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BOOK REVIEWS


I LITTLE SLAVE. Dr. Bounsang Khamkeo and his editors hosted a reception last year in Vancouver, Washington to present his book, I Little Slave: A Prison Memoir from Communist Laos. (AR Photo/Polo)

 

It is strictly forbidden to

talk about the outside world;

You are forbidden to tell people outside

the camp what is going on here;

You are forbidden to have opinions;

Whispering is grounds for punishment;

It is forbidden to read or write;

You cannot laugh or sing.

-- Six of 36 memorized rules, provided in the 21-Article

Red Cliff Reeducation Camp Regulations

 

From The Asian Reporter, V17, #5 (January 30, 2007), page 15.

Three seasons of a father, a survivor, a scholar

I Little Slave: A Prison Memoir from Communist Laos

By Bounsang Khamkeo

Eastern Washington University Press, 2006

Paperback, 423 pages, $21.95

By Polo

Last year, the Honorable Bounsang Khamkeo and his editors hosted a reception in his gracious wife’s Vancouver, Washington restaurant. The event was well attended by scholars and writers, war veterans, Lao-American community elders and activists, family and friends. The purpose of their party was to wish-well Dr. Bounsang on the publication of I Little Slave: A Prison Memoir from Communist Laos.

I Little Slave is a difficult book. It is an important book. Its themes are made even more profound for America in these times of our intervention into another troubled place, with human consequences certainly as awful.

All that aside for a moment, I Little Slave is also a stirring story of a father, a survivor, a witness of humanity in all our extremes. Lucky for us, this learned man, this family man, lives just across River Columbia. Twenty minutes by Toyota.

Scene one

Our own Bounsang Khamkeo has done many things well. So many. Let me talk about only three.

Dr. Bounsang has lived three lives — the first was one of privilege, earned by his Chinese-Lao father’s entrepreneurial energy, his promise to educate his bright boy. Young Bounsang studied abroad at L’université de Toulouse. On campus, he was buoyed by an energetic generation of continental thinkers, convinced of the obviousness of liberty, equality, brotherhood. From faraway France, youthful Bounsang followed Southeast Asia’s brutal warring — a tragic cauldron fed by big neighboring nations and supported by both superpowers. Poor and unprepared little Laos in the middle of it all. When his time came, bright Dr. Bounsang, brimming with John Locke’s clarity and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s optimism, did what every responsible and educated patriot must: go home and help out.

The second part

Dr. Bounsang’s second life started joyously enough on his return to Vientiane in the early 1970s. It was the beginning of what should surely be a period of national reconstruction. The Paris Peace Accords ended an era of combat between North and South Viet Nam and gave a humbled U.S. an exit opportunity. In 1973 also, every ferocious faction fighting inside the Lao Kingdom signed, smiling, the Agreement on the Restoration of Peace and Reconciliation. It was all spelled out right there, in ink and on paper. It all seemed, to sincere believers like Dr. Bounsang, so very possible.

In a chapter titled "Return to Laos," in response to Prince Boun Oum’s asking his opinion on the Laos Peace Treaty, an earnest Dr. Bounsang starts to reply: Our country "has been ravaged by war for decades." He is about to insist that this is the time "to end the internal discord and begin developing the nation."

But the amused Prince cuts him off: "Young man, you are so gullible!"

His Highness, Dr. Bounsang writes, goes on "to reproach me, saying that I didn’t realize that the revolutionaries were going to swallow us up and the peace agreement was essentially meaningless … The Americans will respect the peace agreement and will stop intervening in Laotian affairs, but the North Vietnamese still occupy Laos."

The ugly intractability of those times, and the inevitable pathos of that place, resonate ominously with our own. With our current adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

During a decade when most educated Lao exited West, after eight tense years of Dr. Bounsang’s believing he was contributing dutifully to his struggling country’s development, the author’s world suddenly collapsed. Rifled police cuffed Dr. Bounsang’s wrists, roped his neck, and took him away into the night. It happened at his slimy but smart superior’s house. Dr. Bounsang’s wife was home. He never said goodbye.

The author’s brave wife, Vieng, would have to protect and provide, discipline and educate, the disappeared Dr. Bounsang’s four children without him for seven long, dreadfully silent years. Without her knowing when or where, he was taken from dark to darker prisons. So-called "reeducation" camps. Great bitterness, most survivors carry about this appalling term. We use it advisedly. Respectfully.

This period of the author’s life takes up the thick middle of I Little Slave. It is painful but it is critically important reading — in these times, for all times. Bounsang Khamkeo is a witness to a history only sketchily documented in the scholarly record of Southeast Asia. History can be easily erased, either because our big, busy world rushes on or because those involved want to erase their culpability. Both compound the cruel crimes Dr. Bounsang suffered year after year after year. Both condone the forest executions, the starvings and the beatings to death after death after death Dr. Bounsang witnessed in the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos. Erasure, negligent or intentional, denies the humanity of our survivors — moreover, it denies the humanity of those who did not survive.

"If you see something wrong in this system, if you speak of it, maybe something good will happen. Maybe some- thing bad will happen, to you," Dr. Bounsang told those gathered at his Vancouver reception. "But if you don’t speak, what happens to human dignity?"

Dr. Bounsang has spoken. The rest is up to readers. The rest is up to us when this awesome responsibility comes around.

The redemptive end

Dr. Bounsang’s life’s third scene began in Vientiane again, on his sudden release from prison. It was in this third act also, that he developed and delivered I Little Slave — his existentially unflinching, his emotionally modest, and intellectually disciplined accounting of four decades in the hub of history.

In a chapter called "Released at Last," the author recalls a refueling stop on his ride out of a northern Lao frontier province in a stammering old Russian cargo copter. He jumps onto the tarmac to trade village girls his only spare shirt for five ripe pears. Gifts. "Just the right number for a wife and four children."

He is unceremoniously dropped off in the capitol, his hometown. "After seven years, three months, and four days of imprisonment I was no longer a prisoner." Unhappily, however, "as we soon discovered, our families were not there to greet us. The authorities had not informed them of our release." An airport worker let the author use his desk phone to call home, to dial up the number he knew by heart. But it was disconnected. Dr. Bounsang writes: "For an awful moment I feared she had given up hope and fled the country."

Sick with anxiety, Dr. Bounsang gets a ride to his house. Unknown people look hard at him. Dogs rush at him just as at Homer’s Ithacan hero Odysseus, returning home at long last, bearded, ragged, filthy. Unrecognizable.

The author builds up his reunion with his family to an almost intolerable level of anticipation, but it all ends well.

On September 6, 1988, his release certificate in hand, Dr. Bounsang is officially freed by the People’s Supreme Court to local authorities and his family. All are sternly directed to "continue to educate him to become a good citizen of the nation." That judicial document is now the cover art of I Little Slave, Dr. Bounsang’s broad- shouldered memoir. It’s all up front, punctuated by the Penal Issues Committee chairman’s red stamp of approval. Also on the book’s cover are two green leaves, maybe rose, maybe symbolic of Dr. Bounsang’s bond with his lovely Viengsavanh. Gardener of his families’ precious souls. Maybe — but, to be sure, readers will have to ask the author.

In this third phase, indeed in his third place, from continent to continent to continent, the Hon. Bounsang Khamkeo has again done so many things well. In 1989 he moved his family to America where they now excel; he turned his dehumanization and then his dislocation into becoming a behavioral health counselor at Oregon Health & Science University’s psychiatric program. He is at last an esteemed Asian community elder; his wife runs Royal Cuisine, a cozy Vancouver restaurant frequented by scholars and writers such as her husband. A place filled with admirers of her persistent spirit and, of course, her fragrant Thai and Lao dishes.

Said Portland school principal Tou Meksavanh at the publication party for Dr. Bounsang’s book: "We are grateful he survived to tell the story of an ugly part of Lao history. We are such an oral tradition, so writing a book is an exceptional gift. Not just to tell the story, but to go on record — in writing — that this did indeed happen."

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