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Ehrlich: President Obama & the CIA's "Secret War" in Laos

President Obama & the CIA's "Secret War" in Laos

By Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- When Barack Obama became the first American president to visit communist Laos on Sept. 6-8, he arrived in the most heavily bombed country on earth where people continue to perish from U.S. explosives dropped during a war which ended more than 40 years ago.

President Obama's trip to Laos is seen by some as Washington's effort to woo Southeast Asia away from China's embrace.

He had bilateral meetings with Lao President Bounnhang Vorachith, who was promoted from the vice presidency in January when several other top leaders shifted, prompting speculation that Vientiane wants to ease away from financial dependence on Beijing and revitalize traditional ties with Hanoi.

In 1975, Washington lost its "secret war" in Laos -- along with similar defeats in Cambodia and Vietnam that same year when communists achieved victories across Indochina.

"Obama's diplomatic visit to Vientiane certainly isn't the time, nor the place, to find value or fault in anything the U.S.A. did in Laos," said James "Mule" Parker in an interview.

Mr. Parker, 73, was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) paramilitary case officer in Laos during 1971-73 and authored several books about his experiences including Codename Mule and his newest titled, The Vietnam War Its Ownself.

In Laos, he fought alongside anti-communist Lao General Vang Pao's thousands of ethnic Hmong guerrillas, plus the Lao army and 4,000 U.S. Special Forces-trained Thai "Tiger Soldiers" (Tahan Sua Pran) against "invading" communist Vietnamese.

North Vietnam had constructed a strategic "Ho Chi Minh Trail" through the jungle in Laos, moving weapons and troops to attack U.S.-backed South Vietnam while securing Hanoi's sanctuary in northeast Laos in the Plain of Jars.

The CIA's mountain-based Hmong were animists with no written language and fought well, but were mostly abandoned by Washington when the U.S. retreated.

"That's ancient history," Mr. Parker said. "We have, with this [Obama] visit, an opportunity to signal to the world our friendship and interest in an invigorated way ahead for our two countries.

"That sounds like bullshit, but Laos is a fantastic tourist destination, and Americans should be encouraged to visit," said Mr. Parker, who also fought in Vietnam in 1965.

The former CIA officer's experience includes then-secretive fighting by Thailand's forces in Laos, which affected Bangkok's relations with Vientiane and Hanoi for many years.

President Obama's visit may also be able to turn a page on some of that past killing, and allow a new perspective on Thailand's role in the war and how Bangkok also can best go forward to improve relations with Vientiane.

"In 1951, a CIA paramilitary case officer named Bill Lair came to Thailand and was given the job of training some Thai Border Police as a ready reaction force, to counter communist incursions across the Thai borders," Mr. Parker said.

"You might remember Thailand was completely surrounded by communists at the time, and there was some fear that the Chinese would come pouring across the border to the north [in Thailand], like they had in November of 1950 in Korea.

"This force that Bill Lair created -- called PARU (Border Patrol Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit) -- was to act as the Thai vanguard against this kind of thing. To jump into the area, if need be, and rally local Thais in support of efforts to fight off invading communists.

"In December 1960, one of outgoing [U.S.] President Eisenhower's last acts was to sign an authorization for the CIA to organize and train Hmong around the PDJ [Plain of Jars] to fight the [Lao] communists that had taken up residence in the area after [1960 Lao coup leader] Kong Le's unsuccessful effort to capture Vientiane.

"Bill Lair met with Vang Pao and came to an agreement on this military blocking action, that included assignment of CIA case officers to Pa Dong [Laos] to support and help organize the Hmong hill tribe, and the assignment of PARU forces to train them in guerrilla tactics and marksmanship," Mr. Parker said.

After 1968, North Vietnamese troops displayed their increasing strength "inside northeast Laos, and they constituted more of a force than Vang Pao's rag-tag army of hill tribes could handle," he said.

"So the Thais pitched in, first with regular army troops, who really got their nose bloodied out at Ban Na [Laos] fighting the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] 165th combat regiment of the 312th division in the 1970-1971 dry season.

"I joined the CIA as a contract Special Operations Group paramilitary case officer in August 1970, and in November 1971 was assigned to the Lao program, initially working as a desk officer in Udorn," in northern Thailand.

"I transferred up to Long Tieng [Laos] in early 1972 where I worked as a paramilitary case officer with the Hmong guerrillas. My call sign was Mule.

"Through an agreement worked out primarily between the U.S. military, the Thai military and the CIA, a group that was called the Tahan Sua Pran or 'Tiger Soldiers' were recruited off the streets of Bangkok -- but really throughout Thailand -- and trained by U.S. Special Forces, mostly in the Thai province of Kanchanaburi, and sent north.

"But they were the Thai King's own. He told them to put a small piece of gold on the back side of the Buddhas they wore around their necks, to indicate their personal, private bond to him. And he told them in their difficult work ahead to use the words to the American song, 'The Impossible Dream' as their guide.

"The Thai office that controlled this activity was called '333.' The units were to be 550 men in size -- 500 soldiers recruited off Thailand's city streets and rice paddies, and 50 officers and NCO [non-commissioned officers] who were taking special assignments out of their RTA [Royal Thai Army] careers," he said.

Thai forces initially scored successes against the North Vietnamese but eventually suffered in and around the Plain of Jars.

"The NVA campaign 'Z' attacked by the tens of thousands on 18 December [1971], and in two days all Thai irregular positions were overrun.

"Many good soldiers were lost, including almost the entire [Thai] BC 609, who at the end were calling in artillery on their own position," he said.

Heavy fighting continued in the Plain of Jars.

"Battle went on for 100 days" before the North Vietnamese retreated, "beaten badly by Vang Pao's rag-tag army, and U.S. air, and the Tahan Sua Pran. One of the great, and least known victories of allied forces in the Vietnam War.

"So here's my point, if you mention these brave men, you do not describe them as 'mercenaries' or 'CIA-financed Thai police commandos' or 'CIA trained.' They were Tahan Sua Pran, the King's own," he said.

"From my two years there, I saw no tragedies against Laos. I saw raw, undisguised communist aggression that was bravely blunted by local Lao mountain men.

"In my time, Laos was a battlefield of Asians fighting Asians. If U.S. air [bombing] is to be mentioned, it should come after acknowledgement that North Vietnam invaded Laos, never out of context.

To classify our [U.S.] participation as tragedies just isn't right or fair," Mr. Parker said.

After Laos, he handled CIA agents and military reports in South Vietnam in 1973-75 before returning to the CIA's headquarters in Langley, Virginia, and then doing "traditional CIA Directorate of Operations work as a spy recruiter and handler...around the world until the end of the Cold War and my retirement in 1992.

"I returned to work as a CIA annuitant after 9/11 and worked through 2011 both at headquarters and overseas, including several deployments to Afghanistan. Altogether I worked 32 years undercover, for the most part overseas," Mr. Parker said.

"During my career, I received the Intelligence Medal of Merit, a Certificate of Distinction, and two Certificates of Exceptional Service."

Laos became "the CIA's largest covert ops," he said, but the war involved Thailand's forces because of convoluted, personalized reasons -- after a battle complete with colored scarfs.

In 1960, a Lao military captain, Kong Le, and his unit "had not been paid in some time, and he had other gripes with the government that prompted him to move his unit in force to occupy the capital city [Vientiane]," Mr. Parker said.

"He claimed to be a neutralist, not western-aligned or tied in with the communist elements in Laos and North Vietnam. Neutral. However the suspicion was that he was getting support, or at least encouragement, from North Vietnam.

"General Phoumi Nosovanh, the U.S.-backed leader from southern Laos, brought his forces up to counter the renegade Kong Le, and an artillery battle for Vientiane ensued. Interestingly, there was another Lao general who got involved.

"Each of the three groups identified themselves with distinctively colored scarfs. And since the battle was mostly by indirect fire, the soldiers on the ground were scurrying around from hiding place to hiding place, and the only way the locals knew who was controlling their area was to check out the scarfs the troops were wearing.

"So after a day or two, locals just bought scarfs of all three colors so they could pick the right one to wear when a different groups occupied their neighborhood.

"A sizeable number of civilians were killed, I forgot the number, but I don't think that many soldiers from the three groups," Mr. Parker said.

CIA paramilitary case officer "Bill Lair brought some of his [Thai] PARU up, and made significant contributions to General Phoumi Nosovanh's efforts. After several days, Kong Le's forces pulled back out of the Vientiane environment. I'm not sure why. Maybe they were running low on ammo."

After several days, Kong Le "moved on to the Plain of Jars, where they were resupplied by Russian planes coming in from Hanoi. Also some North Vietnamese soldiers were coming in on those Soviet transport planes, in addition to Soviet journalists. One of the journalists told someone that it was just a short matter of time before the communists ruled Laos, and that they could do it now if the Soviets wanted."

Kong Le's forces pushed General Vang Pao's fighters out of the area, prompting the CIA to deepen its involvement.

"Bill Lair ran him [General Vang Pao] down and talked with him about doing something to blunt the Kong Le and communist forces setting up shop on the Plain of Jars. Vang Pao said, 'Hell yeah, give me some guns and some training and maybe a little helicopter support now and again, and I'll fight them fuckers'."

Senior CIA officials were impressed with General Vang Pao and "told Bill [Lair] to get together some of his PARU, and be prepared to lend support to Vang Pao in the way of taking on them commie squatters [who were] new to the Plain of Jars."

As a result, U.S. President Eisenhower signed "a covert ops approval to support 'locals' against the communist outlanders in Laos," Mr. Parker said.

"The rest is history. But here you got that Russian journalist saying, 'This land is our land,' in one week and Vang Pao's rag-tag forces kicking them out within a few months.

"So I leave it to you to describe who the enemy was exactly. Kong Le, by the way, just gradually faded away [and departed] Laos for France before coming to the U.S., where he died a few years ago."

As for Thailand's Tahan Sua Pran, "they went in [Laos] knowing that it was a secret endeavor, and they still hold to that, it's part of the unit's mystique," he said.

"But back in the day, their involvement was Top Secret. It took me two years to get The Vietnam War Its Ownself and the Battle for Skyline Ridge cleared through the CIA, because I mentioned their significant involvement in fighting the North Vietnamese at Ban Na, Plain of Jars, and Skyline.

"It is only recently that their gallant service has become known."

While President Obama tried to put the past behind, he came under pressure to push Laos into improving human rights.

"As the first-ever sitting U.S. president to visit Laos, President Obama should recognize his voice will carry particular weight with his Lao government hosts -- and he should use that leverage to demand Laos stop behaving like a tin-pot dictatorship and halt its systematic suppression of its people’s rights," said Phil Robertson, Asia division deputy director for New York-based Human Rights Watch.

"Laos is a one-party dictatorship with a horrible human rights record, where official impunity to abuse people is pretty much absolute. It's a highly corrupt country, where national resources are being sold off to unscrupulous investors just to line relevant government officials' pockets," Mr. Robertson, based in Bangkok, said in an interview on August 29.

In Laos, President Obama's visit included attendance at a U.S.-ASEAN Summit which groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Mr. Obama also attended an East Asia Summit in Laos along with China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Russia.

His visit came after his Sept. 2-6 China trip to attend a G20 summit in Hangzhou and meet Chinese President Xi Jinping.

His China and Laos trip is part of "the U.S. rebalance to Asia and the Pacific," the White House press secretary said on August 18.

Impoverished Laos -- landlocked by China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Myanmar -- appears to be trying to leverage its geographical position to get the best possible investments and financial aid by balancing its relations among foreign political and economic interests and working those rivalries.

Billions of dollars worth of recent Chinese investment is involved in construction projects, real estate, hotels, shopping malls, Mekong River security, anti-narcotics programs, casinos, the mining industry, agriculture and other sectors.

The U.S. offers scant investment but provides millions of dollars financing anti-opium crop projects, clearance of its unexploded bombs, child care, education, Mekong waterway rehabilitation and other programs.

The Pentagon's links "with the Lao military are negligible," said Murray Hiebert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

"The Lao military has agreed to work with Washington on some English-language training for its soldiers, but has not accepted the offer to send officers to U.S. staff colleges," Mr. Hiebert wrote in February.

While analysts perceive competition between China and the U.S. in Laos, a deeper role in Vientiane's stance has been played by Vietnam thanks to ties knotted in blood during the U.S-Indochina War.

For many years after the war, 40,000 Vietnamese soldiers were stationed in Laos, and Hanoi wielded influence over Vientiane's foreign affairs, defense and other policies.

Capitalist Bangkok is also actively eyeing mountainous Laos's hydroelectric dam projects which promise excess electricity will be sold to energy-hungry Thailand.

Washington meanwhile helps clear unexploded ordnance (UXO) which remains from intense U.S. bombing raids during the war, peppering the countryside and still killing men, women and children each year.

"America has long been the biggest donor to the UXO sector in Laos, and has continued year-on-year to increase the amount of funding that it provides to ensure [safe] land release can take place, and the victims of UXO accidents receive the support that they require," Simon Rea, country director for England-based Mines Advisory Group in Laos which clears UXO, said in an interview on August 29.

"From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions -- equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24 hours a day, for 9 years -- making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history," Washington-based Legacies of War said in a statement.

"Up to a third of the bombs dropped did not explode, leaving Laos contaminated...over 20,000 people have been killed or injured by UXO in Laos since the bombing ceased," Legacies of War said.

America's anti-communist involvement in Laos began in the late 1950s when then-President Dwight Eisenhower passed his ideological fears to newly elected President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

"The Laos war turned the CIA into a military organization," Joshua Kurlantzick, a Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations Fellow for Southeast Asia, wrote in March.

After the war, Laos tightened relations with Vietnam and the Soviet Union, two nations which assisted it during the conflict.

Thailand, China and others eventually sought to also exploit natural resources in the lightly populated country of seven million people.

In a public relations effort, the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane on August 29 invited Twitter users to express opinions about President Obama's visit.

"If you had a chance to talk to the #POTUS about #Laos, what would you tell him? #ObamaLaos," the embassy's official @usembassyvte site said.


"1. We remember the U.S. genocide in Laos," replied @HikariSam, an "expat" who enjoyed "decades in exotic Asia" and is "tired of dumb ill-informed warmongering western societies."

"2. Clean up the UXBs USA left in Laos," he added.

"3. NO U.S. bases in Laos."


***

Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!' Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews," "60 Stories of Royal Lineage," and "Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946." Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the chapter about "Ceremonies and Regalia" in a book published in English and Thai titled, "King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective." Mr. Ehrlich's newest Virtual Reality novel titled, "Sheila Carfenders, Doctor Mask & President Akimbo," is an immersive 3-dimensional experience with Oculus technology.


His websites are

http://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com

http://www.flickr.com/photos/animists

twitter @nimists

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