ‘The Americans painted the cluster bombs like fruit so children would pick them up. We have a song in schools now, the “bombie song” explaining the dangers’.
I asked him why the American built secret city of Long Tieng is still off limits to anyone bar the Laotian military.
‘It’s psychological; they think they need to protect Long Tieng. It was the most secret place on Earth; it had the busiest airport in the world. If they can keep Long Tieng, in their minds the Americans can never come back. There was more than one secret city,’ he added, ‘the Americans kept their heavy equipment and plastic mines at Bouam Long. The chief there was called Cher Pao Moua; he was the Hmong leader Vang Pao’s father-in-law. He had twenty-seven wives and one hand. He was killed in 2005.’
I asked him what his father’s role was.
‘My father was the Pathet Lao’s spot man, their fixer. He was their spokesman and later became ambassador to the Soviet Union. When the King was sent for re-education he stayed in my father’s house. They treated him like a regular civilian prisoner. He was furious,’ Sousath smirked. ‘I was supposed to be a next generation Communist leader, but I couldn’t do it. Now there are only three of us next generation left. I just couldn’t do it,’ he said, his eyes flitting restlessly about the room before finally settling upon the window and the pitch darkness beyond. ‘I’m a child of the war; I have no peace within me. I’m so nervous all the time. Sometimes I have to go out into a field and shoot my M16 for an hour. I have so much rage.’
Most of the remaining Hmong resistance surrendered, so what about the spate of bombings in Vientiane in the 00’s, I asked?
‘Yes it’s true, most of them surrendered. They came out of the jungle and fainted from hunger; they’d been living on boiled roots for years. The government blamed the bombings on the Hmong resistance, like the shooting of monks on the road to Luang Prabang in ’89 and the murder of fifteen civilians in Northern Laos in 2005. Maybe the Hmong did those, but the bombings, those were part of a rightist plot to overthrow the regime. The government kept it quiet. The rightists had two-hundred troops and hid five-hundred clips of ammo inside the black stupa in central Vientiane. You won’t be hearing from them again’.
How you feel about the genocide of the Hmong people, I asked, the fact that over 100,000 have been killed?
‘Ha,’ he scoffed testily, swatting at a fly with his calloused palm. ‘Where are the defeated now? The victors write history’.