My mother was born and raised in Laos during the Laotion civil war, a war fought between the French and Lao monarchical government and communist rebels from North Vietnam. This conflict would later escalate and help destabilize its neighbor, Vietnam, into civil war. To reconnect what it means to be communist, I spoke with her about her childhood, her experiences, and her escape.
My grandmother, Vongchanh Le, was born in Laos to Vietnamese parents who had escaped the communist regime in the North. They ran a restaurant where she learned how to cook and experienced Japanese occupation during World War Two. After the war a communist terrorist group, the Pathet Lao, took over the region and sent the youth to re-education camps. Vongchanh was sent away but was rescued by her mother.
The family moved to escape the communist regime and Vongchanh entered nursing school and got a job at a hospital. There she met her husband and had her first child at the tender age of 17. She would go on to have seven more. Her father at first did not approve of the marriage, but because she had been captured for a short period of time, he allowed the marriage to avoid her being deported by the government.
Over the next sixteen years, Vongchanh would follow her husband, who was in the military, from city to city, escaping communist occupation each time. After their last child was born, her husband left her for another woman, and so Vongchanh got a job working for the United States’ CIA as a personal chef and interpreter to an agent travelling around the area. For the next decade she worked with various U.S. aid and intelligence agencies, moving her family from safe city to safe city until she eventually escaped to Thailand, where she lived with her mother, and sent money and food back to her children in Laos.
My mother, Ady Le Vanmanivong, was born in 1957 in Laos and is Vongchanh’s second child. These are her experiences with communism.
Me: Can you tell me about your childhood?
Ady: Because of my mother’s work, we lived very close to the fighting. No matter where we moved, eventually the fighting would follow. We lived in refugee camps sometimes. We lived off donations from the Red Cross.
During the war, Attopeu, where I was born, was bombed a lot because it’s on the Vietnamese border. We would be playing and then we would all have to lie on the ground because suddenly bullets would be flying around, and then we would all get up and continue playing. It was a part of life. Whenever there was peace, all the kids would get together and help build bunkers for the soldiers, our parents and older brothers.
School was important. When the French occupied Laos, one of the things they brought was education. Every night we would have to recite our notes out loud and the school teachers would walk around outside. If they didn’t hear you practicing, they would spank you. They would hear you too, because we lived in stick huts.
Me: What was school like?
Ady: School was my life. I think I realized at a very young age that my education would be my ticket out of any bad situation. When I was 13 I took an exam to enter the best school of the country, a French High School called Lycee De Pakse. There were 16,000 students that I competed against and I got 94th. The school was 8 years long. If you failed anything, even a paper, you would be kicked out. If you passed, you could get a job with the government.
Me: Did you have any time to just be a teenager?
Ady: Sure. I did sports, soccer and bicycle racing. When I was 16 I started to volunteer in an American hospital to help treat American soldiers. I think it was around 1973. Life started to get violent and busy after that though, so I focused more on helping earn income for the family.
Me: What was the most important thing you learned growing up?
Ady: When I was 17 I won a U.S. Information Service scholarship. They sent me to a school to learn English, about American culture and slang, and Western philosophy. It was there I learned about freedom. It was so intoxicating. I think that was where the seed was planted in my head to end up in America.
The next year, the communists took over Pakse, the city we were living in at the time. They shut down the school so I started to sneak out and volunteer at the hospital when I could. It was tough because anybody associated with the Americans [was] sent to re-education camps.
Me: What were the re-education camps like?
Ady: They were labor camps. Forced labor. Working in fields and farms, road construction, that sort of stuff. A lot of my friends’ parents got sent there because they worked for the government or the military. The communists, the Pathet Lao, would come in the middle of the night and kidnap people, even in front of their families. They got very little to eat, and any time they weren’t working the communists would force them to watch propaganda.
Me: What was the propaganda like?
Ady: How communism was good. How Americans and westerners were bad, and how everybody should be equal. How it was better that way.
Me: Was there any way to resist them?
Ady: No. How could we? Only the military could afford weapons. People were terrified of them because they came in the middle of the night. They would take whoever had power or who had resisted them. They would make them disappear.
Me: Who were supporting the communist rebels?
Ady: They were backed by the Russians. They were training them and supplying them with weapons and food.
Me: Did you have any run ins with the rebels?
Ady: After they took over Pakse, you had to do what they said. Period. You had no say. As a young girl, for example, I would have to go to the town hall at 8 o’clock. I would have to dance, to pretend that I was have a fun time. I had no freedom, no say, nothing. You had to do what they told you to do.
I was a student, right? At one point, we had a field trip to the most famous waterfall in Laos. It was part of the scholarship I was awarded by the Americans. Halfway through, we went through a rebel checkpoint. At that time, Laos was not entirely taken over by the communists yet and we were from the city. The rebels did not like the western style of living. Girls were supposed to wear the traditional wraparound skirt, while guys were supposed to have short hair. Well on this trip, all the girls were wearing jeans, and all of the guys had long hair.
So, at the checkpoint, they had AK’s, the Russian rifles. They pulled us all off the bus and gave us a three-and-a-half-hour speech about how bad the city was and how wraparound skirts were appropriate. The girls they threatened to send to re-education camps. The guys they threatened to cut their hair by cutting off their heads. The rebels were just kids, no older than I was at the time. I was 17. They were hard headed teenagers.
Me: What did they believe they were doing?
Ady: They believed in communism. They believed that everybody was equal. At the same time, they had the power. They used their power to take. Always take, take things, take people. Take people away to re-education camps and in the meantime, take their properties and wealth.
Me: Did they ever catch you?
Ady: No, it was after this run in that I decided to escape. I travelled to the capital of Laos, which at the time was still not under communist rule. I tried to get a passport to get out of the country. After a few months, things started to get intense. The communists took over my hometown, so my mother escaped to Thailand and sent me a letter that said there was no way to get a passport from Laos. My best bet was to escape to Thailand and that she would meet me at Nongkai. I had never been to that town before.
A couple of friends who lived by the river that separates the two countries took all of my belongings, which fit into one suitcase, and put it on a canoe (we called it a speed boat). The next day, I took all of the Lao money I had and went down to the docks. At the time, the Lao government was pretty much toppled, and the communists were in the middle of taking over. I was stopped by a communist soldier and was asked where I was going. I bribed him with all the money I had and told them I was just going to visit my cousin for the day. It was a gamble, but because I just had my clothes, they thought I would just be going on a day trip.
Me: Did you wear a wraparound skirt?
Ady: Of course! I wore the most traditional Lao clothes I could find. After I crossed, I found the canoe and immediately changed into a pair of jeans. I was lucky. The night before the communists shot and killed two people trying to cross the river at that same spot. They controlled the borders first, so no one could escape them.
Me: Do you believe that the conflict between the Americans and the communists was an ideological one?
Ady: Laos was almost communist once before, so my mother filled me in about how it was growing up under communism. My father was in the military, so I understood how the communists operate. My mother just loved the Americans.
Me: Do you worry at all about America becoming communist?
Ady: Heavens no. America is too smart and headstrong. Too spoiled too, on top of that.
When Ady met up with her mother, they travelled to Ubon, Thailand, where Ady waited while her mother travelled to Bangkok to get her a passport. She kept herself busy by teaching French to refugee kids. She had to hide from the Thai authorities, as at the time she was an illegal alien. Two months later, she travelled to Bangkok to be interviewed at the U.S. Embassy. Because of her work at the U.S. hospital, the scholarship she had won, and her mother’s work for various U.S. intelligence and aid agencies, she was qualified as an Indochinese refugee, although her mother and her seven siblings would have to stay behind. She was 18 at the time.
Ady settled with the family who sponsored her, an aid worker her mother had worked for, in Northern Illinois, where she worked and saved enough money to bring her entire family over. Her efforts eventually brought an entire Lao community over, started a church, and can be found thriving in the area.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.