Escaping a Broken Kingdom

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Escaping a Broken Kingdom

Post  Liberty on Thu 06 May 2010, 2:03 pm

Sorry for joining in so late, been having internet issues at home.
This is a bit of nonfiction I wrote for my 'Journalism as Literary Form' class a few years back. We were learning to write nonfiction to read like a novel (like Hiroshima). It's kind of a short one based on my dad's life.

Chapter 1: The Warrior

Sinoune Sivilay’s body is covered with the tattoos of a warrior. Tattoos done by Buddhist monks in the refugee camp in Nong Khai, Thailand. The tattoos were done in a primitive fashion -- using sewing needles tied together, dipped in green ink made from mineral rocks and vigorously tapping it onto flesh. Laotian words and symbols mark his body. A temple sits in the middle of his back; above it are four lines of inscription, something about the impenetrable four walls of mountains. The two flower-like markings on both his wrists show that he was part of one group of 50 men who were fighting the Pathet Lao, ancient Laotian warrior markings that all the men shared. On his left wrist, however, the tattoo was unfinished because Sinoune could no longer handle the pain. More symbols crawl across his chest, another inscription sits on his right bicep; all these markings are for protection. They’re supposed to prevent bullets and blades from penetrating him. On the same arm of the unfinished floral tattoo is a scar that measures one inch across, a wound left by a Communists bullet in 1978 while he was on a guerilla raid.

Sinoune’s dad had been a captain in the Royal Army and remained loyal to the king. He and his father, like most Laotians who were able to, fled to Thailand and lived on the refugee camp along with over 300,000 refugees in Nong Khai. His father wanted justice and reunited his old army team and re-entered Laos to fight the Communists. Sinoune went back into Laos as well but with a separate militia group.

This internal war wasn’t just a fight between the Royal government and the Communists Pathet party and their supporter to control Laos, but it was a fight for the Lao culture and heritage. The Royal government represented the old Laos, a culture that has its heritage steeped in Theravada Buddhism. The Laotian culture could be seen all over, even in the Laos flag. The red flag represented the people’s blood, in the center stood the image of the Erawan, a mythological multi-headed white elephant that has its roots in Hinduism. The Royal government represented that Laos -- the Kingdom of Lan Xang and the Lao people, but the Communists Pathet Laos stood for Communism.

Sinoune tells me that when the Pathet Lao first took over the Laotian government they arrested everyone associated with the Royal government, and anyone that opposed them. The new Communists government went after the Laotian men but women were sometimes caught in the crossfire.

“Everyday a hundred people died, got killed along the Mekong River,” he said. “They would get shot trying to cross the river or drowned trying to swim across.” Any Royal government officials caught would be killed. One of the first people to be captured was the king, who was sent to a re-education camp, where he eventually died.

“The king didn’t want to leave Laos. He let his wife and family go but he refused to leave himself, and when the Communists came into Laos they went after the king and arrested him,” said Sinoune.

This wasn’t a glamorous war, not something Hollywood writers dream of. There was no glory in the fight that Sinoune and his comrades were in, it wasn’t for fame, and there was nothing to gain. In a way, it was their way of trying to control a situation they no longer had control over. They fought mostly for revenge, to send a message to the Communists. They knew they were greatly outnumbered but they went back into Laos anyway. They wanted to kill as many Communists soldiers as possible. To do to them what they did to the Laotian citizens who were loyal to the Royal family.

Running through the snake infested jungles of Laos, beaten and tired Sinoune was aided by a friend and fellow freedom fighter, after he was shot by Communists Pathet Lao soldiers. The bullet had flown pass his head and went clean through his shoulder. The year was 1978 and he was just 22 years old. The two men’s goal now was Nong Khai, Thailand. The two struggled and trudged across the half a mile wide Mekong River with no aid but each other. The rest of their team, less than fifty men, a mixture of retired and active Royal soldiers as well as young men who’ve never fought a day in their life before, continued on with their fight while his friend helped him across the murky waters. They had no access to medical aid in the mountainous jungles of Laos. He was bleeding profusely from the bullet wound on his arm; he needed to make it across the Mekong River to Thailand if he had any hopes of surviving. He had a choice, to keep fighting with a very good chance of dying, if not by Communists hands, by infection or to flee and live.

“They were crazy. We were all crazy, and I was crazy with them to think that we could have taken back Laos when there was so many of them, so much more men than what we had,” he said. That was Sinoune’s last raid; he not only got shot but lost two friends in the process. Since that day, he gave up on the senseless fight.



http://kingdomoflanxang.blogspot.com/2008/12/warrior.html
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Chapter 2: The Secret War

Post  Liberty on Thu 06 May 2010, 2:05 pm

The conflict in Laos was often dubbed the “Secret War in Laos,” because details of what happened were largely unavailable due to official government denial (American and Vietnamese) that the war ever occurred. Denials of the war were seen at the time as necessary because both the North Vietnamese government and U.S. (as well as 12 other nations) had signed agreements specifying the neutrality of Laos in Geneva on July 23, 1962.

Despite the denials, the Laotian Civil War turned out to be the largest U.S. covert operation prior to the Afghan-Soviet War. Laos controlled by North Vietnam was subjected to years of intense American aerial bombings. These attacks were the heaviest U.S. bombing operation since World War II.

In 1972 the forces from both the Pathet Lao (PL) and the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN) went into defensive mode and fought to keep control of the Plain of Jars. According AFA.org the “Plain of Jars is a 500 square mile, diamond-shaped region in northern Laos, covered with rolling hills, high ridges, and grassy flatlands.” Its landscape made the Plain of Jars a highly strategic location, and it was home to several airfields with limited roads that connected to the outside world.

When the PAVN launched the Nguyen Hue Offensive/Easter Offensive into South Vietnam on March 30, 1972, massive U.S. support was required in that region and its air strikes in Laos dropped to their lowest point since 1965. The Communists were making gains in northern Laos but failed to overpower the government forces, and in November the PL agreed to meet with Laotian government representatives to discuss a cease-fire.

In accordance with the Paris Peace Accord, the U.S. pulled out of Laos in 1973, but under the terms of the treaty, North Vietnam was not required to remove its forces, thus forcing the national government to accept the Pathet Lao into the government.

It was in 1975 that the Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces began attacking government strongholds, and a deal was made that gave power to the Pathet Lao in order to save the government from complete destruction.

Once in power, the PL cut off all its economic ties to neighboring countries with the exception to the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) and signed a treaty with Hanoi. The treaty allowed the Vietnamese to not only station soldiers within Laos but to place advisors throughout the government. From then on Laos was essentially ruled by a Vietnamese government.

The Pathet Lao’s overthrow of the Royal Government occurred the same year (1975) that U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam. Not only were the South Vietnamese Army left to face a well-organized and well funded North Vietnam but it basically left Laos vulnerable.

Soon after the Communists takeover in 1975, many citizens and members of the old government were taken to re-education camps in remote areas of Laos. Those who could flee the country, most of which crossed the Mekong River either by boat or in times of desperation, swam across into Thailand to seek refuge. Several hundred were killed at the bank of the Mekong as they tried to flee. The refugees who made it into Thailand were allowed the opportunity to either go to France, America and a number of other countries. Those who didn’t go to either country were eventually forced to return to Laos. The Royal Lao family, along with civil servants and citizens the PL suspected aiding the Royal Government and opposing the Communists government were killed.

In 1975 the Pathet Lao led by Prince Souphanouvong, the King’s nephew, armed by the Vietnamese, who had expelled the Americans were now setting up Communists revolutions in neighboring countries. The Pathet Lao invaded the capital, seized the military centers and bombed the government buildings. They arrested the royal family, King Savang Vatthana, Queen Khamphoui, Crown Prince Vong Savang, Prince Sisavong, and his brothers Prince Souphantharangsri and Thongsouk in March 1977. Several of the royal family managed to escape into Thailand where they had help from the Thai Royal family before relocating to France. The family was sent to a re-education camp in Northern Laos called Xam Nua, or “Camp Number One,” where all the important political prisoners were held. During their time at the camp, the family was allowed to move freely within the compound during the day. At the age of 70, the King was the oldest prisoner, the average age being 55. King Savang eventually died at the age of 77 in 1984, his wife dying approximately a few years before him. It is unclear as to what they died of. Savang was the last king of the Kingdom of Laos.

Throughout the three years that Sinoune lived on the refugee camp he and his father went back into Laos many times to fight and try to reclaim their country from the Communists but they’d always return to the refugee camp to rest.

“We were fighting in the jungles, up in the mountains of Laos where their army camps were so we had no food or medicine. We had to return to the camp to rest. We would spend two to three months in Laos and then go back to the camp and rest for two to three months before going back again,” he said. “The Thai government helped us out but they didn’t want to help us too much, they were afraid. They would only drive us by boat across the river, provide us with M-16s, bazookas and grenades.” The Communists were fully equipped with more artillery and vehicles and had roughly 200 to 300 men to their 50 men and what little weapons the Thai provided them; they were greatly outnumbered.

“I didn’t go with my father, he had his own team and gathered his old army crew together to go back in and fight. I went with another team, with my uncle.”

Sinoune’s group conducted guerilla raids against the Pathet Lao mountain stronghold approximately 200 miles from the Mekong River. The men didn’t carry anything with them except the clothes on their back, which for some consisted of pants, shirt and a pair of sandals, and their guns. The men walked about 12 hours at night and rested during the day. They stuck to the jungles and avoided the city so that they wouldn’t get caught. The men tried to kill or disable as many Communists as they could. They did this by hiding in the mountainous jungles and shooting down the soldiers, as well as waiting by the roads to shoot out the trucks that delivered food and supplies.

The conditions were less than ideal, especially with rain but the men fought through it. “We didn’t have food with us like rice or anything so we ate what we could find which was mostly bamboo shoots and if we were lucky we’d find bananas. Some days we had to sleep in the water. There were times when I sat in water that came up to my chest and had to sleep through it.

http://kingdomoflanxang.blogspot.com/2008/12/secret-war-in-laos.html
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Chapter 3: Tom's History

Post  Liberty on Thu 06 May 2010, 2:06 pm

“I was born in a county just outside the capital, that’s where I lived when I was younger. I attended school until the sixth grade, that’s where it stopped. In Laos, at the time, we only had kindergarten to sixth grade and the sixth graders were older than they are here, they were about 14 to 15 years old,” he said.

“Before the Communists took over the capital city of Vientiane, I worked with my father, your grandpa, at a cement company. I was 22 at the time. We did jobs whenever someone needed something built,” said Sinoune. His father named him Sinoune, a male version of his mother‘s name, who died when he was still fairly young, between the ages of eight and ten. Not long after, his stepmother came along and she has been the only mother he has ever really known.

“After the Communists bombed the capital city and took over the government, my father had to hide because they were arresting everyone that was part of Royal government or used to be, and my dad was a retired military captain,” he said. “We moved out into the country, to a nearby town. But around 1975 or ‘76 the Communists found out and came after him, so we had to leave Laos.”

Sivilay, his parents and his younger sister left Laos in 1977 and sought refuge in Thailand. “I no longer had a home and I thought because my own country was in turmoil that I could flee to Thailand, but it wasn‘t that easy, when I got there they captured me and took me to court,” he said.

The Thai police arrested all the Laotian refugees as they made their way across the Mekong River into Thai territory. Everyone was taken to court to get their documents sorted out but was also required to pay 500 bahts before, the equivalent of $14, before being taken to the refugee camp. Coming from a country where most people lived off the land, not many people had $14. Those that couldn’t pay the court had to spend four nights in jail before they were allowed to be moved to the refugee camp.

“The condition was horrible there,” he said. The jail was a long building with several floors; each floor was only about 4 feet high with spikes on the roof. The detainees had to bend down to walk around. The floor was made up of dirt and there were no beds to sleep on.

The police gave them one big bowl to relieve themselves in. Although the jail building was long it was still cramped because of how many people they crammed into one cell. “Some people even had to sleep on the dirt floor next to the big bowl of urine and feces, it was disgusting! I hated it and I hated the Thais for the way they treated us, even to this day I can‘t stand them. I refuse to even take a Thai airline when I went to visit Laos three years ago,” said Sivilay.

Fortunately for many Laotian people, things changed as they were entering Thailand to seek refuge, but the changes didn’t happen until the 1980s and several hundred Laotian refugees had to endure harsh treatment from the Thais.

By the time that Sinoune’s would-be wife finally made it to Thailand with her aunt, things were better; she was sent directly to the refugee camp and didn’t have to deal with the same issues that Sinoune did. The reason for this was because King Bhumibol Adulyadej Rama IX of Thailand had ordered the police to stop their mistreatment of the Laotian refugees once he was made aware of what was going on.

While in Thailand the Sivilay family lived on a refugee camp where they were not allowed to leave without permission and only a small group would be allowed to leave at a time. Those who left the camp without permission would be arrested.

Although the United Nations provided the Laotian refugees with food and money their resources were still stretched. “It was hard living in Thailand,” said Sivilay. The refugees were not allowed to do anything or go anywhere outside the camp. There was little to eat, just enough to sustain the refugees. An individual would get about only 10 pounds of rice and two pounds of fish to last them for two weeks. Bigger families would get slightly more but food was still minimal.

http://kingdomoflanxang.blogspot.com/2008/12/toms-history.html
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Chapter 4: Getting Out

Post  Liberty on Thu 06 May 2010, 2:08 pm

After being wounded during his last raid, Sinoune stayed close to the refugee camp and worked with a friend building houses and building. He managed to save up some money before leaving for America, even though after the exchange rate it added up to almost nothing. There were many countries willing to take in refugees, countries like the United States, Canada, England, France, Australia and even Japan.

Sinoune thinks that the American government felt responsible for what happened in Laos and the United States, as well as the UN, wanted to take care of the families of those who worked with the Americans, especially those who lost family members in the fight against Communism.

“I wanted to go Canada at first but an American general, John Tucker, was there helping the Laos people at the camp and he was the one that told me I should go to America. He said that going to America would be better than going to any other country,” he said.

Before the refugees were moved anywhere they were interviewed to see where they would like to go. The responsibilities of flying the refugees to another country and getting them settled in was all handled by the host country and their sponsors.

“Our sponsor was IRC (International Rescue Committee),” he said. “I came to America in 1980 with only $2 from Thailand and when I got to Houston my sponsor gave me $20,” he said. “They rented a house for us and there were about six families living in one house. There wasn’t much room to have personal space but it was a place to sleep.”

Sinoune admitted that when he came to America he lied about his birthday telling the government officials that it was December 14, 1958, making him three years younger than he really was in order to qualify for school. Two years after he came to the United States he got word that his father was still fighting and eventually was captured by the Communists and killed. As for his stepmother, he tried to send for her but by that time the Thai government was no longer offering aid to the refugees and her necessary papers didn’t go through. She was sent back to Laos, along with anyone else who did not already leave.

http://kingdomoflanxang.blogspot.com/2008/12/getting-out.html
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Chapter 5: A New Beginning (ending)

Post  Liberty on Thu 06 May 2010, 2:09 pm

In the mid 1990s, Sinoune got his citizenship and adopted a Western name, Tom, to commemorate his new status as an American citizen. When Tom first came to America he landed in Houston, Texas where he worked odd jobs and attended high school briefly. He met his wife, Khamkhong Siharath in Idaho and got married in 1982. He was 28 at the time and she was 18. In Fort Worth, Texas on December 5th of the same year they had their first child, a daughter they named Chantara Anny.

Sinoune and his wife moved to Lowell, Massachusetts and had their second child on July 4, 1985, a son they named Sengpachan Rocky. In the winter of 1987 they moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas to be closer to Khamkhong’s family. Sinoune and his wife both worked at a Tyson factory, sorting through chicken and packaging them. They had their third and last child on May 28, 1988, a son them named Johnny.

In the Spring of 1990 Sinoune moved his family to Rockport, Texas, just a few years after Khamkhong’s parents had moved there. In Rockport, Sivilay and his wife worked for themselves as fishermen, but in 2001 business started slowing down and Sinoune moved his family once more, to Austin, Texas. Sinoune currently works as a welder and his wife is a cook at a Thai restaurant. Sivilay has done well for himself; he has worked from nothing to building a middle class life for him and his family. Sinoune has bought a two acre plot of land in Oklahoma and plans to build his new home there. He hopes to be able to move there within a year, choosing to retreat to a quieter life outside of the busy city.

Thirty years later, looking at his body Sinoune no longer sees himself as the same person he was before he left Laos. He’s an American now.

“If I had the money to remove all of my tattoos I would,” he said. “I don’t like them anymore, they’re no longer me.

http://kingdomoflanxang.blogspot.com/2008/12/new-beginning.html
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Re: Escaping a Broken Kingdom

Post  thisangel on Sat 08 May 2010, 10:47 am

I thought this was very well done. I like the approach of writing journalism in a fictional style, and I think you did it quite well - keeping your opinions down and reporting the facts, while painting a very clear picture of events and keeping your reader interested. Well done!

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Re: Escaping a Broken Kingdom

Post  Liberty on Wed 12 May 2010, 2:31 pm

Thank you. Smile
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