Nor Lue Lee: An Interview With My Father
Interview Dates: 15 and 16 May 2006 in Sydney, NSW Australia
Interviewer: Gary Yia Lee. Translator/Transcriber: Gary Yia Lee/Paul Hillmer Editor: Paul Hillmer
I have uploaded here my interview with my late father (1924-2014) for its historical value, now that most of the main protagonists are no longer with us. The interview was conducted for Prof. Paul Hillmer, of Concordia University – St Paul, MN, USA, who used it to write about the role my father played in the history of the Hmong in Laos in the 1950’s in the book “A People’s History of the Hmong” (2010), a role which was acknowledged by both Gen. Vang Pao and Phaya Touby Lyfoung, and which earned him the following awards: a bronze medal for the Order of Chevalier (Ordre du Chevalier), a silver medal of the Ordre du Royaume D’Un Million d’Elephants and 3 Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) medals.
Most notable in this interview were my father’s account of the suppression of members of the Lao Issara movement by pro-French Hmong, the occupation of northern Laos by the Japanese during WW II, the escorting by my father of Prince Phetsarath when the latter returned from exile in Thailand to Laos ( from Kene Thao to Vang Vieng) in March 1957, and Vang Pao’s first meeting with the CIA in January 1961. In the course of his official activities, my father came to know many Hmong leaders of his time, and was once the Tasseng of Tham Thao in Xieng Khouang province. He was known for most of his life as Tasseng Nor Lue (Taj Xeem Nom Lwm). I am most proud of whatever small contributions he has made to his people and his country. I would like to thank Paul for sharing the transcript of this interview with me in memory of my father.
One feature of my father that is not mentioned in the interview is his talent as a full-fledged reed-pipe (qeej) player and a marriage negotiator (mej koob). He could also chant the “txiv xaiv” at funerals. For a shorter version of his life with a full list of his children, please see the article titled "Nom Lwm Lis Lub Neej" under Submitted Articles on this website.
Nor Lue Lee
A veteran of war against the Japanese and the communists in the 1950’s in north-eastern Laos.
Nor Lue Lee shown above as a young soldier in the 1950's.
Photo from “A People’s History of the Hmong” by Paul Hillmer (St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010), p. 60.
"I have never heard most of these stories before", remarked Dr Lee, due to lack of opportunities to really ask. “In fact, our interview required a second visit to ensure we receive all the details Mr Nor Lue Lee wanted to share.
Note: Remarks and translation of the translator, Dr Gary Lee, are not transcribed unless they contain new information.
PH: We will ask you later about your adult life, one stage at a time. So, you said that you were born in Huei Kang (Fib Khab)? Could you stop here, so I can translate into English first? If there is something we want to know, we will ask then. Is that alright?
PH: If he could just talk about his life as a young boy, what he enjoyed doing, what his life was like? Any memories he has? And tell him that he should feel free to sit comfortably without having to lean forward, as the recorder can pick up his voice easily.
I was born on 24 May. At least, that’s the adopted official date.
GL: What year?
I don’t know, maybe 1924-25.
GL: How old are you now?
[Nor Lue’s wife joins in: Perhaps 83 or 84.]
My parents raised cattle, only cattle. When we were young boys, we took the cattle for grazing every day.
GL: How many cattle?
Many. 30-40. Every day, I looked after the cattle from Roob Ntoo Maj (Hemp Mountain) to Tha Khay, to Huei Kang. When I became older and started to know things, my parents died, leaving us three brothers behind. We made ends meet the best way we could.
GL: When grandpa and grandma died, how old were you?
I was ten.
GL: And Uncle Xeeb [Xeng]?
Twelve or 13.
GL: And Uncle Lau?
Eight years old. My younger brother was called Lau, and my older brother Xeng. We three brothers lived by ourselves (after our parents’ death). We took care of ourselves all on our own.
GL: You were very young. How could you do that?
We lived with an aunty, Aunty Nhiaj Txoov [Nhiachong], but we had our own house. We did not live with them. We had our own farm and made our own living until we were about 15-16 years old. We then moved to Vietnam.
GL: Other relatives moved, too?
Yes, other relatives moved, so we had to move with them. We followed them to Vietnam. Uncle Zam Nplooj [Yablong] led us there. It was very misty and rained all the time.
GL: What village did you move to?
Fib Kab [Fi Ka]. It rained too much so we could not stay. It was very difficult to farm … very hard to grow opium, so we moved back to Huei Kang.
GL: How long did you stay in Vietnam?
Only one year. We moved back to Heui Kang and stayed until I was 17 or 18. Then it was decided opium grew well at Nam Keng so we moved to live there. It was good farming country and we had enough to eat and to live on like other people.
GL: So you moved there to grow opium?
Yes. Only then could we make a comfortable living like the rest of the world.
GL: You three brothers were still together at the time?
Yes, we were. No, the youngest brother died at Heui Kang, so there was only me and my older brother Xeng. We had enough to live on, so I went to school.
GL: How old were you then? 17 or 18?
Yes, about that. I went to school for two years (in a lowland Lao village in Muong Nganh), then I came back home. My brother Xeng became sick and died, leaving me by myself.
GL: When you first went to school, what year was that? Before the Japanese arrived (in WWII)?
I cannot remember now. Anyway, I came back home and had to farm. I stayed and became the assistant to the local Tasseng (canton chief).
GL: Father, can we go back to when you went to school? Were you the only Hmong student or were there other Hmong children too?
You mean when I went to school in Muong Nganh [Moos Nyab]? Yes. I was the only one.
GL: Did you stay with Lao people?
Yes, I stayed with them.
GL: Uncle Xeng sent you to stay with Lao people?
Yes, I stayed with Acharn Khou [Teacher Khou].
GL: Why did Uncle Xeng think of sending you to study? Did he want you to become educated?
No one had any formal education at the time. We had to depend on the Lao people all the time, so it was very difficult. So my brother sent me to school.
GL: Was it only his decision or did other relatives agreed, too?
He was the only one to decide. So I went to school for two years.
GL: What grade did you finish?
I went to study with a Lao teacher named Khu Louei.
GL: Was it in his house or in a formal school at Moung Nganh?
Oh, it was in a real school. The Hmong were welcome to study in it, but no Hmong wanted to go.
GL: What about the Lao children? How many of them in the school? 40-50?
Oh, about 50-60. They had teachers, even nurses.
GL: The country was still under the French? The Japanese had not come yet?
No, not yet.
GL: How many years later did the Japanese come?
The year I finished school, my second year as a student.
GL: So that must have been in 1945 when you finished school?
Maybe. It is hard to remember. Anyway, the Japanese came just as I finished my studies. The Lao people at Muong Nganh were cruel, so when the Japanese asked them the way to Muong Nyat [Moos Nyaj] to fight against the French there, they said they did not know the way [even though they did]. They told the Japanese soldiers that my village was in that direction, so I should know how to take them there. I was young, naive and uninformed, so I went with them as a guide.
GL: How many of them?
About 100 in one company.
GL: Did they speak Lao?
No, they did not speak any local language. They used a Chinese man to interpret for them. After we got to my village, I did not know the way any further because I was only familiar with the area between Nam Keng and Muong Nganh. I told them so, and one of the Japanese officers hit me 5-6 times with the back of his long sword.
GL: Really? With his Japanese sword?
Yes. My head was bleeding from it. I told them that I really did not know the way past my village. I told him he could kill me if he wanted to, at Ban Mou (the next Lao village from Nam Keng where I already took them). I told them that the Lao village chief there knew the way to the French military post in Muong Ngat, so they should ask him and not me. One of the Japanese officers then grabbed a duck from the Lao village and hit it against a tree, killing it. He then skinned it and gave it to me to grill over a fire to eat. I was very angry and refused to accept the duck. He said to me that I should not do that, because the commander might hit me again. I took the duck and grilled it for eating.
GL: Were you the only Hmong with them?
Yes, I was the only one. Anyway, Tasseng Mou (the Lao Canton Chief) agreed to take them to the French.
GL: Did you come home?
No, I did not. They would not let me go. I had to go with them. Three other Lao men from Saneng were also ordered to go with me. We reached Tham Tat, the next Hmong settlement, and spent the night there [with the Japanese]. We asked them to get the Hmong canton chief [Tasseng] at Than Tat to be their guide, but they did not see it that way. They insisted on Tasseng Mou continuing to do it. Tasseng Mou could not get away, so he took them to Moung Ngat. On the way, we met Mr Paj Txos (Pa Chao) who betrayed the French to the Japanese. He came to meet us with a French parachute as evidence of the French presence in the area. He came all the way from Muong Ngat to Tham Tat to meet the Japanese. He told them that he was the one who hid the French and fed them. The Japanese did not say anything to him, just got out a sword and hit him on the head with it. He was bleeding from his wound but they just kicked him down the embankment. They just left him there and continued with their journey.
GL: Why was that?
They said he was the one that helped the French, so they should not be bothered with him. The best way to deal with people like that was the bullet, according to them.
GL: Did they kill him with the sword?
No, they did not kill him. They only made a deep gash on his head. After we arrived at Muong Ngat, he followed us there. Some Hmong bandaged his wound and he followed us to go to his village at Nam Vang. When we got to Nam Vang, we were told that the French all ran away to Nam Mo and Nyua Mu. It was raining hard but the Japanese forced us to march all night to Nam Mo where they surrounded some Hmong houses used by the French to hide in. They speared and killed four Frenchmen that way.
GL: Where did those French come from?
They escaped from Thakhek in southern Laos. The rest of the French soldiers ran away.
GL: How many of them?
About 100. With four dead, the others went to Hav Naj Coob (Hua Nam Chong). The Japanese fired 5-6 rounds of mortars at them, then stopped. They gathered all the equipment and other things left behind by the French and burned them. The French had many things air-dropped to them at Nam Vang, but they left them to the Japanese to burn.
GL: What were these things? Food or ammunition?
Clothes, uniforms, food and ammunition - everything was burned by the Japanese. They gave three shirts to each of us whom they had forced to be their guides. We also each got a fluffy blanket (known in Hmong as “pam nyaj”) from them. Well, we got enough things each to fill a bag, and they let us return home. The Japanese also left the area
GL: That was all they did to the French, not much else?
Yes, that was all. Anyway, on the return journey from Muong Ngat, Mr Tooj Khwb Vaj (Tong Khue Vang, a local Hmong) had a French man with him. This French man parachuted at Phu Lun (from Paksane). He was trying to find out where all the French soldiers had gone to. So he walked for two days from Phu Lun to Muong Ngat. Tong Khue met him and told him that Tong Khue wanted to take him to his rice field to hide him from the Japanese. But that was a lie. Tong Khue went to see the Japanese and told them where the Frenchman was. The Japanese went to arrest him. He tried to run away but they shot at him and wounded him in the leg. They then arrested him. I saw everything with my own eyes how they arrested the Frenchman. I want to let the world know that the Japanese were very cruel. They forced the Frenchman to take off his shoes, then made a hole into the palm of his hands and put a steel ring through it so they could attach a rope to the ring and lead him by the rope to go with them. They took him to Phu Soung where they would go on to Paksane, and then Thailand. We did not see him again.
GL: What about you? What did they do to you after that?
They released us and told us to go home, and that no one should do anything to us. We said that the local authorities like the Chao Muong [District Governor] would surely be angry with us. But the Japanese said not to worry because they would still be around. If any officials did anything to us, we should let them know and they would deal with it. So we went home. But it was not what the Japanese officers said at all. A month later, the local district governor from Tha Thom came and took away everything the Japanese gave us - shirts, mosquito nets and blankets. They told us that we had no right to keep these French things, only they could. I was scared so I did not raise any objection. Not long after that, I then married your mother after the Japanese went home (from Indochina in April 1945).
GL: How long after the Japanese left before Mother gave birth to me?
More than a year later. After Japan was defeated in the war, many Japanese soldiers went back to Japan through Laos. They went to join the big battles in Burma as a way to enter China, but the British and Americans did them great damage there. When Japan capitulated after the atomic bomb in Hiroshima, many Japanese soldiers escaped back to Vietnam from Thailand and Burma by way of Laos. Some committed robberies and forced local people to hand over their domestic animals, food and valuables. One group came through Paksane up to Muong Kao, then joined the Nam Mo river which flows into Vietnam. They wanted to follow the river to get back to Japan through Vietnam, so they had to walk through Phu Soung, a Hmong settlement with Bliatou as the canton chief (Tasseng). There the Japanese robbed the Hmong of their money, opium, anything of value. Bliatou sent news of this to us, so we were all warned. Silver coins on Hmong embroideries were taken off and the embroideries thrown away. Altogether, they had collected 384 kips of such silver coin (one big coin equals one Kip). French colonial currency notes that they robbed from people also amounted to over 500,000 kips. Most of the coins were taken off Hmong women’s embroideries and sashes - those who had no warning and could not hide their possessions. They only wanted the coin, not the embroideries.
In response to this lawlessness, the French sent a few soldiers from Xieng Khouang town when the Japanese were just passing through Phu Soung. When they arrived, there were only three of them, so we asked them “what could you do with only three rifles against a whole company of armed Japanese?” But they said “don’t be afraid, we have to kill them.” So they really did. In the middle of the night, they waited until the Japanese were asleep in the house of the village chief. They all crowded in there and the French just shot at them. Five Japanese died straightaway. The rest ran away down from Phu Soung to a lowland Lao village called Ban Muong. There, they also robbed the villagers, tied up the men and took the women into the woods and raped them. The Japanese were pursued by Hmong men armed with Hmong flintlocks, the French soldiers having gone back to their headquarters to make a report. The Hmong surrounded the Japanese in the woods with the Lao women and killed 8 of them. One was shot in the jaw but did not die and tried to run away. The Hmong got 8 rifles from the dead Japanese. The one shot in the jaw ran back to Phu Soung and asked the Hmong villagers there for food. He said he wanted to go back and join other Japanese soldiers left in Thailand. So they gave him rice porridge and accompanied him on his way until he got to the Nam Mak river where they killed him. So that’s that for that one.
For the rest of the Japanese, they ran to the Nam Mu river which flows into Vietnam and followed the river down. A few of us said we should chase them, but I told them that we did not have enough weapons to do it, we already got 8 rifles from them and that was enough. But anyway, the Hmong were also cruel people. When night fell, they filled six flintlocks each with 1.5 “lag” (a Hmong weight measure equivalent to 500 grams) with gun powder and scrap metals. They took the flintlocks to the trail where it crosses Nam Bu river, and used them to lay trap there for the Japanese. They put the six guns together, tied the trigger tightly to a string that was pulled across the trail to a small tree branch on the other side from where the guns were laid. When the guns went off together, six Japanese were killed. That included the captain, the leader of the group, and two lieutenants. All the leaders were dead, only the troops were left.
GL: These were the company that robbed the Hmong?
Yes, they were. Straight away, they split up and ran off along the trail Tham Tat. When they got there, they did not do anything but early the next morning when the Hmong women got up to get water from the village spring (they dug up the ground for the water to come out) some Japanese soldiers were thirsty and went to the spring. If they just let the Hmong women go back home, that would be fine. But when Mrs Txhiaj Yeeb and Mrs Ntxoov Tswb filled their bucket and started home, they saw the Japanese so they ran. The Japanese threw a grenade at them. It killed two of the four Japanese soldiers and tore up the behinds of the women. The Hmong realised how bad the Japanese were, so they went after them. There were about 300 armed Hmong men - just anybody with a rifle. They ambushed the Japanese, starting at Ban Yuat all the way to Ban Mu. They set up ten ambushes and ordered that the Japanese had to be killed. The Hmong were angry, so they went after the Japanese. In the end, there were only 5 left at Tham Tat out of a whole company. A few died here, a few died there.
The five Japanese left alive came to steal 3 boats at Ban Ha, and rowed downstream, hoping to get to Vietnam. They did not know there was a waterfall ahead and they would fall down it. They had about 900 silver coins which were stolen by the other Japanese soldiers (many of whom were now dead) with them. The coins were put in a trunk which was then put in one of the boats. When they fell off the waterfall, the men were thrown off the boats and only the opium and the silver coins stayed in the boats that came to rest on the bank lower down.
The Hmong were waiting downstream and when the Japanese did not arrive, 50 of them went upstream to look for them. They saw the abandoned money and opium [taken from Hmong villagers earlier] in the boats, but no Japanese. They had swum out of the river and escaped into the jungle. It was decided that we should tracked them down by looking for their footprints, so I went along as well. We took all the money and other things from the boats. The footprints indicated that the Japanese had escaped along the foot of a cliff on one side of the riverbanks that had a flat embankment. Fifty of us were told to follow them downstream. We were told that there was nothing to fear because the Japanese had thrown away all their rifles, but we were naive and did not realise that they still had their pistols with them. When we got to a rice field with the rice already harvested -
GL: A Hmong rice field?
No, a Lao rice field. There was a big tree stump falling across the middle of it, but all the rice had been cut and collected into a big pile. So we waited and at about 2 pm, the Japanese arrived - five of them. I told my companions that they should get their rifles ready but not to fire until after I had called out to the Japanese to surrender. If they refused to raise their hands, then we should shoot them. Anyway, after I called out for them to stop and surrender, they raised their hands. I asked if they were armed, and they said they were, so I told them to throw their weapons on the ground. They did, and were left with nothing, so we arrested them. But again we were so very naive. The Lao ex-provincial governor who retired to live at Muong Tong later learned of what we did and ordered that we bring him all the Hmong money and opium we got from the Japanese. He said only he had the power to keep these goods - even though they were stolen from Hmong villagers. In those days, the Hmong were very scared of Lao officials who treated Hmong very harshly. We took the five Japanese back with us. They would get down on their knees every time they wanted water or food. They would kowtow first before asking for something.
GL: Yes, that is their custom.
Yes, they did that on and on until we reached Xieng Khouang town where we delivered them to Phagna (Touby’s Lao title which was also used as his name by many Hmong).
GL: Touby Lyfoung? You walked all that way?
Yes, we did. Because there were no French officials anywhere else at the time.
GL: How many of you went?
Thirteen of us.
Yes. But -
GL: Did you tie them, the Japanese?
Yes, we did. We -
GL: By the hands?
Yes, with their hands together. So if they wanted to pee or meet their natural needs, they would kowtow and then went about their business. They were so obedient by that time. Anyway, when we got to the junction where the road diverged into Tha Thom at the edge of Xieng Khouang town where there was a big Bodhi tree, you remember?
Anyway, when we got there, the five Japanese were looking around and realised that this was the road leading south to the Thai border. They just lay down on the ground and refused to walk on, no matter what we did. We kicked them, bashed them, but they acted like they would rather die there than walk to meet the French officers in the town. They made signs that if they should get to see the “long nose” (French) people, they would be killed. So I told the other Hmong with me to keep an eye on them and if they should try to get up and run away, for the Hmong to shoot them. I then went to meet Touby.
GL: Touby was in the town with the French officers who were hiding with him from the Japanese earlier in Phu Dou? [see the book “Tragic Mountains”]
That’s right. They were already installed in Xieng Khouang town by that time. Anyway, the French said “Ok, not to worry. Take a truck and go get them. If they refuse to come, we could not carry them on a pole. Just throw them on the truck.” So they drove a truck to the edge of town to get the Japanese. We tied them up like pigs and put them in the French military truck. With three others arrested in Khang Khai (near Phonsavanh), there were 8 of them altogether. I was later told that they were put into serving the French, getting firewood, cleaning, doing all kinds of chores.
GL: They were not put in prison?
No. They were made servants for about three years. They just disappeared after the war. Nobody knew where they had gone to, maybe they just went home.
GL: What did you do after you delivered the Japanese?
We went back home, but we were given some compensation like goods and money. We each got 300 kip.
PH: Did he see that the Japanese put hooks through the nose of captured French soldiers?
GL: No, that must have been in other areas. He only saw one French officer having a hook put through his hands and being led back to the direction of Thailand.
PH: Could you ask him what happened and what did he do after the war with the Japanese when the French tried to reassert themselves in Laos?
GL: [asking question in Hmong].
I went back home after the trip to deliver the five Japanese to Touby and the French in Xieng Khouang town. I stayed at my village for a short period, then your uncle Touby told me to join him because it had become difficult to live in the village.
[Note: after the Japanese left Laos in 1945, Nor Lue was made the secretary or “samien” (a voluntary position) to the Tasseng of Tham Thao. He was one of the very few Hmong who were literate in Lao at the time. In 1946 he joined Touby Lyfoung in Xieng Khouang town as a result of the following incident with Thao Tou Yang. In 1947, the Tasseng of Tham Thao or canton chief died, so Nor Lue Lee assumed his position, but later lost it to the Yang clan on account of Nor Lue not living locally at Tham Thao but at Xieng Khouang town].
GL: Why was it difficult living in the village?
Because of Tou Xaichu (also known as Thao Tou Yang, the military chief of the Hmong on the communist Pathet Lao side at the time).
GL: Can you tell us more about Tou Xaichu?
Tou Xaichu, at that time I had come back home and lived a normal life like other people.
GL: Were you married by then? And did you have me already?
Yes, yes. We tried to live normally. By that time I was secretary to the Tasseng of Thas Thob (Mr. Txhiaj Suav Thoj) , even though I was young but I had some education. There were three families: my family, Uncle Shua Tua’s and Uncle Xaikao’s. We went to live with our in-law relatives at Nam Keng. Then Tou Xaichu heard about us, so he and his soldiers came. Their idea was to confiscate our possessions but we were not home. It was rice cutting time (Hlais nplej) and we were all at the rice fields. You and your mother were harvesting opium in another field. You were just one month old then.
GL: Where were you?
I was home tending to our pigs and chickens. Your older sister (from your mum’s first marriage) was with me, but on that day we went to the rice field. Thao Tou and his men could not capture us, so they burned our houses.
GL: How many houses? The Lee clan homes?
Three. Except mine, because my house was too close to the house of a Lo clan family. They emptied our oil pans on the ground, cut down our smoked meat from the ceiling, opened up our corn granary for the pigs. They did all the nasty things that would hurt us the most. They emptied our house of all valuables like new Hmong costumes, money, opium.
GL: How many of them?
They came with a whole company of soldiers: 30 Hmong and 30 Lao. They took all our possessions, so...
GL: Were they in military uniforms?
No, they were in civilian clothes. They were poor, not well-resourced.
GL: They called themselves Pathet Lao/Lao Issara soldiers?
Yes. Your cousin Ga Nu, [one of Uncle Shuatua’s sons who later became a colonel in the Royal Lao army but died in the re-education camp in Sam Neua in 1979.] he was only a boy so they did not arrest him. He ran to the fields and told us that Thao Tou and his men had burned our houses and robbed us of everything.
GL: They captured all the adults? To do what with them? To be made slaves?
Yes, to be made servants, to be killed. Anyway, we decided that Ganu and his family should stay on but we would go and take arms from Txhiaj Sua Thao [a local pro-French Hmong leader] at Tham Thao.
GL: Who was he?
He was the Tasseng at Tham Thao. So we went to him.
GL: Who went with you?
I and Txai [Ganuís older brother]. The two of us were given a rifle each. We joined eight other armed Hmong, so we had 10 men. We went after them.
GL: You went looking for Thao Tou?
Yes, we went to Muong Nhat to find them, but when we got there we were told they had not come that way. They went to Phu Sung, to Sam Gnanh. So we came back to see the Tasseng (at Tham Thao). Tasseng told us that they [Thao Tou and his men] went to Thung Peut. So we went after them there. We nearly caught up with them at a village called Hav Kuj Yem [Palm Leaf]. But the people there said “Oh! They left three days ago!” The Hmong were very nasty. That was a lie. They only left a few minutes before.
GL: Those Hmong were on the communist Pathet Lao side?
GL: Where were Thao Tou and his men heading?
They were going to Nam Chong, then Khasee and onto Vietnam, to Houei Kouang where they lived. When we did not find Thao Tou and his men, we practiced shooting our French rifle on a tree stump for the Hmong there to see. We fired three rounds each. The Hmong said “Oh, so accurate you would hit and kill anyone!” We returned home and decided to leave. We killed our chickens, gave away our hens and pigs. We did this and that with our remaining possessions. Your Uncle Touby told us to join him in Xieng Khouang town, so we left to go there. But Uncle Xaikao did not want to.
GL: Before that, did you get to know Uncle Touby well? Where?
Oh, we knew him well from the beginning.
GL: From where?
From when he was in Nong Het. Anyway, Uncle Xaikao refused to come with us. I said to him “if you do not go, I will not give you the silver bar paid to you by Chu who stole your opium.” He said he would like to come with me and have a look first. So I went to Xieng Khouang town with wife and children: your mum, you and your big sister. I will always remember, I was carrying 16 silver bars and 5 bars [choj] of opium.
GL: You were growing opium at the time and were rich?
Yes. It was so heavy! We arrived at Pa Dongmai before we got help to carry them. I remember this until now. After we arrived, we stayed with Uncle Touby [NL and Touby were of the same generation but the word “Uncle” was used all through this text from the view of NL's son, Gary Yia Lee]. At that time, they [the French and their Hmong helpers] had chased away all the Lao Issara from Xieng Khouang town. I was given the job of leading some Hmong soldiers there. Uncle Nengthong [Lee] was there but he was not given the job. He looked after all the Hmong soldiers on the French side in the Nong Het area. I was only leader of the Hmong soldiers in Xieng Khouang town. The French were going home and were going to hand over independence to Laos.
GL: In 1949 (the first round, final round in 1954). How many Hmong soldiers were in Xieng Khouang town at that time? All village partisans or full-blown soldiers?
It was called the CGM (Compagnie Groupement Mobile) that later became Battalion 21 for the Second Military Region in the Royal Lao Army (under Vang Pao in the 1960’s). There were 900 of us.
GL: 900, so many?
Two companies of Khmu, one company of Lao and six companies of Hmong. Nyiaj Kuam, Txawj Tuam and Txawj Pov were company leaders of the Hmong. I supervised them. We were working there for a while. The Lao Issara, the Hmong chased them to Thailand. At the very beginning, they ran to Thailand. I was sent to relieve Pacha (Lyteck’s father) at Houei Kouang , that was south of Muong Phan. He did not do his job properly. Instead, he spent his time playing and picking up wild fruits as if he was just a civilian. The Lao Issara came and killed two of his brothers. Pacha could not make war, and I was sent to replace him. So I went.
GL: How many soldiers did you have there?
GL: You were in full green military uniforms?
Yes, all dressed in green with a red beret.
GL: Serving under the French?
Yes, and I brought 50 more troops from Xieng Khouang town, so there were 250 of us altogether. After we arrived, we stayed.
GL: So you went to replace Pacha.
I went to replace Pacha at Houei Kouang, and after, I took 250 troops to Hin Heup.
GL: Which Hin Heup. Near Muong Kham?
No, the Hin Heup near Vang Vieng.
GL: On the way to Vientiane, where there was the shooting of Hmong refugees in 1975? You went as far as there at that time?
Yes, we did. But we went to the Hin Heup village, not the bridge (where the 1975 shooting took place). We went to set up an ambush between the village and the bridge. After a while, they came, about 30 of them.
GL: The Lao Issara, what were they dressed in? Just in normal civilian clothes.
Yes, normal clothes.
GL: Were they armed, from the communist Vietnamese?
Yes, they were armed. But not with Viet Minh rifles. There were no Vietnamese weapons then, only French weapons.
GL: So they used French weapons against the French?
Yes, so when the Lao Issara arrived where we were, they were boasting that they would find all the pro-French troops there and kill them off. But we had three machine guns aimed at them, and they soon all fell on the ground, dead.
GL: They gave you machine guns even at that time?
Yes, they did. Anyway, all the Lao Issara died, except three who escaped back to the village. I then wrote a letter and attached it to one of the dead bodies, saying that if anyone dared to bury them that person would die, too, because these dead were enemy and should just be left to rot where they were. The local Lao were so scared that they stopped using that trail to go to the main road. After that, we moved to Houei Mo but Uncle Touby said we should not stay at Houei Mo but move to Vang Vieng. That night we travelled on foot all night to Vang Vieng. When we got there, we were a bit nasty, I will tell you the truth. We told the local Tasseng that anyone with a rifle should give it up as we (the pro-French) had won everywhere now.
GL: Did you have any Lao soldiers with you?
No, only Hmong. Anyway, the Lao brought us all their weapons - hundreds of rifles from all the Tasseng Vang Vieng area. They were very scared. We tied up the rifles in bundles, put them in boats and rowed the boats to the middle of a deep pond where we dumped them.
GL: You rowed the boats yourselves?
Yes, even us Hmong knew how to row a boat, you know. Anyway, we told the Lao that the French had come to pick up all the rifles. In life, you need: (1) to have good politics, (2) to be a fair leader and not inflict injustice on people. In truth, you should not have great want for women, a wife or someone’s daughter if you are a soldier. Then you would not make mistakes. After we collected all the rifles in the Vang Vieng area, we were ordered to go and fight in the Phon Haung area.
GL: Just north of Vientiane?
Yes. At that time, the French could only be in Vientiane. They could not even go as far as Kilometre 52 or Phon Haung.
GL: Outside of Vientiane was all occupied by the Lao Issara?
Yes. Anyway, it was too far going on foot from Vang Vieng to Phon Haung, so we decided to follow to Vang Vieng river downstream. We went to Phon Haung through Keng Lut. It took us 4 whole days.
GL: You did not meet with any enemies?
No, we went through the jungle and nobody knew we were there. So we got to near Phon Haung and asked the villagers there if there were any Lao Issara soldiers. They said yes, there are many of them, in this village and many more in Phon Haung itself. Phon Haung was a district administration. Having got good information, we walked all night to Phon Haung. After we arrived, we fired a few rounds of mortars into their barracks as dawn was just breaking.
GL: You found the location of their barracks? How many?
Yes, they only had one barracks.
GL: Where did they get their weapons from?
Just like the Hmong Chaofa today, from the dead soldiers of their enemy. We fired three rounds of mortars into their barracks, and they started to run away. Many ran away to Tha Lat (the next big Lao settlement toward the Nam Ngum Dam today), others towards Vientiane. We were rather mean at the time. We fired mortars at those fleeing to Tha Lat, about 12-13 rounds.
GL: There was a road going to Tha Lat at that time already?
Oh, yes. There was.
GL: The road linking Luang Prabang and Vientiane, too?
Yes. So we also fired mortar at those running towards Vientiane. Men and women, they died in their dozens.
GL: There were women soldiers with the Lao Issara?
[Laughing] No, these were Lao civilians who panicked and ran away after they heard gun fire. Everyone tried to run for their life, but they died instead. After we got the upper hand, we burned their barracks completely. We told the village chief that even though we were not here with you, we could see anything you did. We called Vientiane and informed them that we had taken Phon Haung. Very soon in the afternoon, army trucks and tanks rolled in.
GL: The French had tanks even at that time in 1949-50?
Oh, yes. They had. They also sent 500 more troops to add to our contingent.
GL: Lao soldiers?
No, real French soldiers. Only French, no Lao. They did not want any Lao. The Lao preferred the Lao Issara (Independence Movement against French domination), so we chased them into Thailand and they then stayed in Thailand.
GL: So 500 French troops came to stay with you?
Yes, but only for 5 days, nearly a week. Half went back to Vientiane, half came with us to stay in Vang Vieng. The Lao (Issara) had nowhere to stay, so they went to Thailand. Prince Phetsarath, Souphanouvong and Souvanna Phouma all went to Thailand, but the Thai disarmed them. They were discouraged and demoralised, so some of them joined the Vietnamese communists.
GL: After you came back to Vang Vieng, what happened?
Well, Prince Phetsarath decided to return from Thailand to join the French in Laos, so Uncle Touby told me to go down and receive him with my troops. I told Uncle Touby that I was too dumb with no education to do such a big honourable job.
GL: Where in Laos did Prince Phetsarath come back?
In Kene Thao (near the Thai border).
GL: Kene Thao in Sayaburi province?
Yes. So I did not know what to do when Uncle Touby said I should go. I went. When I got to Kene Thao, Prince Phetsarath was already waiting there.
GL: When Phetsarath came back to Laos from Thailand, he came through Kene Thao?
Yes, he came through Kene Thao. So I went to meet him there. He was a bit scared of me because I was a soldier, but I told him that he was a prince and I was a commoner, I would protect him and take him to work with the King (Sisavangvong in Luang Prabang who sided with the French). He said if that was the case, could I call the King so he could speak to him. I called Uncle Touby on the wire. Touby called the King who talked to the Prince. Afterwards, he agreed to come.
GL: How many people came back with him?
Only six. When we got to Sayaburi town, I asked the Prince if it was true that he could not be killed, that he was invincible (he was nicknamed the Ironman of Laos). He replied "Son, do not believe it. At the time, I had power, so I spread rumours to that effect so people would be fearful of me. Right now, if you shoot me, I would just die" he said. I was so surprised that he was so open and frank. I said to him that I would never kill him. I took him back to Vang Vieng.
GL: How long did it take to arrive back there?
Three, no four days. It was very far (on foot) from Kene Thao. After we arrived, we arranged for him to be taken by car to the King in Luang Parbang. On looking back, I could see that the Lao Issara had everything in place, well arranged - a beginning and an end (and their successor - the Pathet Lao - now had won control of Laos). As for Prince Phetsarath, he went to stay with the King and not long afterwards, he died, so that was the end.
GL: So what happened after?
Two months after we returned from Kene Thao, we were ordered to go back to Xieng Khouang.
GL: Only you or all your soldiers?
All of us. By that time, the government had sent Lao troops to be stationed in Vang Vieng, so they did not need us there anymore. The Chao Khoueng (provincial governor) established military units for us. I was given command of one of these units. Txawj Tuam had a company stationed in Phu Sung (Muong Mok), Txawj Pov in Nam Keng, Va Xeng Lau in Nam Pu. In 1953, the Vietminh came in big numbers to fight against us. The whole of Indochina was in turmoil. So I said "what have the French done for my troops? Every day, we go chasing the Vietminh ìkev lwj ntsuavî (trampling in grass and mud). The French are willing to retreat from Xieng Khouang town but will not allow my troops to leave their barracks. What is the meaning of it all?" I was told.
GL: At that time, where was your barracks? On the hill with the big stupa (roob pej thuam)?
Yes, there. So the French said they would print leaflets for me to go and drop on them. I took the plane from the Plain of Jars and went to drop the leaflets.
GL: Who did you drop them to?
The Hmong troops in the field.
GL: Were you not with them? Why did you have to drop leaflets to them?
I was in Xieng Khouang town, but the troops were spread out in different areas, in the Plain of Jars, in Phu Sung, in Phu Mung, at Txawj Povís area.
GL: How many troops did each of these commanders have?
One company (100 men) each. Txawj Pov was ordered to retreat from Tha Thom to Muong Ngan, Vam Xeeb to Khang Haung. They took up their new positions, and we left Xieng Khouang town. The Vietminh were about to invade Laos. When we got to Lat Huang, the French would not let me go on to the Plain of Jars. They told me to take 11 Hmong soldiers back with me to check on Xieng Khouang town. The Vietminh (communist Vietnamese troops) had not even come to the town, and already we had abandoned it, the French said.
GL: What could 11 soldiers do?
So I told them that I was not the big commander, the French were but why had they already retreated to the Plain of Jars.
GL: Were there a lot of French troops at that time?
Oh, yes. Many, many in the Plain of Jars. Many battalions everywhere in the Plain of Jars.
GL: Hmong, Lao, French all together?
Yes, all mixed in there. So I said that I was only a minor military leader, why did they want me to go back to Xieng Khouang town? I thought hard about it, and decided that it was an order and I had to obey. So I took 11 Hmong soldiers with me.
GL: Where were Mother and I then?
You all went hiding in Khang Haung (north of Xieng Khoaung town), but you were only 4 years old and might not remember. So I went back to Xieng Khouang town. When we got half-way to Dong Dane, we saw everywhere full of Vietminh soldiers. There were 7,000 of them. When we got there, it was like God intervened and sent a lot of rain to the area. The Vietminh were all along the road, some dressed in khaki yellow uniforms, some in white uniforms. They called out "Ekalat" (Independence), so I replied "Hue Tinh Bin Ho Chi Minh". They all stopped marching. We were so close to them before we opened fire using MAT 49 rifles (“mitraillette” in French containing 30 rounds of bullets, or “Phom 30 teg” in Hmong) and grenades. All around they were also firing at us like the earth was shattering into little bits. But we were lying down flat on the ground so they did not hit us. They started to run towards us so I told my troops to play dead. The Vietminh trampled us and we were all covered in mud, so maybe they did not see us clearly.
GL: They did not shoot you when they saw you on the ground?
No, they ran past us to the other side of a little hill. They must have thought there were more of us over there. As soon as they ran past, I told my soldiers to get up and run on the left into the bush. We immediately called Tiao Say Kham (the Xieng Khouang governor) at the Plain of Jars on the radio to tell him that there were many Vietminh troops on their way and there was no way they (the French and Lao) could put up any resistance. I asked him to get all his Lao troops out of there, as Lao soldiers often became scared and ran away. But he did not make any move so they were all captured the next morning.
GL: Including the governor?
No, the troops that were guarding him. Six hundred of them. So we called the French fighter-bombers in, the T-28s. To drop bombs only on the north side.
GL: You had T-28s at the time?
Yes, but they were called “Canard Deux” (“Duck 2” in French). They were launching their bombs from the north side at dawn. After two over-passes, many Vietminh were killed, so the Lao soldiers who were captured started to run for their lives. Soon after, by 10'clock in the morning, I watched from a grassy hill near Lat Sene, and saw Vietminh trucks driving into the Plain of Jars, so many of them you could not count.
GL: The Vietminh had military trucks by then?
Yes, they ordered them in, but the French put up a real fight against them, even using bayonets and machine guns. Many Vietnamese were killed. Eventually, the Vietminh lost the battle so they stopped.
GL: That did not seem to be a lot of battles, but when we returned to Xieng Khouang town it all became burned and scarred.
Yes, because of aerial bombing after the Vietminh occupied the town. I will tell you more. So the Vietnamese lost to us. The Plain of Jars was covered in grass and you could see everywhere clearly. We captured many of them.
GL: They did not have guns to resist arrest?
Not all of them. Only one in three carried a gun, the others carried knives. That was how they were trained. Still others carried ammunition, rice and other needed supplies. After that I was ordered to go and work in Lat Sene to call in fighter-bombers. So I went. I left the Plain of Jars through Na Mone south of Xieng Khouang town where I saw Vietminh troops everywhere. Every few yards, there was a radio. The French said we would send soldiers to parachute around there at 10am. I told them “Oh, that is impossible, too many Vietminh soldiers! Wait for them to all go first”.
GL: Where did the French get their soldiers from? From Vientiane?
From the Plain of Jars. They had them everywhere there. Four-five thousand; 7,000-8,000 of them. So at 10 am, a big DC-47 (known as Dakota) cargo plane dropped soldiers on parachutes from the sky everywhere in Namone and south of Xieng Khouang town. They soon captured most of the Vietminh soldiers.
GL: Why was it so easy? Didn’t the Vietminh have guns?
No, they were on the run back to Vietnam and did not have many guns. They were surrounded, so they just surrendered. That’s why I said in this life, the Vietnamese were the most smart. At the risk of showing contempt for the French, the French lost in Indochina because of women.
GL: How was that?
We lost in Xieng Khoaung because of women, too.
GL: Vietnamese women?
Yes. When they first arrived, they would send three of the most beautiful women to see you. They brought three chickens to you. The next time, they brought a tray of eggs and four chickens to be given to your soldiers for food. The third time, they asked if you wanted to sleep with them. Being male, most soldiers would fall for it - especially with beautiful women.
GL: What do you mean by that? They kill you when you sleep with them, or what?
No, after you have slept with them, you would feel less inclined to kill their men.
GL: These women were dressed in army uniforms?
Oh yes, in full uniforms. So I started to study the war that took place in 1953. I could see that if you really made war according to politics, if you lost, you lost good. If you won, you won good.
GL: So what happened in Xieng Khouang after the French captured most of the Vietminh troops?
The French gave them plastic raincoats and food But the French used the Vietnminh prisoners of war to exchange for French POWs in Vietnam. Eventually, they all were gone.
GL: What about the French soldiers who came to Xieng Khouang after the French defeat in Dien Bien Phu in 1954?
Ok, wait for me to tell you. After the battle at the Plain of Jars, the Vietminh and French held negotiation talks and the Vietminh wanted them a have one last big battle in Dien Bien Phu, but the French general who commanded the French forces in Indochina.
GL: What is his name?
I cannot remember, but his assistant was called Commandant Rolfe. The next in line was Captain Fare. Anyway, the commander of the French forces did not like Dien Bien Phu. The hills surrounding the area were too close, unlike the Plain of Jars. But the Vietminh did not want the Plain of Jars, they only wanted Dien Bien Phu. It was closer and easier for the Chinese to come and help them. A new French commander who supported communism came to replaced the old one. He agreed to a last battle at Dien Bien Phu.
GL: So they sent all the French troops in the Plain of Jars to Dien Bien Phu?
Yes, they did all of them. But not only the French, some Hmong also went.
GL: How did that happen?
When the French were about to face defeat, Hmong soldiers were sent to help.
GL: Was that when Vang Pao went?
Yes, Vang Pao went, too.
GL: What did the Hmong do? Did you go?
We went to the Tiaj Xoob Qeeg [Bamboo Plain] near Dien Bien Phu. There were many of us, so many that when we killed a buffalo to feed the Hmong soldiers, the food became cold and the fat (in the cooking pot) became hard before everybody arrived on the scene. Like two to three hours. The Hmong were to guard this big empty plain for 30,000 French soldiers to parachute into as reinforcement for those already stationed in Dien Bien Phu. We could hear bombs exploding and even French fighter-bombers could be seen flying over our heads.
GL: The French had fighter-bomber planes there?
Yes, they used them to drop bombs on the Vietminh.
GL: So the Hmong were guarding this plain near Dien Bien Phu but did not take part in the battle?
Yes. The plan was that after the 30,000 French had parachuted, the Hmong would march with them to Dien Bien Phu.
GL: From what you described, there must be 4000 - 5,000 Hmong there.
Yes. All the Hmong soldiers went, and their commanding officers. Me, Ntsuab Kos (Lee in Eau Claire, WI) and Zam Choj (Lee in St.Paul, MN) - both passed away a few years ago.
GL: So, how many Hmong do you think were there?
I think about 2,200.
GL: Then what happened?
We stayed up all night while the battle raged nearby. At the first crow of the cocks, the people at Dien Bien Phu radioed to say that the Vietminh had won. The French had lost, and for the 30,000 reinforcements not to come anymore. The Hmong were to just return home. You know, we had been marching for days and our feet were all stiff and sore. But upon hearing the news that we could go home to our wives and children, so many of us just got up and danced. You may remember that I was even given a Dien Bien Phu medal, but I left it in Laos when escaping to Thailand in 1986.
GL: Did they give you the medal after you came back home to Laos?
Oh, yes. We were given medals by the French commander who remained at the Plain of Jars.
GL: What was his name?
Major Starcey or something like that. [Sassi]
GL: So you just came home?
Yes, we just walked back to Xieng Khouang - very slowly.
GL: How long did it take you?
On the way to Bamboo Plain, we walked fast but it took us 10 days. On the way back from there after the French defeat, even longer.
GL: Did many French soldiers came back with you?
No, they were all captured by the Vietminh.
GL: All captured?
GL: But at that time, I remember seeing a lot of French soldiers suddenly appearing in Xieng Khouang town, and we were told that they escaped from Dien Bien Phu. Many of them were black Africans. I could still remember them. Lots of planes dropping supplies for them, too. But they suddenly all disappeared after 2-3 months. You don't think they came from Dien Bien Phu?
No, they came from Sam Neua near the Lao-Vietnam border. Those in Dien Bien Phu never made it out like that. Many of those you saw in Xieng Khouang town around that time were German prisoners of war who were forced to come and fight in Indochina after the German defeat in WWII in Europe. They had no choice.
Before we went to Bamboo Plain [Tiaj Xyoob] in Vietnam, 1500 Hmong soldiers chased Vietminh troops back to Vietnam along the route to Muong Ngan. When we got to Ban Hung, the Vietminh killed one of our Lao captains, so we decided to go after them in hot pursuit. We caught the two who were responsible at Muong Phan. They told us that they had order to kill, so they did. We took them to the French but did not know what the French did with them. Anyway, 1500 of us chased the Vietminh all the way to the border. After they went back into Vietnam, then we returned to Xieng Khouang.
In life, there are things that we should do or not do. If you are soldiers, you should not do things for your own benefit, but only for the common good, for your country. God gives you a mission and you fulfil it the best way you can. If you only seek to benefit yourself, then it will be no good to anyone.
GL: Yesterday, we were talking about you taking part in chasing the Vietminh who invaded Xieng Khouang to go back to Vietnam. I want to ask what year did you become a Tasseng (canton chief).
I became Tasseng after the Japanese war while I enlisted in the French military with Uncle Touby (Lyfoung).
GL: Before or after I was born?
After you were born.
GL: So it must be 1948 or 49? Why did they make you Tasseng?
I did this job for 3-4 years. I did it because I was in the army, it was thought that I would be in a position of power to work as a Tasseng with the civilian administration. So Uncle Touby gave me the position of Tasseng for Tham Thao.
GL: What did you have to do in this position?
A number of things like:
Take census of all the families in all the villages under that administration.
Collect taxes based on this census for the French.
Settle any major family conflict or inter-group disputes as required.
GL: Can you tell us more about the French tax collection? What does this consist of?
At that time, the French established 16 Hmong Tasseng positions in Laos, mostly in Xieng Khouang where many Hmong were living.
GL: Did they collect tax from the Lao people, too?
Yes, they did - both Hmong and Lao. The 16 Hmong Tasseng only looked after the Hmong population. All you needed to do is to compile a list of Hmong families in each village based on the census you did. Usually, the French administration in Xieng Khouang town would call a meeting of all the Hmong Tasseng. The French would sit on one side and the Hmong on the other. The French would tell them to go and collect taxes, and if the taxes seemed excessive, then the Hmong Tasseng would argue with the French for a reduction or exemption. If you lost the argument, then you had to go and collect the tax once a year. They only wanted silver coins and bars. Each year, it was quite an amount. I would average about 400-500 piasters (from the villagers in my area).
GL: How big was the area under you? How many villages?
I cannot remember, but they gave you a map and all the villages were there. I was responsible for Tham Thao, Uncle Xayteng (Toubyís cousin) for Keng Khouay, and somebody else for other areas like Phu Sao, Na Bane, Tha Chok, etc.
GL: So your job was to collect tax?
Yes and to do whatever the French needed to be done like when they requisitioned service and goods from the people. They might want so many pigs, buffaloes and cattle for food for soldiers and for many able-bodied persons doing free labour for them. But each year they might just ask for 6-7 animals at the most.
GL: Did they make these animal requisitions only when there were soldiers in the local area, or just any time they needed it in general?
Any time. You did not deliver the animals to the soldiers, you delivered them to the French administration and they would take care of the rest like handling the distribution and so on.
GL: These French tax people, where was their office?
In Xieng Khouang town itself. All their offices were there, their jail, their hospital, schools and army barracks. The head of the French administration was called the Commissaire, then there was also and Assistant Commissaire. They were both French. After you had collected the tax or requisitioned the animals they needed, you delivered them to the Assistant Commissaire. They would then give you a written receipt. Once a decision was made by them, it could not be changed. Any deviation from the original decision had to be approved and signed for by them.
GL: What about other civilian matters like settling disputes?
That’s up to you - you handled them in your own time and as you needed with the people or families concerned. Even attending weddings, etc. You could collect bride prices for the girl’s parents. In those days, only 3 silver bars were needed for a bride.
GL: So that was what a Tasseng needed to do. Why did you stop?
After 4 years, I decided to stop because of conflict with my work as a military person. Also, my assistant could not carry on, although the ultimate responsibilities rested on the Tasseng. There were too many responsibilities. If I wanted to continue being Tasseng, I would have to stop being in the military. So Uncle Touby told me to give up being a Tasseng and to give the position to Uncle Xaiteng (Touby's cousin). Uncle Xaiteng was a civilian and did not have any other jobs.
GL: How old was I when you stopped being Tasseng?
You were about 4-5 years old.
GL: So that was about 1951-52? I want to ask you more about this French tax. We keep hearing that some Hmong Tasseng collected extra money and animals as tax so they could keep them for their own benefits. Did you know about this?
Only Uncle Nao Chao (Nom Txos, another of Touby's cousins) did that. I don't know of anybody else.
GL: So everyone else collected tax only as required by the French?
Yes. Nao Chao was an opium addict, so he just collected tax illegally, here and there, for himself.
GL: Didn’t the French do anything about him?
Well, even if they said something, he would still do it.
GL: So other Tasseng did the right thing?
Yes. Only Vam Kaim Lee and Nao Chao. They were the only two who collected tax for themselves. Vam Kaim replaced Nao Chao and continued the same corrupt behaviour. He told people to come and work in his fields, cut down trees, clear his land, plant corn, plant rice. He used them as part of the official five day free labour contribution that each able-bodied man was required to contribute each year to the French. [even though h this was only supposed to be used for official, not personal, purposes]. But these two Tasseng asked people to come and said, "Oh, this is official work", when it was actually just work on their personal property. After Vam Kaim took over from Nao Chao, he did that, and Pa Xa (Paj Xab) Khang complained to the French, and Vam Kaim lost the position. [c. E 1950s]
GL: Did they complain to Touby or to the French directly?
Oh, directly to the French. He told the French that Vam Kaim asked people to work for him in his fields, so straight away Vam Kaim lost the job, and it was then given to Pa Xa
GL: All these tasseng Hmong, did Touby appoint them, or did the French?
Only the French appointed them. All the tasseng, only the French could appoint them.
GL: Did Touby submit any names?
No, he only accompanied them to meet the French, and was their translator. To be appointed [a tasseng], you have to pay the French for the seal and the official appointment paper.
GL: What about you? Did you pay, too? How much?
Three silver bars.
GL: Did you really have to pay?
Yes! I paid three silver bars. The seal alone cost one bar, and the paper cost two bars.
GL: Really? So anybody could just pay the French and become a tasseng?
No! You have to be approved by the French and Touby had to be consulted then the French would accept you.
GL: So Touby had to approve, too?
GL: So you stopped being tasseng and only stayed as a military leader?
Yes, but going back about the taxes that the French collected, they were only stopped after Tou Geu Lyfoung, [one of Touby's brothers] became a deputy in the Lao National Assembly [c. 1955]. He and others passed a law in the Lao parliament to abolish the tax.
GL: So what year was that?
I’m not sure, but Tou Lia was the first deputy [for the Hmong], and then Tou Geu, and Touby only became deputy after Tou Geu. So the Hmong stopped paying taxes because Deputy Tou Geu argued for their abolition in the National Assembly. After all the deputies approved of this, all taxes were stopped. Since then, there were no taxes to collect. If you were a tasseng you just did other jobs, especially compiling census data.
GL: Going back to the French tax, we often hear that some poor Hmong didn’t have money to pay, and they paid it with chickens, ducks, pigs, domestic animals, and some even paid with their children or sold their children to pay these taxes. Was that true?
Yes. That was true. Even a tasseng had to pay. You were not spared. And then if the people under you could not pay, you had to pay for them. You had to pay for them and then collect the debt from them later. So some people would bring their chickens, their pigs to you and then you paid the tax in money to the French for them. So there were some who did not even have any animals, so they brought their children to you, and then you had to take them and keep them as servants [until the debt was paid]. But at the time I was tasseng, we had stopped accepting children. We just paid their tax for them, and then arranged for the debt to be paid off in some other form.
GL: But before that, other tasseng accepted children?
Yes, they took them as servants. That was very bad, so the deputy had to stop this form of taxation.
GL: Did the French collect taxes as soon as they arrived in Laos? [c. 1893]
Yes. This was the story: when they first came, they had to have money to run the country so they decided to collect taxes to run their affairs. That's why they had this tax system. But it was stopped, as I said. And fortunately, the French also lost control of the country. Since the Lao ran the country, there was no more tax until today.
GL: How did the Vietminh come to Laos in 1953?
When the Viet Minh came to fight against us in Laos in 1953, they came in three directions. Seven thousand came on the main road [Route 7?] going through the Plain of Jars (via Nong Het and Muong Kham).
GL: Did that road exist at that time?
Yes. Another 7,000 came through the telegraphic road [a lesser-used road further south. This was the road going from Muong Sene in Vietnam, along the Nam Chak river, then on to Xieng Khouang Town. The third route taken by the Viet Minh was from Muong Ti to Muong Ngane, then on to Xieng Khouang Town. We killed so many Vietnamese, even before they got to the Plain of Jars. The initial group (there were 4,000) came through Nong Het. The Hmong were not very nice to them. The initial group of 4,000 arrived at Faydang’s village at Tiaj Lauj Cuab [the Burned Bridge, in the Lo Clan’s Plain]. When they all got to Tiaj Lauj Cuab, the Hmong cut their rear at Pha Ven so the Viet Minh couldn’t go back. And both sides were lined with high cliffs, and trucks were running through the valley. The Hmong cut off their rear, and occupied both flanks all the way to Nam Kong in Nong Het.
GL: Who was the Hmong’s leader who surrounded these Vietnamese soldiers?
Touby. [Vang Pao was still in the officers academy at Dong Henh] He wasn’t actually there leading them, but he was the one giving all the orders. We were the ones leading.
GL: You got your weapons from the French?
GL: Were you village militia or full-blown French colonial soldiers?
We were all Hmong. We didn’t want any Lao there. At Nam Kong the Hmong stopped the Viet Minh advance with eight or nine machine guns. They couldn’t move. We fought for three days. Nearly all the Viet Minh were killed, and one Japanese escaped.
GL: Did the Japanese lead them there?
I don’t know. All I know was only one Japanese and two Vietnamese survived and escaped back to Vietnam.
GL: So how many Vietnamese were there?
I told you already: three – four thousand! That area was covered in grass, so if you were down there, you would be easily seen. So the Hmong had easy targets. The cliffs are very close to the road, so the enemy was in easy shooting range. The Hmong used Touby’s buffalo to drag all the Vietnamese bodies to dump into some [natural] pits. It took three days to finish the job. The French had two jeeps, so we used them to carry bodies and dump them into those holes. There must have been about 800 or a thousand bodies. Then we filled the places up with dirt.
One of Kiatong Faydang’s younger brothers [Vaj] came with the Vietnamese and was hiding with three Vietnamese in a clump of tall grass near Touby’s old house at Nam Kong. They were hiding there for a long time until it became nearly dark. Then Txaim, one of Touby’s servants, was carrying Long, one of Touby's sons, on his back, to go to the garden. Long was still a baby then. When they got to the clump of grass, Vaj took a shot at Txaim, killing him. So the Hmong went there and threw a grenade into the clump of grass, killing Vaj and the three Vietnamese. And they continued firing at them, smashing all their bones, and they just became little bundles of flesh. They just kept shooting and shooting over and over until they just became little bundles like this [holds out his hands]. All the bones flew away or were smashed.
The Hmong were so cruel, just like when they killed the Lao Chao Khoueng of Xieng Khouang who was buried near our [Lee family] rice field, whose grave you saw. He was a Chao Khoueng for the Lao Issara When the Hmong caught up to him, they brought him back to Touby, but when they got to where they shot him, he just fell on the ground and refused to get up, so they just shot him and shot him until there wasn’t much left of him, and they just buried him on the side of the road, and you could see the little dirt mound every time you walk past. That’s why his grave was just a little mound of dirt. So you can see how cruel the Hmong are.
GL: What’s the name of that Chao Khoueng? And when did it happen?
Chao Khoueng Lek. It happened in about 1947. The Hmong can do lots of good things, but sometimes step over the bound of humanity [what is acceptable]. You have to tell them that if they do anything wrong, you will shoot them. Then they will do things right. Like “don’t play around with someone’s wife.” If you lead one or 200 Hmong men, you have to be very tough and decisive with them, otherwise they will not listen to you. So even after they killed someone, they would shoot them to bits, just to make themselves happy. This Chao Khoueng Lek incident was like the Hmong got help from God. Towards the end of the fight between the Lao Issara and the pro-French Hmong, he became infected by a rash all over his body. He got spots everywhere and could not walk. All his companions left him and ran away [to Vientiane and on to Thailand]. That’s why the Hmong caught him.
GL: When Touby and the French came to take Xieng Khouang Town from the Lao Issara, what were you doing?
I was only a young man farming in Nam Keng, near the Vietnamese border. I only came into the fight against the Lao Issara after they all had been chased out of Xieng Khouang. That’s why I only went to fight against them in Vang Vieng and in Phon Haung in Vientiane.
GL: What did you do after all the Vietnamese died? Did you come back home?
No, we stayed on. We had to defend the area. We had to stop the Viet Minh from using that road. That’s Touby’s order. They didn’t want any Vietnamese to be able to come into Laos. Any Vietnamese who infiltrated into Laos anywhere would have to be killed. So the Vietnamese could not get in anywhere. And any where the Vietnamese came, they always faced defeat. The Vietnamese only came to Laos in great number during Vang Pao’s time. That’s because Vang Pao was very bad in his approach. None of the Hmong military leaders who had been fighting against the Vietnamese from the beginning were retained by him. [Clearly people related to Vang Pao became officers and remained safe while everyone else died in battles or were demoted. Look at the list of colonels on the VP poster and see how many are relatives.] He only had new recruits, and then promoted them, so those who had the experience or the genuine interest just retired and watched. As long as they had a gun and some bullets to protect themselves, they were happy. They left everything to him.
GL: So the Vietnamese you killed at Nam Kong, that was before Dien Bien Phu?
Oh yes. That was in 1953. After that, the Vietnamese could not get into Laos, and they stopped coming. The road up to Kev Xyuam Yaj [the lookout point at the Vietnam-Laos border] was very steep, and it was well-guarded by Hmong soldiers, so the Vietnamese stopped using it, but they used Faydang’s Hmong to come into Laos from other places.
GL: Did Faydang and his followers flee to live in Vietnam by that time?
Yes, they did. Around that time they were all talking and signing agreements with each other. Anyway, the Faydang Hmong kept coming, and we went and ambushed them at Tsuam Meej.
GL: So the Hmong are killing other Hmong now?
Yes. That is how “dab” Faydang’s relatives were all dead. They came many, many times from Vietnam after they fled Laos. [NLL is related to Faydang. One of his cousins is married to Faydang’s sister, so he always refers to him as Brother-in-law (dab laug) Faydang.] They came many times into Laos, and many of them were killed because of that.
GL: So your brother-in-law Faydang never came to Laos? He only sent his men?
No, he never came himself. He only gave orders from Vietnam. He and his brother Nhia Vue only gave instructions from Vietnam for other Hmong to come and do things for them in Laos.
GL: Were there many Hmong working for Faydang who came to fight against you?
Yes, many of them. Tou Xai Chu [Thao Tou Yang] was their military leader.
[Vue Thao told GYL - VP went with some friends to rob a rich Lao merchant living inside Vietnam, not far from Nong Het. They took 30 silver bars from him. VP was very young, very daring and unbridled. The merchant complained to the French. VP’s relatives appealed to Touby for help, so he decided the best option was to send VP to an academy for military police, which is how he started on the road to French military school].
GL: How was Thao Tou Yang related to Faydang, and how did he rise to be the military leader?
He was Kiatong Bliayao’s sister’s son [Faydang’s cousin]. Because of that, he had always worked with Faydang, but he was almost too enthusiastic [gung ho] because he had guns in his hands. That’s how we killed of the Vietnamese in Nong Het, Tou Thao came with a group of Hmong. When they got to place called Tsua Tho [Broken Cliff, near a large Hmong village Tham Hit, most of them Yang, but related to Touby’s wife], the leader was [brother-in-law] Nchaiv Ntxhawg [Chai Yeu] Yang. So Thao Tou came there and recruited them, gave them military positions and stationed his men there in a barrack in Tham Hit. So we went to engage them in battle.
GL: Did they get their weapons from the Viet Minh?
Yes. In that village, there were many, many Hmong Yang, so they (Thao Tou’s group) gained many supporters, even though they were related to Touby by marriage . [Ties by marriage are weaker than those by clan]. That’s how the whole Hmong war started. So I say today, "Never believe anybody, even if they're related to you by marriage, even your very own brother-in-law, don't believe him. Like Uncle Suav Tuamís [one of Touby's old cousins] sons, Tong Va. He wanted to go that village and people said to him, "Just stay home." But he said, "Oh, they're all related to us. They're all in-laws. Why be afraid of them?" So people said to him, "Don't say that. They might kill you". So he said, "OK, I'll take two men with me, just to go visit them." And the two villages were just like from our house to your house [c. 1 mile apart]. But when he got halfway, at the top of the hill, they killed him. So Tong Va died like that. That's how his wife was re-married to Vam Kaim [the corrupt tasseng].
 For an account of Thao Tou Yang and the leaders of the Yang clan in the Nong Het area at that time, see “Warrior Thotou Yaxaychou and 52 Years of Gun Sounds from the Plain of Jars” by Kham Mee Naotoua Yang (Vientiane: Lao Writers Press, 2014). In Lao. Pp. 68-73.
Touby Lyfoung and his first wife of the Yang clan, in Vientiane in the 1960’s
Photo: courtesy of Choj Yaj Yangsao, a nephew of Touby now living in the USA.
So Touby’s group became very upset, because Tong Va was one of their military leaders. The Hmong at Tham Hit who supported Thao Tou and built a barrack on top of a hill, took all their wives and children there at night, and took them into the barrack to stay there. And at dawn, they would come down to their village, to their houses, to cook, so the French booby-trapped grenades in some of their houses. So at the first crow of the rooster, they came down to cook breakfast, the grenades were put under the grass that covered the roof. When the fire warmed the grass, they exploded. Many of them were killed: women, men, children. Then we went after them and had a three-day battle. They were routed, so they scattered in defeat. There were a few groups of us. Some came from one direction, another group from a different direction.
GL: What year was that?
It was before the Viet Minh came to Xieng Khouang Town in 1953. [Reference to 7,000 Vietnamese must have been in 1953: 4,000 who came and were killed in Nong Het was earlier]
GL: When was it that the Hmong-against-Hmong fighting occurred?
I can’t remember too well. A year or two before the Viet Minh came into Laos [c. 1950-51]. So we scattered them, and they took all their wives and children into Vietnam. They first went to Hong Thu before they went to Muong Sene. They stayed at Muong Sene, but many of their children became sick and died, and many wives were sick. Many husbands had also been killed in battle. So they were sent back to Laos. They were sent back to their old village at Tsua Tho. They went through a lot of hardship: no food, no money. So Touby, because they were related through one of his wives, went to bring them back. So Touby went to bring them over and marry off the widows to whoever could take them so they would have someone to support them. It took two years to marry off all the wives.
GL: How many families could be involved?
Oh, it must have been 100 or 200. So you can see I have seen all the good and the bad. All the wives were married off for free. They were very poor. Their husbands all died. There was no one to find food for them. They would rather have a husband in Laos than have to live in Vietnam [as a widow]. So they all got married. That’s how they escaped all the hardship. And that’s the beginning. After that, then we had the Vietnamese coming to make war with the French in 1953, and then the last civil war in 1961, and then Kong Le and Vang Pao’s war. When it came to the Kong Le war -
Before we talk about the Kong Le war in 1960, could you tell us about your personal life in the period after Dien Bien Phu when many Hmong in Vietnam on the French side, like Yang Dao’s father, escaped to Laos? What did you do at that time in 1954?
I stopped being in the military at the time when General Khamhu came to take over as Military Region II commander. Khamhu had a Vietnamese father and a Lao mother, so we saw him as the Vietnamese general. But Khamhu had leanings toward the Pathet Lao, and one of Touby’s sons called Va, also showed sympathies for the Pathet Lao. But we refused to show any support.
GL: What was Vang Pao by this time?
He finished his officer training school and was already a commanding officer in Battalion Number 10. He belonged to Battalion Number 10, but there were many other Lao officers, and they tried to kill Vang Pao. Vang Pao was the commanding officer to some of these Lao officers, and they didn’t like him for that, so they rebelled against him at the Plain of Jars. They wanted to kill him, and he fled to Lat Houang. Vang Pao and three or four other Hmong who were in the Lao Army with him, escaped to Lat Houang from the Plain of Jars. He went into hiding in the village of Dong Dane on the way to Xieng Khouang town. There were many Hmong living there at that time, including many of his wife’s relatives. So the Hmong leaders mobilized many Hmong with guns to go back to the Plain of Jars. There were no more French by that time.
The Hmong scared off the Lao military officers there, and arrested General Sinh and a few other high commanding officers who were all sent back to southern Laos. There were five or six of them, and the Hmong were treating them a little bit harshly, like kicking them, beating them up, even though they were very high-ranking. But this was not done by Vang Pao. They were all tied up and could not do anything to defend themselves, because their subordinates all ran away. They were all put back in one plane to go to southern Laos to General Phoumi (Nosavane) in Savannakhet. By that time, Touby was a deputy (in the Lao National Assembly) in Vientiane, and I became a police officer in Xieng Khouang Town. I owed this change to Chao Saykham . At that time, all the Hmong who used to serve as soldiers under the French were transferred into the Royal Lao Army . About a year or so after we returned from Dien Bien Phu (1955?), I was told to go to replace Major Anamay in Sam Neua. But Chao Saykham said to me, “Lee Lue, you have been one of my military leaders for more than ten years. But you only know how to read and write Lao. All those people in the army now know how to read and write French as well as Lao. You would not be able to write a telegraphic message or a letter in French. They would not like you. The best thing would be for me to transfer you to the provincial police.” So he sent me there. So the other Hmong police officers like Ly Ong or Tou Yia, and Hang Sao, they didn’t like me. I came from the military with my rank straight into the provincial police. I did not just come into it from school. I was given a pistol. They were jealous of me.
 He was the Governor of Xieng Khouang province and a friend of Touby and the Hmong people until 1975 when he escaped to France with his family as refugees.
 The Royal Lao Army was formed under the Franco-Lao General Convention of 19 July 1949, and “by the end of 1952 comprised seventeen companies, in addition to a battalion entirely commanded by Laotian officers.” (Laos: a country study. Ed. by A. M. Savada. Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1995. p. 31)
GL: Didn’t they also get pistols?
GL: How long were you in the police force?
Oh, many years. More than ten years, because even when I was with Vang Pao [after 1961], I was still paid through the police, and I received 16,800 kip a month for that.
GL: What did you do as a police officer?
Officially, I was in the police from 1956 to 1961, until the Kong Le War. But the Lao police officers they did not operate like Western police officers. You were supposed to help the people, and not cause trouble for people, like in a White society. You are supposed to stop people from doing bad things to other people, and to also deal with officials who are bad to people. You have to go and see these bad people and deal with them.
GL: Did you have to do any training?
Yes, we had to do training, but only in Xieng Khouang Town. They came and gave us training there: running, jumping over hurdles, carrying things, all sorts of physical training. Many people could not do the training, but I managed, because I had the experience in the military. I had jumped from aeroplanes and did many other things. All you needed was not to be afraid.
GL: I remember you going away for long periods when you were a police officer. What did you do?
Oh, we went to gather intelligence on the Vietnamese.
GL: But you were police officers.
The police had to do it, too. They were involved in that, too. We had to report on enemy activities. That’s why I went away so often. When the Kong Le War came, then the Vang Pao War, we became involved in the fighting.
GL: As police officers?
Yes. We had to join in the battles.
GL: So did you go to stop Kong Le at the Steel Bridge (Choj Hlau) that crosses the Nam Ngum River [before the road gets to the Plain of Jars]?
[In a famous episode there, Kong Le’s tanks and trucks came up at that bridge. Vang Pao was too busy romancing one of his future wives at Hmong New Year and was not there. He told his officers to take over, but they were overwhelmed. They had new artillery (from the CIA) that they didn’t know how to use, so they just abandoned post]
Yes, I did. But when we got there, we didn’t know how to fight with the new big gun. And I said, “maybe you have to out this powder in.” So we tried a few tricks, and we fired a few rounds. But by that time, it was too late. Kong Le already crossed the steel bridge. So we blew up two other bridges that crossed two little rivers further down the road, and then came back to try to find the big gun, as I said before. It was much later that we learned to fire this 106 [mm].
GL: Who brought this big gun to you, the French or the Americans?
The Americans. They had become a little involved by that stage. [CIA helped Phoumi Nosavan chase out Kong Le from Vientiane]
GL: When did the Americans come?
The year Kong Le seized power [1960?]. So we came back to Xieng Khouang, after our defeat by Kong Le. That’s why I sent you and your mother and the family to hide in the jungle in Khang Hong and I went to Naxang with the rest of the police force.
GL: You went there to hide or to go on to some other place?
We were planning to go to Savannakhet. When we got there [Naxan] the Americans came in two helicopters.
GL: Can you tell us in greater detail about this particular time of the war? So on the first of January, 1961, when Kong Le marched into Xieng Khoaung Town and my mother and our family went to hide north of the town and you and your police officers and Vang Pao and his soldiers all went south to Naxan, what really happened there? Did you march the whole night and then you reached Naxan?
All the people in the provincial administration [civilian government], all the people in the provincial public service: the police, the military [on the right wing side], the provincial governor [Chao Saykham], Touby and their families. All the wives, Touby's wives - were sent to Nasu, at the bottom of Pha Dong. A radio was given to Touby’s family. Touby was in Vientiane at that time. Only his wives and children were in Xieng Khouang Town. The day before Kong Le arrived, the Americans dropped a lot of parachutes, a lot of weapons for us in Xieng Khouang. We collected them, and we filled two rooms with them. But we just abandoned them when we went south.
GL: Why didn’t you give them away to your soldiers?
But everyone had their own guns already, so everybody would have had two. Guns were plentiful at this time. The idea was for us to use them to stop Kong, Le, but we couldn’t, so we just abandoned them.
GL: Why couldn’t you stop Kong Le? He didn’t have many soldiers.
We didn’t have the big guns, and Kong Le used a lot of the big guns. [GYL: I could remember them firing “Boom! Boom!” everywhere. They just fire them ahead to scare people]. Kong Le had 105 artillery, so we couldn’t resist.
GL: You were only very few. Was that right?
Oh, no. We had quite a number, about 5- or 600 Hmong soldiers.
GL: What about the Lao?
About four or five companies, all under Vang Pao, some under Phoumi. The Hmong said, “We should go and stop Kong Le at Dong Dane [c. 30 miles from XK Town on the way to the Plain of Jars], but the Lao didn’t want to. They refused. They said, “We would never win. We just have to run.” So Vang Pao agreed. So we escaped, starting from Si Som [a small village in the Dong Dane area]. At the beginning, we each had two rifles, two carbines. [GYL says they knew Kong Le was coming, but VP did not prepare. In that time Phoumi must have sent them weapons]. When we got to Si Som, we hid the second gun in the jungle and only had one each on our shoulders. We walked for a whole night and a whole day. We went to [the region of] Tha Vieng [going south]. When we got there, the Americans came. Then the Americans came at Naxan. [That’s past Tha Vieng]
GL: Why did the Americans come? Why did they stop you there?
They came in two helicopters. There were only six or seven people. And they said we should not run away; we should resist. Vang Pao told them no, we could not resist. The Americans said, “We will bring ammunition and weapons to you right away.” So they brought 106s, four or five of them, at Naxan. They levelled [by hand] the retaining walls of the rice terraces to make an air strip. So we decided to stay put at Naxan. When we got the airstrip constructed, two- winged airplanes, one big one and one yellow one, landed. The yellow [small] one came first. After the small plane came, they asked if anybody could go in the small plane to drop leaflets to those [on our side] who were in other areas. But nobody wanted to go. So I said to Vang Pao, “If I go and I’m shot down, will you look after my wife and children?” Anyway, I asked him, “Where did they print the leaflets, and what was printed on them?” He said he didn’t know where they came from; they just came in big bundles. And the message was to resist Kong Le, not to give in to Kong Le.
GL: Who was the pilot? Was him American?
No, it was only Lao pilot, and the plane was very old. The pilot had to push something on the side forward when they had to lift off, and then push it backward for it to come down. After I volunteered, they showed me how to fall off the plane should they crash, so that we wouldn’t get burned. When we got to Muong Phan, we met with a small black plane from Kong Le’s side. [Cargo planes from the USSR were readily available to Kong Le to bring supplies]. And I asked him what it was doing. Also dropping leaflets! The pilot told me (I was sitting in the back manning the machine gun) not to fire unless we were fired at, but I said, “Just keep dropping leaflets”, so that’s what we did. Nothing happened. But when we got nearer to Xieng Khouang Town, we saw many more planes. We dropped leaflets to Tha Ling [Monkey Cave], to Kiao Kacham [on the way to Luang Prabang], and to Phu Chia before we came back to land. We were very lucky, because we were told that they shot down two American planes in the Plain of Jars by that time.
The second time, I was asked to go and drop pay to Hmong soldiers in the Nong Het area, and we also had five bags of rice in a bigger plane, the kind of plane that crashed at Pha Dong. It was a bigger plane, and it was piloted by a black American person. They gave me 200,000 kip. They used two bars of steel attached to the plastic bag, and put that under a small parachute. When we got there, we made a large turn [circle] and saw lots of Kong Le’s soldiers on the ground. They were actually Vietnamese. They seemed to be on every mountain top. I radioed our men [on the ground] and said, “Where are you? What is your position?” They said, “Oh, we are only down on the flat area where there is a school.” Everywhere else there were enemy soldiers. “Oh, there are enemy soldiers everywhere! It looks like you will be attacked very soon.” So I dropped the pay attached to two small parachutes, and after I saw that they came to collect the parcel, I then dropped the bags of rice. I dropped three bags first. On our second pass to drop the last two bags, we were fired at. We were fired at! I didn’t know any English words! I only knew a few French words. So I told the pilot [in French] “anamite feu!” [Enemy fire! or Fire from the Vietnamese]. The pilot turned the plane so suddenly that I hit my head on the canopy of the plane! We went so fast that we suddenly came to Pak Kha. But the pilot turned back. Maybe he wanted to go and have another look. When we went back there, there was fighting on the ground. Dust was swirling everywhere. Then we saw our soldiers running in all directions, some in one column towards Pak Kha.
GL: Who was their commander?
Major [later Colonel] Soua Yang [who just died in France. GYL says SY sent a cassette excoriating him “for living off the backs of poor Hmong refugees” ] and Major Junh [a Lao commander]. There was a battalion of them originally stationed at Nong Het, but they were on the move, trying to join up with Vang Pao. They were trying to get to Tham Ling, but they didn’t quite get there yet. They only arrived at the Khmu tasseng area. They were trying to catch up to Naxan.
GL: Did many of them die?
No, because the enemy only fired big guns at them. That’s why there was all that dust. Most of them arrived at Pak Kha. We came back, and the next day another plane came.
GL: Where did they come from? Savannakhet or Vientiane?
I have no idea. They just arrived.
GL: Did a plane come each day? Did it come just to service Vang Pao?
Yes, each day a plane came, different size, not the same one all the time.
GL: Did anybody else go in the plane?
Well, they tried to find other people, but they couldn’t find anyone willing to go, so most of the time I went. One time Vang Pao told Faydang (but this Faydang is Faydang Thao) to go, and Vang Pao gave him his own coat. But Faydang was shaking with fear, so Vang Pao just threw him on the ground, so I had to go again. And then on that day we hit a Lao woman on the air strip, and she died.
GL: You didn’t tell us this before. Can you tell us more?
On this third trip, people were not allowed on the air strip, and everybody knew. This Lao woman just starting walking toward the southern end of the air strip to go to a village at the other end. We didn’t see her; we just came up on her suddenly and couldn’t stop. And I thought, “This is the end for us. We will die as well.” The plane hit the woman and just started climbing. If it couldn’t climb, we would have been dead in the ditch.
GL: Who was the pilot that day?
The black American. We just continued and dropped leaflets to major Junh’s soldiers in Pak Kha.
GL: Did you turn back to have a look at the dead Lao woman?
No! We just continued on. We had our job to do. We were only told more about her after we came back. And Vang Pao said, “It was good that you didn’t die, and only her.” So thank God for that. The woman’s husband came to ask me why we hit his wife. And I told him to go and read the sign. The sign said nobody was allowed to cross the air strip. So if you died, nothing could be done. And anyway, a lot of Lao peasants could not read. If you want to complain, it might not be well-received.
GL: What else did you do at Naxan?
After that, more and more planes came and went to do their own work in different directions. Other people went, so I didn’t have to go so often. Then Vang Pao told me to take Ly Ong, Tou Gia, Faydang [Thao], and Vai [Lee] to go back to Phou Khae [overlooking the road between Xieng Khouang and the Plain of Jars] to be with Lue Vang and “radioed me information on enemy movements and gave a report to me of how many of Kong Le’s vehicles passed through on the way to us here”, he said. So we walked back and when we got to Bor Aung, where the road split in two, we heard Kong Le’s soldiers attacking Naxan [with artillery guns]. [Was Naxan attacked or did VP abandon it for a better location?] Vang Pao’s people scattered.
GL: Why did Vang Pao always lose to Kong Le?
Because the Lao didn’t help the Hmong. It was mostly just the Hmong receiving the brunt of things. So when they abandoned Naxan, they went to Muong Cha. So the chief of the police, Major Mun, decided not to go with Vang Pao, but to go to Vientiane, because he was originally from Vientiane. He took with him about 200 of his police officers. Vang Pao could not stop him, but Thit Boun Thong [the deputy police chief] stayed on with Vang Pao, because he was a Xiang Khouang man. When Major Mun and his men got to Na Phu, the Hmong from Pha Lavae, who sided with the Pathet Lao, ambushed them and killed them. They arrested them and shot them, including their families, at least 180 people. Only two escaped. The attackers are Pathet Lao Hmong. I knew this, because when I met up with Mrs. Mun in Vientiane a few years later, she told me and cried a lot. [Mr. Lee was very close to this couple.] If he had joined Vang Pao, he might have survived. The two who escaped were Major Mun’s nephews, who were just 13, 14 years old, and who were only like carriers for their uncle. When the Hmong arrested them, they let them go because they were only young men and were not actual police. There were many sergeants and four or five lieutenants. They all died. Many of the police officers who were in Xieng Khouang with us actually came from Vientiane, most of the superior officers. So the [Xiang Khouang] provincial police force ceased to exist, and I then went in to join the military again. So when we got to Phu Khe [as ordered by VP], I put the men that came with me in the hands of Lue Vang.
GL: Who is this Lue Vang?
Oh, he was a captain in the Lao army stationed in that area with his troops. He had barracks there. For some reason Kong Le didn’t come to attack him. That’s when I came and got you and your mother and brother and the whole family [from your hiding place in Khang Hong]. We then went to Na Mone, and we just slowly, slowly moved to make our way to Pa Dong. [GL: Pa Dong was Vang Pao’s headquarters at the time. It took about 2-3 months for us to get there because we were waiting to see if Vang Pao could re-take Xieng Khouang town, but this did not happen].
GL: What happened to you after we got to Pa Dong?
I was with the military people there.
GL: Why did Vang Pao abandon Pa Dong (about a week after we arrived there)?
I was not one of those who said we should abandon Pa Dong. I said we should stay. [Kong Le could never actually reach it, but often sent up artillery fire. There were rumours that Kong Le had the place surrounded]. Well, the enemy fired a lot of 105 and 107 guns at us.
GL: Were you outnumbered? Were the enemy soldiers actually there?
No, there were not many of them at all. There were not many enemy soldiers on the ground, but they kept firing these big guns at us non-stop. We built good bunkers and suffered very few casualties.
GL: Why did you run away then?
Well, you know Vang Pao only liked liars. By that time, Soua Yang was at Pa Dong with his soldiers. He and his soldiers were stationed on top of some place called Ban Sue. And he just abandoned his post without even seeing a single enemy soldier. I was at the headquarters with Colonel Chansom and we were given orders to abandon at all costs. There were five or six other Lao army officers there with us. They all ran away, even Chansom, so I had to go as well. I told the Hmong who stayed on to be careful, and to look out for mines. “Don’t step on them, so you can survive and return to your wives and children”, I said to them. So I came away with some other Hmong soldiers and when we got over the hill, one of them stepped on a mine that was laid there by Lee Cha and his soldiers. It didn’t kill anybody, but one piece of shrapnel hit Pao Vang on the head, and he became unconscious. There were 10 of us, so I asked the eight others to carry him up the steep mountainside. But after a while, he became too heavy for them, and they said, “We should just leave him on the side of the trail.” And I said, “No we must take him with us no matter what, because he is a relative of Vang Pao. Vang Pao would not like it if he found out.” But they refused. So when we came to Pha Hai, Vang Pao came to us in a helicopter. We told him, and he screamed at me. I said, “I was only one. There were eight of them, and they refused to carry him.” So Vang Pao gave each of them two kicks and insisted they go back to get the wounded man. And they had to go all the way back, nearly to Pa Dong. And that’s how we knew that the enemy didn’t come to Pa Dong at all, because when they got there, there were no enemy soldiers anywhere, and we were just told to abandon because of the heavy guns. So we just abandoned it without there being any enemy soldiers, or because Soua Yang lied to Vang Pao that they were overrun at his abandoned post.
GL: So what did Soua Yang tell Vang Pao?
Soua Yang said that the enemy overran his barracks, burned everything, and when he got to Nao Cha Lee’s barracks, he told Nao Cha the same thing [before he got to Vang Pao], and Nao Cha just used his big 106 gun to fire a few rounds at this supposed enemy who took over Soua Yang’s post. And he even told Vang Pao that the enemy soldiers have started to surround Nao Cha’s post So Nao Cha just abandoned his post as well, even though the enemy never showed up. About ten days later they went back to the area, and there was not a single enemy soldier anywhere. And there was not a single person at Pa Dong, either. So they went back to Pa Dong and established a military post there again, but just a little one. And they established their bigger headquarters in Pha Khao.
GL: Then what did you do after that?
I used to be in Battalion Number 21, but in 1963, I was transferred to Battalion 24, and was sent to Pak Kha. I was there for two years, with Colonel Neng Chu Thao. And Neng Chu arrived. He was the commander of Battalion 21, so I went to see him and asked to be transferred to Battalion 24, because in the two, three years I was under him, I never received a single pay, and I asked him, “Why? What did you do with my pay?” And he said “I just only received one month. I don’t know what happened to the rest.” [To this day he accuses his former wife of stealing it.] But Neng Chu told me that he didn’t know anything about my pay. I was not too happy, so I went to see Vang Pao. Vang Pao asked me if I wanted to make a formal complaint, and if Vang Pao found that Neng Chu stole my pay, he would put Neng Chu in jail. If my wife got my pay, he would put my wife in jail. He told me to go back home and think about it carefully. So I gave it a good thought, and I decided that all together I was supposed to have received 680,000 kip. But if I get that money and my wife was put in jail, or Neng Chu was put in jail, what would be the point?
GL: Did you know that my mother actually got your pay? Who signed it over to her?
Oh, your brother-in-law [Vu Thao] signed for it for some, and Lee Ong for others.
GL: So when you went to Pak Kha, you didn’t receive any pay? How did you survive?
Well, I did some trading to get money.
GL: And that’s how you married a new wife? At that time?
GL: What did you do at Pak Kha?
I was in charge of the Second Bureau.
GL: What did the Second Bureau do?
Gathering news and intelligence. I was responsible for handing out news for the Battalion and also getting information for them. Most of the soldiers were new recruits from the area and didn’t know anything about war or the army, including Yang Toua and Yang Chao. [These were college-educated young Hmong who just finished school and then the war came and they were stuck in their village. They were recruited into the army on account of their education. They later were promoted to colonel]. They don’t seem to know much about enemy movements. So the enemy came and fired at them, and I went there. So I had to report to them on enemy movements.
GL: Who are these enemies? Kong Le or Vietnamese?
By this time, only Vietnamese.
GL: What year was that?
1964. We established out barracks on top of a rocky mountain near Pak Kha. The Vietnamese came at us, and we sent four soldiers with four MAT-49s [a French rapid-fire gun that fires 30 rounds] to ambush the Vietnamese at a very narrow pass. When the Vietnamese got there, they were talking among ourselves to say “oum ba" [Vietnamese for “to kill”] And it happened that there were only four Vietnamese, too, and we thought there would be many more to follow. They didn’t see the four Hmong soldiers down there, but they were looking up at the barracks and aiming up there. So we four Hmong soldiers just fired at them and cut them down. We then sent some soldiers to run back to the Hmong village at Pak Kha to see if there were more Vietnamese there, and we saw a group of Pathet Lao Hmong who came with the Vietnamese. The soldiers we sent numbered 15 and they had a machine gun with them. But the Pathet Lao Hmong were exhausted when they arrived at our village, and were thirsty, so they were looking for water to drink. They were just putting down their backpacks in a Hmong house, in tasseng Xai Chue’s house and they were all crowding around a bucket of water, so our soldiers just mowed them down. They all died, but they never buried them. All the village people had run away. But the domestic animals were still in the village, so these dead men were just consumed by the pigs. So the pigs ate them all. That’s why I say, “Pigs are really bad.” They not only eat the flesh, but they crunch all the bones as well. Only little bits of bones were left. They’re really dirty pigs. I’ve never seen anything like that. When we abandoned our post at Phak Kha Noi [Small Phak Kha] we booby-trapped four or five [land mines that jump up to your waist before they explode] and another group of Pathet Lao Hmong came, a whole company. Some of these Pathet Lao Hmong discovered these mines, but they said, “Let’s go into the bunkers and then we’ll pull the trigger and see how they explode.” But these mines didn’t send shrapnel out, they send them down, and killed six of them, including two of their leaders. So they stopped playing with these bombs and just went back. These Pathet Lao Hmong came from Tham Thao, a two days’ walk from Pak Kha.
GL: Can you tell us something about the assassination of the Hmong commander Tong Chao (Lee Nao Lue) by two of his soldiers? What’s the story there?
This is how it went. Tong Chao was the battalion commander, Battalion 24, and I was helping him. He said I was his deputy. Tong Chao was young, very quick-tempered, and depended a lot on me. About a month after he arrived there, he asked his relatives to come, including Jua Pao, Tua Feng, Va Sao, Va Kay. They all came and stayed. He was a major. He was an officer with full training from the Lao military, not one of Vag Pao’s CIA instant soldiers [though his sister was married to Vang Pao]. I couldn’t argue with him, either. When he brought those relatives of his over, he didn’t tell me. He put Va Kay in charge of a company that used to be under Her Cha and Her Doua. He put Va Sao in charge of Company Number Two. Then he sent the soldiers to war, keeping his relatives [“the commanders”] safely behind. And he sent them [the soldiers] to a village called Pha Khao, and to a Lao village called Sanai. Some of the soldiers came to him [Tong Chao] and said, “You have given the company command to your relatives, and they should be the ones that go to war with these soldiers.” But he refused to listen. He told Her Cha and Her Doua to go. And Va Sao, who now commanded Company Number 2 didn’t go either, but the soldiers had to go. But the Company made no complaint. Her Tou and Her Doua came to see him with Vang Cha and a soldier called Punh. This Punh was Khmu, and he was not guilty of anything. He just happened to come there at that time. They said to him, “Commander, you have given command to new people, and they should go, not us. Va Kay should go with his soldiers”, Her Cha said that. Her Cha just finished saying this when Tong Chao slapped him on the mouth. And he said to them, “You used to be in command. Why can’t you go?” They replied immediately, “You have changed command. You have given command to Va Kay. Va Kay should go. You should tell Va Kay to go.” Tong Chao then said, “You want to talk some more?” [A less-than veiled threat] Her Cha’s assistant, who was carrying a pistol, pulled out his gun and shot Tong Chao in the stomach. Maybe they had it all planned before coming. They both rushed outside [Her Cha and his assistant]. They just made that one shot. Since then, I have felt very hurt [disenchanted?], even if you are very closely related to a person, because people have no trust, don’t believe in each other. Our barracks were on top of the village, but our office was in a house in the village, and Tong Chao and I worked in there. The village was quite big, and at that moment, a lot of Hmong women seemed to be walking around. So I grabbed a gun and tried to shoot at these two, but there were people in the way. When you got them in sight, some women seemed to just come in between, so I couldn’t shoot, and they escaped.
GL: These two, did they also live in the village?
GL: Were they Green Hmong?
Yes. [Tong Chao was White Hmong] I ran to the house at the bottom of the village where they disappeared, and I asked the people there, “Did they come in here?” They said, “No! We didn’t see them!” I had one look inside the bedroom, but I didn’t pull back the curtain. If I had, they [the two men hiding behind the curtain] would have killed me. I just came back and called the whole company to come forward, and I asked each soldier to surrender his gun, because they might come to the headquarters and cause trouble. I got 68 guns altogether. I got down all their gun serial numbers and put them away.
GL: Were they in full military uniform?
Yes, all dressed up in green. I came home. Then I went to see Tong Chao in his office, and he was dead. And I asked, “From one single shot?” And they said, “Yes, it went through his body and through his back.”
GL: Well, what about his relatives who were the cause of all this trouble?
They were all there, but they couldn’t do anything. They were just shaking with fear. So I scolded them and asked them to take his body to the air strip [to be returned to his family]. We then immediately called for a plane to come and get him to give him a funeral at Long Cheng. His body was accompanied by his youngest wife, who is a cousin of your mother. Villagers were forced to hand over young women to soldiers who wanted them as their wives. After his body was taken away, I didn’t want to stay on anymore. I wanted to come home, too, because I was feeling very hurt and depressed.
I didn’t have any close relatives there. Anybody could do anything to me, and nobody would care. So Nhia Dang Kue, who had also been to Long Cheng with Tong Chao before, said to me, “If you went back to Long Cheng, then we are finished here in Pak Kha. We will be split into different factions. So it would be better if you stayed, and to see where those other two have escaped to.” I thought about it, and I radioed Ly Tou Pao [Vang Pao’s chief of staff and Tong Chao’s older brother]. I told him, “Thong Chao’s money is in a box here He has 200,000 kip there. If you agree, I will use this money as a reward for the men who killed him,” because they had run away to their relatives near Phonsavan by that time. [Phak Kha was near the Vietnamese border] . If you don’t agree, I will just send you the money and everything is finished.” Tou Pao said, “Yes, do it. Take it to Naikong Sia Chue and ask him to announce the reward.” So I took it to him. So we radioed the announcement all around. Then, I managed to talk to them on the radio and I told them that a person’s life only costs 30,000 [kip]. So if you come back and can get this 200,000 and you use that to pay for Tong Chao’s life, you would be spared. But they were naive. Six days later they came back and resumed their normal lives as if nothing happened, and they just led a normal life for two months with their soldiers.
GL: Were you there still all that time?
Yes, I was there, because I was trying to get them arrested. After two months, General Khamkhong [from Paksane, training HQ for Region 2] came with four small planes to get Her Tou, Her Chai, and Her Doua. So Khamkhong came and said, “I am Vang Pao’s superior, and I don’t want you to fall into Vang Pao’s hands. I will take you with me to protect you.” The plane could only carry eight people. When they got to Paksane, they were surrounded by soldiers with guns in hand, who just tied them up. They were told to surrender their guns [sidearms] and were put outside for the mosquitoes to bite them all night long. They were tied up under a house in the open. The next day they were told to get into a plane going to Long Cheng. So they put them in the plane to come to Long Cheng. When they arrived at the airport, Ly Tou Pao’s family didn’t bother with law and order. They killed Her Cha and his assistant, and also the Khmu, Phunh, even though he had nothing to do with the murder. As soon as he got down from the plane, the members of Ly Tou Pao’s family bashed Va Tou to death. They trampled on him, all his bones were broken.
GL: Who were they?
All the Lee related to that family. Vang Pao said, “He had committed a crime, so it doesn’t matter that they killed him.” So they took Her Cha. The person they bashed to death is the one that did the shooting. So the two, Her Cha and Punh, they imprisoned them in a hole. At first they gave them food in the hole near the cliff at Long Cheng airport. They gave them food for about a month, then let them starve and left them to their own devices. So they ate the parachute that was used as a mosquito net for them, bit by bit. They still didn’t die. They were starving and just had the bones on their body. Then they died inside the hole. That’s the end of that story.
GL: Why did they put Punh in prison if he was not involved?
Oh, you know, those Hmong Lee from Nong Het, they were not easy people. A long time ago, when they had a lot of power, you never wanted to make a complaint to them about anything. You couldn’t say a word.
GL: Where else did you go after those two were put in the hole? Did you come back to Long Cheng?
Yes, I did. I didn’t stay in Pak Kha anymore.
GL: And then did you go to live in Sam Thong? What were you doing in Sam Thong?
Oh, I was nearing the end of my service, so most people like me were put to work in Sam Thong doing office work. I was told to apply for retirement, and they would pay me half my salary: 8,000 kip a month. After about two years, I got my retirement approved, and I got out [c. 1968]. After Sam Thong was overrun, we went to Muong Pheng. We went to Muong Pheng, and then we went to live in Phak Khe, [near Long Cheng] and I went to live in the bamboo village for about four, five years, just farming. Yeah, I was just a farmer then, growing rice, growing corn until 1975. In 1975, everybody was running in different directions, leaving Phak Khe empty. And Colonel Jua Va Lee [the only colonel in the Royal Lao Army who was a real colonel] told me to come up to the road from the village with my bags and he would take me to Vientiane to escape to Thailand with the other Hmong people. No one Lee should stay behind.
GL: Touby said no one should leave. Why did you want to leave?
I will tell you. When Jua Va arrived, his car was too full for us to get on, so we could not leave with them. We decided to stay. Now Lyteck went with Kham Kho -
GL: Who is Kham Ko?
A colonel from the Pathet Lao army who was working in the area after VP left. So, anyway, we were then called to go to Phak Khe, the settlement joining Long Cheng and Ban Sone, so we could listen to Touby. He was going to come and give a speech there.
GL: But Uncle Touby did not want anyone to leave. Why did you and others want to leave?
Well, everybody was leaving, but there were still a lot of people who did not leave. Anyway, we were told to go to Pha Khe where Touby was to give us a talk, it does not matter how many of us. So, we all went there. But I tell you, when your time is up, there is nothing you can do. Anything can happen to you. Touby came with Kham Ko to speak to us. After Touby finished his speech, a group of young people ranging from 10 to 12 years of age stood up and mocked him. They spat at him, made lewd gestures and showed all sorts of other rude behaviour. I don’t know if they had been coached by their parents. Before this Uncle Touby, whatever he said was believed and respected by every one. So I said to him, “Big Brother Phagna, you came to talk to us today, that was good and we would not run away. But what these kids did to you showed how little regard people now have for you. It would be best if you leave this place.”
GL: Did he try to do anything about these kids?
Nothing. He did not do anything. He just stood there.
GL: What about Lyteck? Was he there?
Yes, he also came.
GL: And Yang Dao?
No, he was not there. He had not come yet. Anyway, I said to Uncle Touby that he should not come and talk to the Hmong anymore and if he kept coming, something bad would happen. I already heard that they were going to kill Phagna (another name used for Touby, his Lao title meaning Sir or Lord) and Lyteck.
GL: Who would want to kill them?
The Lo clan people (on the Chao Fa side). So I ordered some rice noodle for him and his party, and asked that he never returned there, because if he came again the Chao Fa might really carry out their threat.
GL: Were there many Chao Fa around already at that time (April or May 1975)?
Yes, many had rounds of ammunition all hanging around their waist and walking around openly to display them. They were in Pha Khe, and used to work with VP, these were not the Lao people on the Pathet Lao/Faydang side. Touby said “That’s what you really think? You may be right but we shouldn’t be afraid”. I said to him “No, it’s real, no bluffing. This time your life is spared, but maybe not next time, so don’t come anymore. Just one or two you came. Who would be afraid of you?“
GL: Did they come by car?
No, they came by plane. Touby and his small party then departed. After they had left, two of the sons of Thaotou (Yang, the PL Hmong military chief) came. One of them was General Paseut (the Hmong commander of the Pathet Lao Kong Pachay battalion). He came with many of his relatives. They came and stayed for two nights. On the second night, the Chao Fa Hmong Lo lay bombs next to the house where they stayed and killed them. One bomb was laid on the northern side of the house, the other on the eastern side. The people inside the house were about to have dinner when both bombs went off and they all died. Paseut died there, and they (the Pathet Lao) were not happy. They took his body to the air strip to be taken back home. But they also wanted us to go and have a look at him. So many of us went, and some even cried when they saw the bodies.
GL: How many were killed by the bombs?
12 people, all Pathet Lao Hmong military officers and soldiers. After the bodies were flown back to Vientiane, the Chao Fa were not happy with us.
Two reasons: one was that we went to see the bodies of dead PL Hmong. The second reason was that we went to listen to Touby. So we were very edgy about the situation. We decided to leave. It was rice harvest time, so we told the local officials that we wanted to go to the fields and harvest our rice. We had a horse and used it to transport some of our family possessions. My family and four other families went to to Pha Meng (Pham Meeb).
GL: Where is Pha Meng?
Near Pha Hoei, not far from Pha Khe. When we arrived there, they would not let us go back. We know the villagers there and they said it would be safer for us to stay with them. These were Chao Fa followers. We told them we would like to go and take our families to stay at Pha Leng (Pham Leem) first, then return to help them fight against the Pathet Lao (PL) at Pha Meng. So we crossed the Nam Ngum river and asked some in-law relatives to row us on some rafts across the river. We went to Pha Leng, near Pongtha (Poos Tha) just west of from Long Cheng towards Vang Vieng (as the crow flies). We stayed there for one rice season. We helped our in-law relatives to harvest rice and were able to get a lot of rice, so we stayed on. After a while Ga Ge (Nkaj Zeb), Sia Tu (Txhiaj Tub) and Sai Heu (Xaiv Hawj) joined the Chao Fa and started fighting against the new Lao government. So they came to get me, and we went to stay with them at Pha Phai (Pham Phais). We had many skirmishes with the PL soldiers who came from Na Sou on their way to Nam Long (Naj Loom) along the dirt road there. Anyway, they often sustained casualties, but there was no hospital or medicine. The wounds became infected with puss. I said to them that this was no good, they had to wash the wounds and used herbs on them, so we boiled water and washed the wounds. I gave them leaves from a plant called “Rawm” to put on the wounds. At first they did not believe me, but I said they should give it a try. So they tried, and the wound became healed. Then, they wanted me to stay on and give herbs to their wounded men. That was how I stayed on there.
GL: The Chao Fa, they still had guns and ammunition at that time?
Yes, they had what they were given from the old days under Vang Pao. The Lao attacked the Hmong wherever the Hmong showed up or could be found. One day, they went to attack the Lao at Na Sou, including the sons of both the first and second wives of Sia Tu (Txhiaj Tub). The Lao all fled, leaving behind a blacksmith forge. Near its nozzle, the Lao had hidden 15 bars of silver money under a pile of char coal. It was seen by a young boy who told Vaj, one of Sia Tou’s sons, but the latter took all of them and did not share with the boy. They had a dispute over the money, and Vaj was judged to be in the wrong. So the money was divided between the two of them. Sia Tou and his sons became unhappy and moved back all the way to Phu Bia, to be with other Chao Fa people. That was the beginning of the scattering of the Chao Fa in our area. After Sia Tou and his sons has left, another Hmong of the Lee clan became the resistance leader for us. He came to marry a very young Hmong girl, 10 year old. I said to him “stop, do not marry one so young”.
GL: How old was he: 30, 40?
Oh! More than that. Anyway, he would not listen to me. He told me not to put my nose in his business. He liked the girl and he had already made up his mind to marry her. So I thought “well, maybe it is better to leave things alone”. After 6 days of marriage, the girl refused to stay with him. So, the husband forced the parents and the girl to make her stay with him, to continue with the marriage. Otherwise, he would kill them all.
GL: But he was a Cha Fa leader and he used force on people?
Yes. But I told them that if the girl was not willing, they should divorce. So she divorced him. That hurt his pride and he took his family back to Phu Bia as well. So there were no Chao Fa left in Pha Phay. He joined about 200 others on their way back to Phu Bia. When they got to Jua Khi mountain, Lao soldiers fired mortar at them and killed 5-6 people. We decided to leave for Phu Bia, as well, but we were with another group and did not follow their route. We went through Nam Yenh and onto Phu Faimai where we stayed for 2 or 3 years.
GL: Lao soldiers did not come and harass you?
Yes. The people there were mostly of the Lee clan. The Lao and Vietnamese troops came to attack us 2-3 times, but we stayed put. So they decided to attacked from the East and managed to rout the Hmong living at Tia Nhu Qu (Wild Ox Plain). After that, they just called us together and we surrendered.
GL: How did they call you?
They sent messengers to every settlement. They distributed leaflets and gave us talks.
GL: What was in the leaflets?
They said that if we surrendered, they would not kill us and there would be no punishment. Everyone would just be allowed to go and make a living in any way within the law. Just so long as we agreed to be law-abiding citizens. So we gave ourselves up to the Lao authorities. Lots of us. There must be more than 100 families. One person in front carried a white flag.
GL: Was that a surrender flag?
Yes, a Hmong flag with strip of red and green material on either side. So we gave them the flag and surrendered and were taken to live in Tia Nhu Qu (Wild Ox Plain) under the Lao. Many Lao and Vietnamese soldiers came to supervise the area.
GL: Was it Lao or Vietnamese soldiers?
Mostly Vietnamese. Many, many of them. The Lao brought a lot of rice for the soldiers and for us. They had two granaries or rice in our area, but they only distributed enough rice to last one day and one night not more. So we went to stay there. After a few months, they asked us to move to Thong Ha (Five Plains). Uncle No Pao’s son. I don’t remember his name now, he was the Tasseng (canton chief) for us. Neng Yia, that’s his name. He was told to come and get us to go and stay in his village. He sponsored all the Lee families to go to his village.
GL: What about people from other clans?
Other clan leaders accepted them. So we went to line at Thong Ha.
GL: Where is Thong Ha?
Upstream of the Nam Mo river between Pha Khe and Muong Cha. It was very good for rice growing, and Vang Pao built 50 houses for the Hmong to settle there during his time. It was good for cattle grazing as well. From there, Fay Yia and Tong Yer came to get us to go and stray with them at Pha Ngonh.
GL: How many families?
4-5 families of us. Uncle Song Yer, Nyia Koua, Uncle Xai Shua and Uncle Jia Va, all closely related families. So we went to live in Pha Ngonh, and this happened. Nao Yee, the Tasseng at Pha Ngonh, was one of our nephews, and he asked me to help him resolve a number of community disputes because I used to be a Tasseng. We came to know each other well, and he obtained written permission from the Chao Muong (district governor) for me to take 20 people to go and visit Na Yao, a Hmong settlement in the lowlands near the Mekong River. There were about 4-5 families with my own. When we got to Tha Lat, we paid for taxis to take us to Muong Phuong ñ it was still cheap then, about 1500 kips per family. When we got to a Hmong village called Nam Pong, we asked if we could spend the night there. The Lao agreed and we stayed at Nam Pong. Once there, Blia Neng (the head of one of the families coming with us) said we should not go to Na Yao, but should go to Dong Jai (Roob Ncaib, a big mountain range south of Luang Prabang). It took us two days on foot to get there. We grew crops and lived at Dong Jai for four years.
GL: Was it then that you managed to make contact with us in Australia?
No, it was before that, while I was living at Pha Ngonh. I went to seek information on your address from Xa Yua Chao and his brothers Pa Ying and Chong Teng (relatives of Lyteck Lynhiavue) in K52 Village. For some reasons, they had your address in Australia, so I wrote to you and you were able to send me money.
GL: After you moved to Dong Jai, did you come to Vientiane regularly?
Yes, about once every two months to send letters to you and your brothers (who had gone to resettle in Australia since 1976). Anyway, after 4 years at Dong Jai, we got permission to move to K52. Only my own family this time. By then, we had problems with the relatives who used to be with us. When we were at Dong Jai, they had people coming over from the refugee camps in Thailand to get them and escape to Thailand. But they did not even let us know. When we learned about it, they all had gone, except 4 other families in our clan group too poor or too insignificant to be allowed to join their escape (you had to have money to pay the Thai to get you across the Mekong river). Anyway, after we got to K52, we bought rice and other necessities and we went on to Na Yao. I was given written travel permit from the Lao police at K52, so we did not have trouble getting past police check points along the way. They just countersigned on the permit and let us go. After we arrived at Na Yao, we settled there and were looking for rice fields to clear. We grew one season of crop, rice and corn. The corn plants were already flowering. The area was all virgin forests and very good for cultivation.
One day, we decided to escape to Thailand. There were 300 of us, and we paid 1500 kips to the local Hmong police officer so he would not interfere with our plan. He was very good. He even came with us to show the way to Thailand. We walked through the jungle for hours, and arrived at Phu Chong Kong from where we crossed the Mekong into Ban Vinai refugee camp, Thailand. That was in 1986.
GL: All 300 of you arrived safely?
Yes, all were safe. We had to pay some Lao guides to come with us but there were no Hmong from the refugee camp to show us the way.
GL: Before this successful escape, you tried once before but were arrested by the Lao authorities? When was that?
Yes. That was after you visited Thailand in 1978. You left one of your photos with your mother’s cousin, Pa Xee Yang. He contacted a Lao man while in the refugee camp in Thailand to search for me to get my family and me to escape to Thailand. He would get paid with the money that you left with your Uncle Pa Xee. This Lao man said that he knew us and came to K52 with our photos. He eventually found us living in K52, and he said he had already arranged with Lao officials to let us escape. There was another Hmong family that came with us. We were taken in a small truck by two Lao police officers upstream along the Mekong river from Vientiane city. They left us near a Lao village called Ban On just across the river from Thailand. The Lao man left us in a clearing, and the truck returned to Vientiane. He said he would come back to work on his field in the late afternoon, and would bring his boat to get us across the Mekong to Thailand. But he never came back to us. We learned that he got arrested by the local Lao officials, and he told them that were hiding in the forest nearby. By dawn the next day, three Lao men and two women came to call us to the village. We were taken to the house of the village chief, and to this day I have been so unhappy with the Lao people there. We were very thirsty, and we begged them for water to drink, but they gave dirty water contaminated with little water bugs.
We were made to wait a whole day, and in the evening some village militia came to take us to the Chao Muong or district governor of Kao Liao (north of Vientiane city). The Chao Muong interrogated us for our story. We told them that a Lao came to entice us to escape to Thailand, so they brought the Lao man to us (they already took him there ahead of us), and asked if it was this man. We said yes. They detained us at Kao Liao for two days in the local detention centre, then sent us on to a prison at Sikhay in Vientiane city. We stayed at Sikhay for 3-4 days, then were transferred to the big prison at That Dam where we remained for a month. After that, they sent us to a prison in Muong Kao near Phon Haung in the countryside.
GL: Why did they imprison you? What was your crime?
They never said. At Muong Kao, we were not really like in a prison. We were under guards but they made us weave baskets and rice containers, make knives and other tools depending on what each person wanted to do or knew what to make. There were many, many young men under detention there. Altogether, there must have been 3,000 - 4,000 people. In some of the buildings, there was hardly anything to lie down at night. People were put there for all kinds of crimes and reasons. But they were not very strict with older people like myself.
GL: Did they feed you well?
Yes, they gave us enough rice, but there was nothing to go with it. So I bought meat with the money you sent me. Those without relatives in other countries to help them, did not have much to eat, so we gave them some if we had anything left over. The younger people were detained in big buildings, but the women and older men were left to wander in and out of the detention centre at will. We could even go outside to the market or the local villages, so long as we returned to the centre at night. We were kept there for two months, then they gave us a written letter saying that we could go anywhere to make a new life. That why we decided to go to Na Yao, as I said before.
GL: From Na Yao, you then went to Dong Jai?
No, we escaped to Thailand and we arrived at Ban Vinai refugee camp where we stayed for 6 months. The UN finished processing us and gave us official documents, then we were taken to Chiang Kham refugee camp at Pa Yao, Thailand.
GL: How long were you in Chiang Kham before you came to Australia?
About 6 months only. After we were accepted to Australia, they took us to Phanat Nikhom camp, southeast of Bangkok. We were there for two months.
GL: What did they do to you at Phanat Nikhom?
They did not do much. They just finished all health checks, taught English to the younger people, and processed our travel documents. It was a famous place where they inspect your genitals because the Hmong did not like to go through the strip search health inspection.
GL: When did you arrive in Australia?
We got here in August 1988.
GL: So what do you think about all your life experiences, from the beginning a long time ago to now?
This is what I think. I think that because you were my oldest son and you were good with your studies, you could get a scholarship to come and finish a very high education in Australia. In the old country, we only had enough to eat, not very rich, not very poor. Life was not like today in this new country. When I could join you and your brothers in Australia, my life really changed for the better.
GL: So you think this life is better than the life back in Laos?
Yes. This new life is not like the old life at all. Now we have good food to eat, and nice clothes to wear. As a father, I am very happy that we have you here, and you helped to bring us to this new and peaceful life. Without you, we would still be suffering like the people back in Laos.
GL: What do you think about the war in the old country and the leaders there? Do you think the greed for power caused all that suffering for the people?
Yes. I remember after you came back for vacation one year from Australia, you told me that it would be futile to continue with the war, because we would never win. I did not know any better then so I thought you must be weird to think like that. I even scolded you at that time. Later after we lost the war, I realised how right you were, that we should never have got ourselves involved with the French or the Americans in the war in Laos. We did not win, just like you said, after they left and abandoned us. I did not think about the Vang Pao era, but just the time I was working for the French. War made everyone suffer. You might be fine at home, but when you had to go to front and face your enemy, you suffer.
GL: Do you have any last words for young Hmong in the future or for us children?
I think whatever we do, we need to love each other, to show respect; younger brother respecting his older brother, and vice versa. Older brothers see parents like the sky (God), younger brothers see older siblings like parents. This would make us better people and make us love each other more. Older ones should listen to younger ones, and younger ones listen to older ones. Do not quarrel, do not fight and argue. Just forgive wrong doings and help each other. There is a saying that a thick forest is hard to clear, a large group of brothers is difficult to win in a dispute. Do not cause conflicts to other people, love each other and help each other.