top of page

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 with supplementary editing by Gary Yia Lee

This edited version of a long interview with my late father (1924-2014) is uploaded here for its historical value. I have taken out the inconsistencies, repetitions or implausible statements to make it into a coherent narrative as best as possible.  The interview was conducted for Prof. Paul Hillmer, of Concordia University – St Paul, MN, USA, who used some of the information on the Hmong in Laos under French colonial control in the 1950’s for the book “A People’s History of the Hmong” (2010). For his military contribution to this period, my father earned the following awards from the French and the Lao Government: 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. I have seen them, and they were not something bought from a pawn shop (no such shops exist in Laos, anyway).

Most notable in this interview is an account of the occupation of northern Laos by the Japanese during WW II, the suppression of members of the Lao Issara movement by pro-French Hmong under Touby Lyfoung after the Japanese defeat in 1945, the invasion of Laos by the Viet Minh in 1953, and Gen. 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 (canton chief) of Tham Thao in Xieng Khouang province. ​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.

 

DISCLAIMER:  Since the people mentioned in this interview have all passed away, the events recounted by my father are not verifiable, although I had lived through many of them in my own life. The information given here is only a testimony of different periods in the Hmong political history in Laos from the singular perspective of the life of an active participant. The interview took place when my father was in his 80’s and he might not remember everything clearly. Nevertheless, it deserves to be preserved and shared, given that it is a unique eye-witness account of its kind available.  It is not meant to be self-promotion, or to judge, discredit or defame anyone involved. 

Nor Lue Lee

A veteran of war against the Japanese and the communists in the 1950’s in north-eastern Laos.

Nor Lue Lee Full Interview.png

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 want to ask you about your life, one stage at a time. So, you said that you were born in Huei Khang (Fib Khab)? Is that right?

Yes, yes.

PH to GL: 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? GL asked the question.

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?

Maybe 80.

[Nor Lue’s wife joined in: Perhaps 83 or 84.]

Apart from farming, my parents also 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 Khang.

 

GL:  Who were your parents?

My father was called Choua Pao (Tshuas Pov) and my mother Mee Yang.  My mother had two sisters, one of whom had migrated to France with her family after 1975.  She also has other cousins living in the US, including Neng Thong Yang now in Detroit.  When I became older and started to know things, my parents died, leaving us three brothers behind. My mother died first, then my father the year after.  My younger brother was called Lau, and my older brother Xeng. We three brothers lived by ourselves (after our parents’ death). 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 thirteen.

 

GL: And Uncle Lau?

Eight years old.

 

GL: You were very young. How could you care for yourselves?

We lived with an aunty, Aunty Nhiaj Txoov [Nhia Chong], but we had our own house. We did not live with her. We also got a lot of support from a cousin and his family, hlob Tswv Xab (Chue Xa). We had our own farm and made our own living until we were about 15-16 years old. We then moved across to a Hmong village in 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 Khab [Fi Kha]. 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 Heui Khang in Laos.

GL: How long did you stay in Vietnam?

Only one year. We moved back to Heui Khang and stayed until I was 17 or 18. Then it was decided that opium grew well at Nam Keng (Naj Kees) 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. 

 

GL: You three brothers were still together at the time?

Yes, we were. No, the youngest brother died at Heui Khang (from falling off a cliff), so there was only me and my older brother Xeng. He made some trading to earn money and 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).  After 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 the year now. Anyway, I came back home and had to farm. Because I was literate in Lao, I 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 Hmong student there.

GL: Did you stay with Lao people?

I stayed with a Lao family. 

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.  He could see the value of education [from his itinerant trading activities to other areas].

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.   I studied with a Lao teacher named Khu Louei. 

GL: Was it in his house or in a formal school in Muong 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: The Japanese first came to Laos in 1945. That’s when you finished school?

Maybe. It is hard to remember. Anyway, the Japanese came just when I was at the school. The Lao people at Muong Nganh were scared, so when the Japanese asked them the way to Muong Nyat [Moos Nyaj] to fight against the French there, the Lao 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 afraid, so I went with them as a guide.  For this action, I later became known as Japanese Lue (Lwm Nyij Poom).

GL: Is that why when my mother was angry, she often called you by that name?  These Japanese soldiers you went with, 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 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 – I was not afraid anymore. 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 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, after my protest, 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 Sanai (Xab Naij) were also ordered to go with us. We reached Tham Tat (Thab Tam), 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 Muong Ngat (Moos Nyaj). 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 had escaped the Japanese 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 stayed on,  but later 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.  Then, 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 would 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 I was born?

More than a year later.  After Japan was defeated in the war, many Japanese soldiers went back to Japan through Laos. They had come 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 “txiaj kis” (large French silver coins - one big coin equals one Kip at the time). 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 – from those who had no warning and could not hide their possessions. The Japanese soldiers only wanted the coins, not the embroideries.

 

Due 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. 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 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. ​

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. When night fell, we filled six flintlocks each with 1.5 “lag” (a Hmong weight measure equivalent to 500 grams) with gunpowder and scrap metals. We took the flintlocks to the trail where it crosses the Nam Bu river, and used them to lay trap there for the Japanese. We 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. Now all the leaders were dead, only the troops were left.

GL: These were the company that robbed the Hmong?

Yes, they were. The remaining Japanese split up and ran off along the trail to 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. After Mrs Txhiaj Yeeb and Mrs Ntxoov Tswb had filled their bucket and started home, they saw the Japanese so they ran. The Japanese threw a grenade at them. It tore up the behinds of the women. The Hmong realised how bad the Japanese were, so they went after them. They ambushed the Japanese, starting at Ban Yuat all the way to Ban Mu. They set up ambushes and ordered that the Japanese had to be killed. The Hmong were very angry. In the end, there were only 5 Japanese left at Tham Tat out of a whole company. A few died here, a few died there.  Others ran away.

 

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.

 

Some Hmong were waiting downstream and when the Japanese did not arrive,  they 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 track them down by looking for their footprints. I went along as well. We took 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. We followed them downstream. We were told that there was nothing to fear because the Japanese had thrown away 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 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: 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.

GL: Did you tie them, the Japanese?

Yes, we did. We -

GL: By the hands?

Yes, with their hands together behind. 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. After 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.  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 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” by Jane Hamilton-Merritt, 1993, ch. 2 ]

That’s right. Touby and the French officers had left Phou Du and already re-installed themselves 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 carry them on a pole. But now, just throw them on the truck.” So they drove a truck to the edge of town to meet us and 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 under guard.

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 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, due to the fact that he was one of the very few Hmong who were literate in Lao at the time. The following year, he moved his family to join Touby Lyfoung in Xieng Khouang town as a result of the following incident with Thao Tou Yang.

GL: Why was it difficult living in the village?

Because of Tou Xaichu (also known formally as Yang Thao Tou, 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 as civilians. By that time I was secretary to the Tasseng of Thas Thob (Txhiaj Suav Thoj) , even though I was young but I had some education [knew how to read and write Lao]. 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 (Naj Kees). Then Tou Xaichu heard about us, so he and his soldiers came [there was huge conflict going between the Lee and the Lo clan in Nong Het – Tou Xaichu was on the side of the Lo]. Their idea was to confiscate our possessions [anything that belonged to the Lee clan], but we were not home that day. 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 was with me, but later that morning we had left the village to go 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?

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 in Longtieng 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 [Ganu’s older brother]. The two of us were given a rifle each. We joined eight other armed Hmong, so we had 10 men. Then, we went after them.

GL: You went looking for Thao Tou?

Yes, we went to Muong Nhat (Moos Nyaj) to find them, but when we got there we were told they had not come that way. They went to Phu Sung. 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?

Yes.

GL: Where were Thao Tou and his men heading?

They were going to Nam Chong, then Khasee and onto Vietnam,  to Houei Kang 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 [our village]. 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 go [his wife was the sister of Lo Faydang, the pro-Pathet Lao Hmong leader and Touby’s opposition].

 

GL: Before that, did you get to know Uncle Touby well?

Oh, we knew him well from the beginning.

 

GL: From where?

From when he was still living 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 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 [in September 1945]. I was given the job of leading some Hmong soldiers there. Uncle Nengthong [Lee] was also there. He looked after all the Hmong soldiers on the French side in the Nong Het area. I was only a leader of some Hmong soldiers in Xieng Khouang town. The French were going home and were planning to hand over independence to Laos.

 

GL: In 1949 (the first round of independence for Laos, final round in 1954). How many Hmong soldiers were in Xieng Khouang town? Only village partisans [armed volunteers] or full-blown soldiers?

The volunteer partisans were only based in their villages, so in Xieng Khouang town, we only had full-blown soldiers.  They formed 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 close to 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 the main company leaders of the Hmong. We were based in Xieng Khouang town. The Lao Issara (Lao Independence Movement), the Hmong had chased them away. From the very beginning, most of the Lao Issara ran to Thailand.

 

GL: After that,  what happened?

I was sent to Houei Kouang, south of Muong Phan. I went to work with Pa Cha who was stationed there as the local commander.   [GL: At this point of my young life, I had just started to become curious about things around me. My parents took me to a festival in big Lao village there.  I remember escaping from the house, and trying to crawl across a shallow river on a big log used as bridge. It was early evening. The festival was in full swing on the other side of the river. I wanted to go and look at all the bright lights there.  My parents were frantic looking for me: it was lucky that two soldiers found me in the crowd].

GL: How many soldiers were with Pa Cha?

Two companies.

 

GL: You were all in full military uniforms?

Yes, all dressed in green uniform 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 for a while. Not long after, I was ordered to take some of the 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 civilian clothes.

GL: Were they armed, from the communist Vietnamese?

Yes, they were armed. But not with Vietminh rifles. There were no Vietnamese weapons then, only French weapons.

GL: They used French weapons against the French?

Yes, so when the Lao Issara arrived where we were, they did not know we were there. But we had three machine guns aimed at them, and they soon all hit the ground, many of them dead.

 

GL: The French gave you machine guns, even at that time [1945-46]?

Yes, they did. Anyway, most of the Lao Issara died, except three who escaped back to the village. I  was young and daring, so I 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 our enemy. 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 on to Vang Vieng. That night we travelled on foot all night to Vang Vieng. When we got there, we acted 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, 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 were stationed only in Vientiane. They could not even go as far as Kilometre 52 or Phon Haung [on Route 13].

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 the 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. At one Lao village, we asked people there if there were any Lao Issara soldiers around. They said yes, there were 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 itself. After we arrived, we fired a few rounds of mortars into their barrack as dawn was just breaking.

GL: You found the location of their barracks? How many?

Yes, they only had one barrack.

GL: Where did they get their weapons from?

Just like the Hmong Chaofa today [in Laos after 1975], from the dead soldiers of their enemy. We fired three rounds of mortars into their barrack, 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 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, many of them died.

GL: There were women soldiers with the Lao Issara?

No, these were Lao civilians who panicked and ran away after they heard gunfire. Everyone tried to run for their life, but many 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 [from Vientiane].

GL: The French had tanks even at that time in 1949-50?

Oh, yes. They had. They also sent many more troops to add to our small contingent.

GL: Lao soldiers?

Yes, soldiers under Lao and French officers.

GL: So these 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 later went to join the Vietnamese communists in Vietnam.

​​

​GL: So what happened after you went to Vang Vieng?

Two months later, we were ordered to come 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. In Xieng Khouang, 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. Around that time, the Vietminh came in big numbers to fight against us. The whole of Indochina was in turmoil. So I said to myself: "what have the French done to our troops? Every day, we go chasing the Vietminh “ua kev lwj ntsuav” (trampling in grass and mud). The French are willing to leave Xieng Khouang town but will not allow our troops to leave their barracks. What is the meaning of it all?"

GL: At that time, where was your barrack? On the hill with the big stupa (roob pej thuam)?

Yes, there. Because of the increasing infiltration by the Vietminh, the French said they would print leaflets [propaganda materials] to be dropped in different areas. From my military activities, I knew many places well, so I was one of those who were told to help. I got on a plane from the Plain of Jars and went to drop the leaflets.

GL: Who did you drop them to?

The Hmong villagers and troops in the field.

 

GL: Were you not with these troops? Why did you have to drop leaflets to them?

I was always in Xieng Khouang town, but other troops were stationed in other areas under different commanding officers, in the Plain of Jars, in Phu Sung, in Phu Mung, in Txawj Pov’s area.

GL: How many troops did each of these commanders have?

One company (100 men) each. When the Viet Minh were coming to invade Laos in 1953, Txawj Pov was ordered to retreat from Tha Thom to Muong Ngan, Vam Xeeb to Khang Haung. They took up their new positions, and the rest of us abandoned Xieng Khouang town, including Touby and Chao Saykham. We left by French army trucks. 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 were local recruits, but other battalions were brought in from various French colonies – all stationed everywhere in the Plain of Jars.

GL: Hmong, Lao, French colonial troops - all together?

Yes, all mixed in there. So I wondered why I was only a minor military leader with the French rank of adjutant, why would 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. And also, maybe because I knew the place well.  So I took 11 Hmong soldiers with me just to check on the situation in Xieng Khouang town.

 

GL: Where were Mother and I then?

Our family and other Hmong military families went hiding in Phou Xeu (west of the Plain of Jars), but you were only 4-5 years old and might not remember [GL: I remember this episode of my life vividly because I still carry a scar below my jaw from it, due to a dead bamboo piercing me after a fall in the woods and causing a lot of blood loss]. In any case, I went back to Xieng Khouang town with my 11 soldiers. When we got halfway at Dong Dane, we saw that everywhere was full of Vietminh soldiers. There were hundreds 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. We came upon a group of them.  They called out "Ekalat" (a Lao word for “Independence”), so I replied "Hue Tinh Bin Ho Chi Minh". They then 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 on 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 were probably scared.  They just 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 Chao Saykham (the Xieng Khouang governor) at the Plain of Jars on the radio to tell him that there were many Viet Minh troops on their way there, 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 many of them were captured the next morning.

GL: Including the governor?

No, only the troops that were guarding him. He was able to escape. After, we called the French fighter-bombers in, similar to the American T-28s. To drop bombs, but only on the north side of the Plain of Jars.

GL: You had T-28s at the time?

Yes, something similar. 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 Viet Minh were killed, so the Lao soldiers who were captured started to run for their lives. Soon after, by 10'clock in the morning, Viet Minh trucks were driving into the Plain of Jars -  many, many of them.

GL: The Viet Minh had military trucks by then?

Yes, they were used to carry troops in, but the soldiers under the French put up a real fight against them, even using bayonets and machine guns. Many Vietnamese were killed. Eventually, the Viet Minh 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 many buildings became burned and scarred.

Yes, because of aerial bombing after the Viet Minh occupied the town. So the Vietnamese lost to us at the Plain of Jars, which was covered mostly in grass and you could see everywhere, and could spot your enemy easily. Thus, the French were able to capture many of the Viet Minh.

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. Not long after I returned from Dong Dane, I was ordered to go and work in Na Mone, south of Xieng Khouang town,  where I saw many Viet Minh troops on the run. The French radioed to say they would send soldiers to parachute around there at 10am.  I told them “Oh, that is impossible, too many Viet Minh 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 of them. So at 10 am, a big DC-47 (known as Dakota) cargo plane dropped soldiers on parachutes from the sky near Na Mone. These troops managed to kill or capture many of the Viet Minh soldiers there.

GL: Why was it so easy? Didn’t the Viet Minh have guns?

No, they were on the run back to Vietnam [from the battle at the Plain of Jars] and did not have many guns. They were surrounded, so many just surrendered.

 

GL: So what happened in Na Mone after the French captured Viet Minh troops?

The French gave them plastic raincoats and food.  But the French used the Viet Minh prisoners of war to exchange for French POWs in Vietnam. Eventually, they all were gone.

The Viet Minh troops at the Plain of Jars battle who were not captured, escaped to Vietnam along the route to Muong Ngan.  We had many Hmong and Lao soldiers working with the French, so they were told to chase these Viet Minh troops. When they got to Ban Hung, the Viet Minh killed one of the Lao captains, so the Lao soldiers decided to go after them in hot pursuit. They caught up with the Vietnamese soldiers who were responsible at Muong Phan. After they were caught, they were taken to the French but I don’t know what the French did with them. Anyway, the pro-French soldiers chased these Viet Minh all the way to the border, then they returned to Xieng Khouang town.

All of these events made me see that 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: What happened after the battle of the Plain of Jars in 1953?

After the battle at the Plain of Jars, the Viet Minh and French held negotiation talks and the Viet Minh 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 (Raoul Salan), 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 more open Plain of Jars. But the Viet Minh 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 [at the time China and North Vietnam were still friendly with each other].  A new French commander (Henri Navarre) came to replace 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?

Well, it’s like that.  When the French faced danger, Hmong soldiers were often sent to help.

GL: Was that when Vang Pao went?

Yes, Vang Pao went, too.

GL: What did the Hmong do? Did you go?

I did.  We did not go directly to Dien Bien Phu, but went to Tiaj Xyoob Qeeg [Bamboo Plain], not far from 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 Viet Minh soldiers who surrounded Dien Bien Phu.

GL: So the Hmong were guarding this plain near Dien Bien Phu but did not take part in the battle?

No. The plan was that after the 30,000 French extra troops had parachuted, the Hmong would march with them to Dien Bien Phu.

GL: From what you described, there must be many Hmong there.

Yes. Many of the Hmong soldiers in Xieng Khouang went, with their commanding officers. Me, Ntsuab Kos (Lee now in Eau Claire, WI, USA) 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 2,000?

GL: Then what happened?

We stayed up all night while the battle raged nearby. At the first crow of the cocks the next morning, the people at Dien Bien Phu radioed to say that the Viet Minh had won. The French had lost, and for the 30,000 reinforcement troops 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, many of us were just so overjoyed. 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 after the French lost at Dien Bien Phu?

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 in the fighting came back with you?

None, they were all captured by the Viet Minh.

GL: All captured?

Yes.

 

GL: But at that time, I remember seeing a lot of French soldiers suddenly appearing in Xieng Khouang town, at the same time as many black Thai refugees streamed in from Vietnam, including Dr. Yang Dao and his family.  We were told that they had escaped from Dien Bien Phu. On my way to my [junior primary] school, I could see many black African and Moroccan soldiers living in brick buildings and tents along the road.  Once I saw a white French soldier being buried upto his neck  in front of a building as some kind of punishment from his superiors. Some of these White soldiers were using our front yard, not far from Uncle Touby’s house, to grow tomatoes and vegetables. Lots of planes were dropping supplies for them, using parachutes.  And you could hear they sounded the bugle from the barracks up the That Fun stupa every morning. I could still remember all this, but these foreign troops all disappeared after a few months.  You don’t think they came from Dien Bien Phu?

No, they came from Sam Neua near the Lao-Vietnam border. They were just on stand-by there. The French troops in Dien Bien Phu never made it out. They were all captured, thousands of them. 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. [GL: Wikipedia lists the strength of French soldiers involved in the Battle of Dien Bien Phu as: 14,000 (12,000 combat personnel, and 2,000 logistics and support personnel).  At the end of the battle on 7 May 1954, France sustained 1,571 dead; 1,729 missing, and 11,721 captured by the Viet Minh – including 4,436 wounded].

GL: Yesterday, we were talking about pro-French Hmong soldiers chasing the Viet Minh who invaded Xieng Khouang back to Vietnam. We also touched on Hmong soldiers going to help the French in Dien Bien Phu. Today, I want to start by asking 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.

 

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 after I was in Touby’s militia for 3-4 years. When I was in there, I thought that I would be in a position of power to work as a Tasseng in civilian administration. In 1947, after the death of the Tasseng (canton chief) of Tham Thao [in Nong Het district], I applied for the position with Uncle Touby.

 

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, and settle any major family conflicts or inter-group disputes as required.  You might get other benefits,  but you did not get paid a salary.

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 northern Laos, mostly in Xieng Khouang where many Hmong were living or were more active with the French administration.

 

GL: Did they collect tax from the Lao people, too?

Yes, they did – from 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: When was this taxation stopped?

It was only stopped after Uncle 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 this head tax [based on the number of people in each household].

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 from people. If you were a tasseng you just did other jobs, especially compiling census data and help with local matters.

 

GL:  How big was the area under you? How many villages?

I cannot remember exactly, but they gave you a map and all the villages were there. I was responsible for the Tham Thao region, Uncle Xayteng (Touby’s cousin) for Keng Khouay, and somebody else for other areas like Phu Sao, Na Bane, Tha Chok, etc.

GL: So your main 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: We often hear that some poor Hmong didn’t have money to pay the French tax 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. 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 deputies [in the Lao National Assembly] 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: In regard to animal requisitions, did the French make these only when there were soldiers in the local area, or just any time they needed them 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 officials, 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 an 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 by the Tasseng?

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.  With settling disputes, people might pay you for your time  but not always, as it could be seen as corruption money.

GL: So that was what a Tasseng needed to do. Why did you stop?

After a few months, I decided to stop because of conflict with my work as a military person. Also, my assistant/secretary (called “samien” in Lao) 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. [NLL is said to have also lost the position to the Yang clan who petitioned against him on account that he was not living locally in Tham Thao but in Xieng Khouang town].

 

GL: How old was I when you stopped being Tasseng?

You were about 4-5 years old.

GL: So that was about 1951? 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?

Yes, but only one or two of them did that in the Nong Het area. I don't know of anybody else.  These two Tasseng, I cannot name them. But they would tell people to come and work in their rice fields, cut down trees, clear land, plant corn, plant rice. People were used as part of the official five day free labour contribution that each able-bodied man was required to contribute each year to the French. 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. Eventually, another Tasseng, Pa Xa (Paj Xab) Khang, complained to the French, and this corruption was stopped  [c. early 1950s]

GL: Was the complain made to Touby or to the French directly?

Oh, directly to the French.

 

GL: All these Hmong tasseng, did Touby appoint them, or did the French?

Only the French.  All the tasseng, only the French could appoint them.

GL: Did Touby submit any names?

No, he only accompanied the Hmong applicants 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. The seal alone cost one bar, and the official appointment paper cost two bars.

GL: 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, only then would the French accept you.

GL: So Touby had to approve, too?

Yes!

GL: After you stopped being tasseng, you continued staying in the military? 

Yes.​  I was still young and did not know what else to do.

 

GL: Then, you would know the Viet Minh incursion into Laos in 1953.  How did the Viet Minh come to Laos?

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. So, a total of 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 intercepted and killed so many Vietnamese, before they even got to the Plain of Jars. The initial group (about 4,000) came through Nong Het. They 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 [with Touby on the French side] cut their rear at Pha Ven so the Viet Minh couldn’t get reinforcement. Both sides of the road 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 (Naj Koom).

GL: Who was the Hmong’s leader who surrounded these Vietnamese soldiers?

Touby. [Vang Pao was still at the officers academy at Dong Henh at the time].  He wasn’t actually there leading us, but he was the one giving all the orders. We were just carrying out his orders.

GL: You got your weapons from the French?

Yes.

 

GL: Were you village militia dressed in Hmong, or full-blown French colonial soldiers?

We were Hmong in French army uniforms. We didn’t want any other people there with us. In any case, 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 with them 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: about 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 buffaloes 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, too. 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 until it became 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. They just kept shooting over and over until they became little bundles like this [holds out his hands]. All their bones flew away or were smashed.

 

The Hmong could be so cruel, just like when they killed the Chao Khoueng of Xieng Khouang who was buried near our [Lee family] wet rice field, whose grave you saw [when walking past from our house to the town]. He was a Chao Khoueng for the Lao Issara. Touby and his Hmong followers were liberating Xient Khouang town from them [after the Japanese defeat in Indochina].  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.  Then, 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 so small, just a little mound of dirt.

GL: What’s the name of that Chao Khoueng? And when did it happen?

Chao Khoueng Lek. It happened in about September 1945. The Hmong could do lots of good things, but sometimes stepped over the bound of humanity [what is acceptable]. You have to tell them that if they do anything excessive, 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 also 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 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 town [in September 1945]. The real action for me was when I and my troops later fought against them in Vang Vieng and in Phon Haung in Vientiane province, as I said elsewhere in this interview.

Hmong warriors  WW2.jpeg

from p. 274 of  M. N. Lee’s book “Dreams of the Hmong Kingdom: The Quest for Legitimation in French Indochina, 1850-1960”  (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015). 

In this photo of Touby’s Hmong armed collaborators in 1945, my father is standing third from the right.  Other people in the photo were (from left to right):  Toulia Lyfoung, Touby Lyfoung, Chia Sa Moua, Blia Chue Lee, Mai Lee, Bee Chou Lo, Neng Thong Lee, Joua Va Lee, unidentified, Jean Sakarek (French officer), Nor Lue Lee, unidentified, and Chue Lee.  

GL: What did you do after the Hmong massacred the Vietnamese at Nam Kong [Naj Koom], Nong Het?  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 they could not get in anywhere. And anywhere the Vietnamese came, they always faced defeat at that time [in the early 1950’s] because their numbers were small. The Vietnamese only came to Laos in great number during Vang Pao’s time [in the 1960’s and 1970’s].

GL: So the Vietnamese you killed at Nam Kong, that was before Dien Bien Phu?

Oh yes. That was before 1954. 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. Instead, they sent “dab” [Uncle] Faydang’s Hmong to come into Laos from other places.

GL: Did Uncle Faydang and his anti-French followers flee to live in Vietnam by that time?

Yes, they did. Around that time they [the Lao politicians and the French] were all talking and signing agreements with each other. Anyway, the Faydang Hmong kept coming, and we went and ambushed them at Tsuam Meej [Chua Meng].

GL: So the Hmong are killing other Hmong now?

Yes. That is how many of “dab” Faydang’s relatives died. [NLL is related to Faydang. One of his close cousins was married to Faydang’s sister, so he always refers to him as Brother-in-law (dab laug) Faydang]. After Faydang’s men fled to Vietnam, they returned many times to Laos to fight, and many of them were killed because of that.

GL:  Their leader, Faydang,  never came back to Laos? He only sent his men?

No, he never came himself. He only gave orders from Vietnam. He and his brother Nhia Vue [Nyiaj Vws] 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 Touby?

Yes, many of them. Tou Xai Chu [Thao Tou Yang] was their military leader.

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] whenever he had guns in his hands. That’s how he came with the Vietnamese and other Hmong supporters to Nong Het.  Thao Tou first came with a group of Hmong. When they got to a place called Tsua Tho [Broken Cliff, near a large Hmong village Tham Hit, most of them from the Yang clan, but related to Touby’s first wife], the leader was [brother-in-law] Nchaiv Ntxawg [Chai Yeu] Yang. Thao Tou came there and recruited them, gave them military positions and stationed them in a barrack. So we went to engage them in battle there.

GL: Did they get their weapons from the Viet Minh?

Yes. In that Tham Hit village [today it is called Pha Pheung], there were many Hmong Yang, so they (Thao Tou Yang’s group) easily gained their support. Even though they were related to Touby by marriage [1], they felt closer to Thao Tou.  [Ties by marriage are weaker than those by clan affiliation]. 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 the case of the son of Uncle Suav Tuam [one of Touby's old cousins], Tong Va. He wanted to go to that village at Tham Hit 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 [Lee, a local Hmong tasseng].

 

[1] 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.

Nor Lue Lee Full Interview 2.png

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.

Touby’s group became very upset, because Tong Va was one of their military leaders. The Hmong at Tham Hit who supported Thao Tou, built a barrack on top of a hill.  They took all their wives and children to stay there at night. At dawn, they would come down to their village, to their houses, to cook, so the French booby-trapped grenades in some of the houses. The grenades were put under the grass that covered the roof. At the first crow of the rooster, as they came down to cook breakfast, the fire warmed the grass, and the grenades exploded. Many of them were killed: women, men, children. Then we went after them and had a three-day battle. They were routed, scattered in defeat. We outnumbered them, as there were a few groups of us. Some came from one direction, another group from a different direction.

GL: What year was that and any Vietnamese?

It was before the Viet Minh came to Xieng Khouang town in 1953. [GL:  Reference to 7,000 Vietnamese must have been in 1953: 4, 000 who came and many were killed in Nong Het was earlier before that date.  Figures cited are only personal estimates and tend to be on the high side.]

 

GL: When was it that this 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 after we scattered the Hmong from Tham Hit, they took all their wives and children into Vietnam. They first went to Hong Thu before they went to Muong Sene (inside Vietnam). While they stayed at Muong Sene, many of their children became sick and died, and many wives were sick. Many husbands had also been killed in battle. So they came 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. Touby, because they were related to him through his first wife, 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 these widowed wives.

GL: How many families were involved?

Oh, it must have been 50 or 60 families. As 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 from war. 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 starving 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 Lao civil war in 1961, and then Kong Le and Vang Pao’s 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 after 1954?

I was still 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 (communist) 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 doing by this time?

He finished his officer training school and was already a commanding officer. 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 his wife’s relatives. The Hmong leaders banded together and mobilized many Hmong with guns from all around (including Nai Kong Xiong Pao Lee from Phue Lue) to go back to the Plain of Jars. There were no more French there by then.

 

The Hmong scared off the Lao military officers there, and arrested General Sinh and a few other high commanding officers to send them 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 send to southern Laos to General Phoumi (Nosavane) in Savannakhet [who aligned with Vang Pao and the American CIA]. By that time [1958], Touby was a deputy (in the Lao National Assembly) in Vientiane, and I had become a police officer in Xieng Khouang town. I owed this change to Chao Saykham [2]. At that time, all the Hmong who used to serve as soldiers under the French were transferred into the Royal Lao Army [3]. About a year or so after we returned from Dien Bien Phu (1955?), I was told to go to work with 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. Many of 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, to work with Lao and Hmong police officers like Ly Ong or Tou Yia, and Hang Sao. I transferred with my full military rank straight into the provincial police. Although I did not come into it from a police academy, I was given a pistol.​

[2] 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.

[3] 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 other police also get pistols?

No, not every body.

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.

 

GL: What did you do as a police officer?

Officially, I was in the police until 1961, until the Kong Le War. But Lao police officers did not operate like Western police officers. You were supposed to help the people, and not cause trouble for people. You are supposed to stop people from doing bad things to each other, 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 police 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. I managed to finish the training, because I had 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 or to investigate crimes in different areas.

GL: But you were police officers. Why collect intelligence on Vietnamese military activities?

The police had to do it, too. We had to report on enemy activities. That’s why I went away so often. When the Kong Le War came [in 1961], then the Vang Pao War, we became involved in the fighting.

GL: As police officers?

Yes. We had weapons and had to join in military battles.  Not enough soldiers.

GL: So did you go to stop Kong Le at the Steel Bridge (Choj Hlau) that crosses the Nam Ngum River [before the road reaches the Plain of Jars from Phu Khun]?

[In a famous episode there, Kong Le’s tanks and trucks came up at that bridge. Vang Pao was at a Hmong New Year festival and was not there with his troops. 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 went with some other people. But when we got there, we didn’t know how to use the new big gun [phom loj]. We tried a few tricks, and we fired a few rounds. But by that time, it was too late. Kong Le and his troops had already crossed the Steel Bridge [West of Phonsavane]. So we just blew up two other bridges that crossed two little rivers further down the road, and then came back to look at 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 more involved by that stage. [The CIA helped Phoumi Nosavan chase out Kong Le from Vientiane in 1960]

GL: When did the Americans come to the Hmong?

The year Kong Le lost power in Vientiane [1961] trying to make Laos a neutral country. So we came back to Xieng Khouang town, after our defeat by Kong Le [at the Steel Bridge]. Then, I sent you and your mother and the family to hide in the jungle in Khang Hong and I went to Naxan with the rest of the police force, and Vang Pao’s troops.

GL: You went there to hide or to go on to some other place?

We were planning to go on to Savannakhet to join Gen. Phoumi Nosavanh, the rightist pro-American Lao leader. When we got to 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 1st of January 1961, when Kong Le marched into Xieng Khouang 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 [to Naxan].

 

GL: Why didn’t you give them away to your soldiers?

But everyone had their own gun 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 and his troops, but we couldn’t [not enough people], so we just abandoned the new guns.

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 big guns, with help from the French and Russians. [GYL: I could remember them firing “Boom! Boom!” everywhere when they came to invade Xieng Khouang town]. They just fired them ahead to scare people. Kong Le had 105 mm artillery, so we couldn’t resist.

GL: You were only very few. Was that right?

Oh, no. We had quite a number, about 500 to 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.”  Vang Pao agreed and we escaped, starting from Si Som [a small village in the Dong Dane area]. At the beginning, we each had two rifles, two carbines. 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 [in the south]. When we got there, the Americans came. The Americans came at Naxan [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 [artillery guns], four or five of them, to Naxan. They made people level [by hand] the rice terraces there to make an airstrip. 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 [small] yellow one came first. Then, they asked if anybody could go in the plane to drop leaflets to those [on our side] who were scattered in other areas. But nobody wanted to go.  It was something new and risky: riding a flimsy plane and dropping leaflets over dangerous enemy territories. I decided to try and I said to Vang Pao, “If I go and I’m shot down, will you look after my wife and children?” I also 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 he American?

No, it was a Lao pilot, and the plane was very old. The pilot had to push a lever on the side forward when we had to lift off, and then push it backward for us to land. After I volunteered, they showed me how to fall off the plane should it crash, so that we wouldn’t get burned. After we took off and got to Muong Phan, we met with a small black plane from the Kong Le’s side. [Cargo planes from the USSR were readily available at this time to Kong Le to bring supplies from North Vietnam]. I asked him [the Lao pilot] what it [the other plane] was doing. Also dropping leaflets, he said!  He told me (I was sitting in the back manning the machine gun) not to fire unless we were fired at.  He said, “Just ignore it [the black plane] and keep dropping leaflets”.  So, that’s what I did and nothing happened. But when we got nearer to Xieng Khouang town, we saw many more and bigger planes in the sky. We dropped leaflets to Tham Ling [Monkey Cave], to Kiao Kacham [on the way to Luang Prabang], and to Phu Chia before we came back to land [at Naxan]. We were very lucky, because we learned that two American planes had been shot down in the Plain of Jars that day. 

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 Pa Dong. It was piloted by a black American person. They gave me 200,000 kip. They used two bars of steel attached to a plastic bag and 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 down on the flat area where there is a school.” Everywhere else, there were enemy soldiers. I said to them “Oh, there are enemy soldiers everywhere! It looks like you will be attacked very soon.”  So I dropped the pay with the small parachute.  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!” [Fire from the Vietnamese!]. The pilot turned the plane so suddenly that I hit my head on its canopy.  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 later resettled and died in France after 1975]. This was a battalion of Hmong soldiers originally stationed in Nong Het, but now 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, and 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 [to Naxan], and the next day another plane came.

GL: These planes, 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 many 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, and I had to go again. And then on that day our plane hit a Lao woman on the airstrip, and she died.

GL: Can you tell us more how this accident happened?

People were not allowed on the airstrip, and everybody knew. This Lao woman just started walking toward the southern end of the airstrip to go to a village on the other side. We didn’t see her; we just came upon her suddenly and couldn’t stop. I thought, “This is the end for us. We will die as well.” The plane hit the woman and 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 that nobody was allowed to cross the airstrip. 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 now went, so I didn’t have to go so often. Then Vang Pao told me to take Ly Ong, Tou Yia, Faydang [Thao], and Vai [Lee] to go back to Phou Khe [a high mountain 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 Kong Le 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]. Vang Pao’s people scattered. [Was Naxan attacked or did VP abandon it for a better location?]

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 after  they abandoned Naxan, they went to Muong Cha. My boss, the chief of the police, Major Mun, decided not to go with Vang Pao, but to go straight 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 Xieng 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 died, 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. [NLL 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 [Xieng 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 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. When we arrived there, I came and got you and the whole family [from your hiding place in Khang Hong]. We first went back to Na Mone, and we just slowly, slowly moved along to make our way to Pa Dong. [GL: Pa Dong had become Vang Pao’s headquarters by this time. It took about 2-3 months for my family to arrive there because we were staying in the jungle or in Hmong villages (in Na Mone and in Pha Lay) to see if Vang Pao would re-take Xieng Khouang town so we could return home, but this did not happen.  It was after we got to Pa Dong that I first developed my terror of parachutes. I and my younger brother Ying were grazing our horse on the bank of a small river when a big cargo plane like a C-130 – they came at all hours of the day – suddenly appeared and dropped bags and boxes from the sky suspended on parachutes.  This was the first time we witnessed this so closely.  From where we were, all the parachutes looked as if they were falling fast straight down on us – we had heard of people being killed this way.  Forgetting our horse, we started running up and down the river bank to avoid being crushed, even when the parachutes fell some distance away..  By the time, the plane finished its job, we were both could hardly walk.  We just fell and lay down on the riverbank, exhausted!].

GL: What happened to you after we got to Pa Dong from Phu Khe?

I went back to work with the military people at Pa Dong.

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. Well, the enemy fired a lot of 105 and 107 guns at us. And rumours were ripe that Kong Le had the place surrounded.

GL: Were you outnumbered? Were the enemy soldiers actually there?

No, not many enemy soldiers were seen on the ground, but Kong Le kept firing these big guns at us non-stop [from the Plain of Jars]. We built good bunkers and suffered very few casualties.

GL: Why did you all run away from there then?

By that time, Major Soua Yang was at Pa Dong with his soldiers. They were stationed on top of some place called Ban Sue. And he just abandoned his post without even seeing any enemy soldiers. 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 decided 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 [part of Gen. Vang Pao’s army]. It didn’t kill anybody, but one piece of shrapnel hit Pao Vang [a member of the escape group] on the head, and he became unconscious. There were 10 of us, so we all carried him up the steep mountainside. But after a while, he became too heavy for us.  Someone said, “We should just leave him on the side of the trail.”  But 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 the others refused. So when we came to Pha Hai, Vang Pao came to us in a helicopter. We told him, and he screamed at us and insisted we went back to get the wounded man. So, we had to go all the way back, nearly reaching Pa Dong. And that’s how we knew that the enemy didn’t come to there at all: there were no enemy soldiers anywhere. We were just told to abandon post because of unrelenting fires from the Kong Le heavy guns.   About ten days later they went back to the area, and established a military post there again, just a little one. VP then established his new and bigger headquarters in Pha Khao.

GL: And what did you do during that time?

I used to be in Battalion Number 21 [in the Lao Royal Army], based in Pha Khao.  But in 1963, I was transferred to Battalion 24, and was sent to Pak Kha. I was for two years with Colonel Neng Chu Thao who was the commander of Battalion 21. I asked to be transferred to Battalion 24, because in the two, three years I was under him, I never received a single pay. I went to ask him, “Why? What did you do with my pay?” And he said “I only received one month. I don’t know what happened to the rest.”

GL: Did you not know that my mother actually got some of your pay to feed us, her children? Who signed it over to her?

Oh, your brother-in-law [Vu Thao] signed for some, and Lee Ong [a close acquaintance] 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 make money.  I was selling fabrics that I originally got from Vientiane.

GL: And that’s how you married a new wife at that time?

Yes.

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 local area and didn’t know much about war or the army.  They didn’t seem to know much about enemy movements. So when the enemy came and fired at them, I had to report to them on enemy movements.

GL: Who are these enemies? Kong Le soldiers or Vietnamese soldiers?

By this time,  mostly Vietnamese. 

GL: What year was that?

1964. Our barracks was on top of a rocky mountain near the Pak Kha village. One time, 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 them at a very narrow pass. When the Vietnamese got there, they were talking among themselves, saying “oum ba, oum ba"  [Vietnamese for “to kill”].  But it happened that there were only four Vietnamese, too.  We thought there would be many more to follow. They didn’t see the four Hmong soldiers down there, so they were looking up at the barracks and aiming up there. The four Hmong soldiers just fired at them and cut them down. Other soldiers then ran to the Hmong village at Pak Kha to see if there were more Vietnamese there.  They 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 the 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. When we abandoned our post at Pak Kha Noi [Small Pak Kha] we booby-trapped four or five land mines [that jump up to your waist before they explode]. 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 away. 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  Ly Tong Chao (Naolu) by two of his soldiers in Pak Kha? What’s the story there?

This is how it went. Tong Chao was the battalion commander, Battalion 24, and I was working for him. Tong Chao was young, very quick-tempered. About a month after he arrived there, he asked his relatives to come, including Jua Pao, Tua Feng, Va Sao, and Va Kay. They all came and stayed with us. He was a major. He was an officer with full training from the Lao military academy, not one of Vag Pao’s CIA instant soldiers [although one of his sisters 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 behind [“the commanders” safely at headquarters]. 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. Punh was Khmu, and he was not guilty of anything. He just happened to come there at that time. They said to him [Tong Chao], “Commander, you have given command to new people, and they should go, not us. Va Kay should go with his soldiers”, Her Cha said. 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?”   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 fired that one shot. Since then, I have felt very 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 very moment, a lot of Hmong women seemed to be walking around. So I grabbed a gun and tried to shoot at these two [killers], 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 people, did they also live in the village?

Yes.

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 soon got 68 guns together and put them away.

GL: The ones who killed Tong Chao, were they in full military uniform?

Yes, all dressed up in green.  After I came home from chasing them,  I went to see Tong Chao in his office, and he was dead. I asked the people there, “From one single shot?”  They said, “Yes, it went through his body and through his back.”

GL: 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 asked them to take his body to the airstrip [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. After his body was taken away, I didn’t want to stay on at Pak Kha anymore. I wanted to come home, too, because I was feeling very depressed and scared.

GL: Why?

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, “Tong 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 the money to him, and we radioed the announcement all around. Then, I managed to talk to them [the killers] on the two-way radio and I told them “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.”  They were naive. Six days later they came back and resumed their normal lives as if nothing had happened. They just led a normal life for two months with other  soldiers.  We did not want to scare them to run away again, and were told not to do anything to them.

GL: Were you there still all that time?

Yes, I was there.  As an ex-police officer, I was trying to get them arrested. After two months, General Khamkhong [from Paksane, training HQ for Military Region 2] came with four small planes to get Her Tou, Her Chai, Punh and Her Doua. Khamkhong came and said to them, “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 planes then carried them away. 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 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. As soon as he got down from the plane, some members of Tong Chao’s family bashed Va Tou to death. They trampled on him, all his bones broken.

GL: Nobody stopped them?

Vang Pao only said, “He had committed a crime, so it doesn’t matter that they killed him.” Va Tou, the person they bashed to death, was the one that did the shooting. So the remaining two, Her Cha and Punh,  were imprisoned in a covered dug-out hole near the cliff at Long Cheng airport. At first they were given food in the hole. They gave them food for about a month, then left them to their own devices. So they ate the parachute that was used as a mosquito net for them, bit by bit. Very soon, they were starving and just had the bones on their bodies. Then they died inside the hole. That’s the end of that story.

GL: Where did you go after that? Did you come back to Long Cheng?

Yes, I did. I didn’t want to stay on 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 odd jobs and 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 by enemy soldiers, we went to Muong Pheng. 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. In 1975, when the war stopped and the Americans went back home, 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, he said.

GL:  At that time, Touby kept saying that no one should leave Laos. 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 him. We decided to stay. And we went to listen to Kham Kho talk  –

 

GL: Who is Kham Ko?

A colonel from the Pathet Lao army who was working in the area after VP left for Thailand. Anyway, we were then called to go to Phak Khe, the settlement joining Long Cheng and Ban Son, so we could listen to Kham Kho and Touby. They were going to come and give speech there, urging people not to leave Laos.   Well, everybody was leaving, but there were still a lot of people who did not leave. So, we all went to listen to the speeches.

GL: Did Dr Yang Dao [a Hmong leader and member of the Lao National Reconciliation Commission at the time] come, too?

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 and if he kept coming, something bad might happen to him. I already heard that some people were going to kill Phagna (another name used for Touby, his Lao title meaning Sir or Lord).

GL: Who would want to kill him?

The Lo clan people (on the Chao Fa side). So I asked that he should never return 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 (May-August 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 some 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 [there was a small airstrip at Phak Khe]. After Touby and his small party 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 famous Pathet Lao “Kong Pachay” battalion). He came with some of his relatives. They stayed for two nights. On the second night, the Chao Fa Hmong 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 many died. Paseut died there, and they (the Pathet Lao) were not happy. They took his body to the airstrip to be taken back home. But they also wanted people 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, but we were just civilians forced to watch.

GL: Why?

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, and decided to escape. 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 then went to Pha Meng (Pham Meeb).

GL: Where is Pha Meng?

Near Pha Hoei, a few miles to the West from Pha Khe. When we arrived, the people there would not let us move on. 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 on further and take our families to stay at Pha Leng (Pham Leem) first, then we would 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 Thas) just west of 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, we often sustained casualties, but there was no hospital or medicine. The wounds became infected with puss. We used leaves from a plant called “Rawm” to mash and put on the wounds. We tried this, and the wound became healed.

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.  Pathet Lao soldiers attacked the Hmong wherever the Hmong showed up or could be found. One day, the Hmong - including the sons of both the first and second wives of Sia Tu (Txhiaj Tub) -  went to attack the Lao at Na Sou. 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 charcoal. The money 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 had left, another Hmong of the Lee clan became the resistance leader for us. When he planned 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.

GL: But he was a Chao Fa leader?

Yes. 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 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 (Broken Mountain), Lao soldiers fired mortar at them and killed 5-6 people. After that, we decided to leave for Phu Bia, too, but we were with another group and followed a different 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 there?

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. Once, they decided to attack from the East and managed to rout the Hmong living at Tia Nhu Qu (Wild Ox Plain). Then, the Pathet Lao 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 anywhere 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 Hmong. There must be more than 100 families. One person in front carried a white flag on our way to surrender.

 

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).  The authorities sent many soldiers to supervise the area.

 

GL: Was it Lao or Vietnamese soldiers?

Mostly Vietnamese.  Many, many of them.  The Lao authorities brought a lot of rice for the soldiers and for us. They had two granaries of rice in our area, but they only gave each family enough rice to last one day and one night,  not more. So we stayed 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 live 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 stay with them at Pha Ngonh.

 

GL: How many families?

4-5 families. 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.  After a few months, 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 [for possible resettlement]. There were about 4-5 families with my own involved. When we got to Tha Lat, we paid for taxis to take us to Muong Phuang. The fare 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 officials 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.  It was while we were there that you came to Thailand in 1985 to work with Gen. Vang Pao and you contacted me on their radio phone through one of the Neo Hom local contacts in Dong Jai.  I remembered we cried and cried, and could hardly speak.  It was the first time in a very long time that we as father and son talked to each other, heard each other’s voice. 

 

GL:  Yes, it was a very emotional moment.  It was not just us who cried, but many members of the radio phone team in Ban Vinai refugee camp also cried with us. I was visiting there at the time. Anyway, I want to ask you when was the first time after 1975 that you managed to make contact with me in Australia?

This was when I was living in Pha Ngonh. I went to seek information on your address from Xa Yuachao  [Xab Ntsuab Txos] and his brothers Pa Ying and Chong Teng 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:  Yes, they had my address because I knew them and wrote to them to ask if they could find you for me.  I wanted to help find ways for you to escape to Thailand so you could come to live in Australia with me.  After you found my address, 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.  After we got to K52, we bought rice and other necessities, trying to live a normal life and not to attract any suspicion from local officials.

 

GL: From K52, you then made an attempt to escape to Thailand?

Yes, but it was unsuccessful and we ended up in prison, instead.  When you visited Thailand in 1978, you left one of your photos with your mother’s cousin, Pa Xi 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 was paid with the money that you left with your Uncle Pa Xi. This Lao man came to K52 with our photo. He eventually found us living there, and he said he had already arranged with Lao officials to let us escape. Another Hmong family also wanted to come with us. We were taken in a small truck by two Lao police officers upstream along the Mekong river. They left us near a Lao village called Ban On just across the (Mekong) 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. We learned that he got arrested by the local Lao officials, and he told them that we were hiding in the forest nearby. At 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 for water to drink, but they gave us 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 [north of Vientiane city].

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 bamboo 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 on 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 shared some food with them 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’s why we decided to go to Na Yao. 

 

GL: After your imprisonment, you went to live in Na Yao?

I was able to get a travel permit from the Lao police at the prison, 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. Other Hmong we knew were already settled there. We joined them and grew one season of crop, rice and corn. The area was covered in virgin forests and very good for cultivation. But after a year, we decided to escape to Thailand. That had been the plan all along.  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. That was in 1986.

GL: This time was easier and 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: You were accepted into Ban Vinai?

Yes, they still accepted refugees at that time. We stayed there for 6 months. After the UN finished processing us and gave us official documents, we were taken to Chiang Kham refugee camp in Pha Yao province, northern Thailand.

GL: How long were you in Chiang Kham camp 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 another two months.

GL: What did they do with you and other refugees at Phanat Nikhom camp?

They did not do much. They just finished all the health checks, taught English to the younger people, and processed our travel documents. It was a famous place for “naked health check” where they asked you to take off your clothes and inspected your genitals.  The Hmong were really turned off by this kind of very personal health inspection.

 

GL: When did you arrive in Australia?

We got here in August 1988.

 

GL: So what do you think about all these life experiences?

This is what I think. I think that because you were my oldest son and you were good with your studies, you got a very high education in Australia, so the government allowed you to live here. This has allowed us to come and live in this nice country. In the old country, we only had enough to eat, not very rich, not very poor. Our old life was not like the life of today in this new country. So, 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 struggle for power caused all that suffering for the people?

Yes. I remember after you came back for vacation one year [1969] 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 only think about the Vang Pao era, but also the time I was working with the French. War made everyone suffer. You might be fine at home, but when you had to go to face your enemy, you suffer in all sorts of way.

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 (lub Ntuj or 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 live in peace with each other. There is a Hmong 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.

bottom of page