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'I Little Slave': An Interview With Bounsang Khamkeo
Bounsang Khamkeo survived seven years in the secret jungle prisons of the Communist Pathet Lao with the idea that one day he would survive to bear witness to his country's shame—the brainwashing of its citizens and his own treatment as a political prisoner. His memoir, "I Little Slave" (Eastern Washington University Press), is the first full account of the death camps of Laos.
Educated in France, where he earned a Ph.D. in political science, Khamkeo returned to Laos in 1973 because he wanted to serve his country. His studies had changed his beliefs from the feudal tradition that dictated that a person address someone older or of superior status as "I Little Slave" instead of "I" to a belief in the inalienable "rights of man." He took a job in Laos' coalition government.
As the Communists gained total power, Khamkeo found himself witness to corruption.
When he pointed it out, he was imprisoned. In Communist terms, he was sent to "reeducation" camp, though he learned the true purpose was not to educate but bury individuals.
In prison, says Khamkeo, the Communists finally managed the equality they had promised but failed to deliver to society. With no respect for the Geneva Convention, generals, doctors, and criminals were all reduced to the same subhuman condition.
Year in, year out, from bad prison to the most infamous of the death camps, Khamkeo existed, never knowing if he would be released, yet never allowing himself to give up or to give in to his jailers' demands for a "confession."
How he was released was a matter of timing. In the 1980's, the Soviet Union wanted economic opportunity with the United States. Because our policy was linked with better human rights, political prisoners in the Communist world, including Khamkeo, were finally released. Though he was not allowed out of the country, he finally exited on a bought passport and came with his family to the United States in 1989.
Raised in Laos, what were your traditional beliefs about your society and were they changed during your time of education in France?
Laos was a feudal country but I didn't believe in monarchy. When I came back from France, it was a kingdom and it became a Communist system. Because of my French education, I liked Republicanism. I believed in the Rights of Man, in the French declaration of the value of the human being.
What does I Little Slave mean as a form of address?
In our feudal monarchy, people said it instead of "I," as a polite form of address. It's also a degrading human condition. Under the monarchy it was used but when the Communists came in they said they wanted to erase the term, because it's so low, the social status. They said all people were equal. Then in prison, they made us prisoners use the term, to humiliate us as human beings. Prisoners were treated as under citizens.
What were your aspirations, when you began your career as a civil servant?
I came from a rich family by Laotian standards. After so many years abroad, I chose to come home, rather than staying in France where I would have had a more comfortable living situation. I wanted to contribute to the betterment of my country after decades of warfare.
How did communist ideology gain a foothold in traditional Laotian culture?
The Communists are professional politicians and they worked well with the poor. They listened to what they wanted to change and [to] their desires. This was a big change.
They used words like clean government, patriotism, independence, peace, social progress, dignity, freedom, and justice, which were bad under the monarchy. People thought they would do better with the Communists, have a say in the government, freedom, and a good family life. They promised a society without class where everyone was equal and there was hope for a better life. The Communists didn't deliver.
What irked you about the grievance hearings at the ministry and why didn't you comply when asked by the Chief of Staff?
They pushed employees to express complaints and denounce superiors. This is different than the traditional Laotian way of being. We see both sides of a situation, so there is harmony in relationships. We seek peace, not angry denunciation. I also didn't like that he asked me as though I had to agree. I should have freedom to choose. I knew the Communists were the future and that they would change the system. But I'm not for monarchy or Communism. And these were the two factions in my position. I thought it was possible to be uncommitted.
How did the communists take over?
As I said, they are professional, very skilled. They didn't overthrow the government right away. They just moved slowly, making changes. Behind them always were the Vietnamese Communists, who really controlled everything and organized the victory for the Pathet Lao. When Phnom Penh and Saigon fell, Laos was next. It was inevitable.
Seeing this direction, how come you didn't leave when the rest of your family did?
I love Laos and the people. I thought I could live under the regime without being Communist. And that eventually the system would change from Communist to something else. I was wrong.
What encounter led to your being imprisoned?
The Communists knew I wasn't with the revolution. They took the conflict with my boss as an excuse to put me in prison. I think they wanted to show other intellectuals what could happen to them and kill opposition. I think they wanted to set an example with me because I knew many people in government.
Were they trying to discover anything in the interrogations or was it just bullying to get you to conform to their ideas?
They wanted me to confess I was a reactionary and I was working for the Thais, the Chinese, and the Laotian resistance movement based in Thailand. They said the same thing over and over. They really wanted my confessions. But if you confess, you are killed. If you refuse, you're put in prison. I did not confess so they kept me in prison for years.
Was it legal to hold you without information as to where you were being held and why?
There were no laws, no constitution. They could do what they wanted. They accused me of being "the enemy of the Socialist state," and with that label, they could kill.
Was your refusal also about doing your duty?
Intellectually speaking, I would say yes. I stayed in my position and I didn't do what they said. They "advised" me to confess crimes I did not commit.
Being arrested when you had done nothing wrong and never knowing if they would release you sounds horrific. Is it that bad in Laos today?
If you compare today to 1975, it's changed a lot in many areas of daily life. You can do business in Laos now and travel and practice religions, but Christianity is still persecuted by the communist authorities. And the government still runs everything, such as the media. Human rights are still a burning issue.
How did you survive prison, knowing there might be no way out?
One part was physical, the other psychological. Physical health is important but not essential. It's the psychological that was most important. Love of my family, knowing they believed in me and were waiting for my return, was crucial. And there's my own character. I had to be strong. I told myself: the day I get out of prison, I will be the winner. I was fortunate to have my educational background. In prison, they want to bury you. I was not religious, but at Hop Sao No. 7 Prison, I prayed to God to keep me strong. It was the worst possible place. I wanted to be a witness to what happened in my country and the suffering in the world. The communists said their political regime was the best and would last for 1,000 years. I wanted to see which system would last in my lifetime, capitalism or communism. Now you have the answer.
When you had thoughts that you wanted to be dead, how did you endure?
I go back to my education, my study of human history. Evolution in the world is always through suffering. It's part of the human condition. When I had cowardice, I would remind myself that my suffering was a part of the world. That made me strong to think of myself as part of history and the universal human condition. Then I didn't want to kill myself. And though my book is about suffering—war, torture, and refugees—it's also about hope. Humans can make mistakes. They can make other people suffer and then change life for the better. I became at peace with myself.
You describe the shame you felt for your country. Is that healed now?
Shame that they haven't changed the regime and that they treated prisoners so badly. They didn't go along with the Geneva Convention regarding torture and prison abuse. We in the U.S. respect that standard. Communists don't recognize international law. Even today, the Communists in Laos are lawless. They arrest people but don't tell them why or even where they are. Prison doesn't exist. Instead, they are called reeducation camps. Laotians likes the idea of freedom, but they can't talk freely. People in Laos don't understand their government. They don't get that always behind their government was the Vietnamese.
Why were you finally released after seven years?
A good question. In a Communist country, it's usually forever. It's not they were being human. I think it was a matter of timing. There were changes in international policy at that time. The economy in the Soviet Union was very bad and they asked the U.S. for help. The U.S. said, we will help but you must respect human rights. So when the Soviet Union changed, so did Laos. It was by accident that I was released. But they wouldn't let me out of the country. I bought a fake passport. That's how I got out and immigrated to this great country. America.
Are there lessons from your imprisonment for Americans in the era of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib?
When the U.S. Embassy talked about human rights and intervened, they got rights improved in Laos. I don't believe in prison or torture. And prison is a torture. America showed us a good example, that you treat prisoners well and according to law. America needs to lead the world in this area. Nations look to us to be a beacon to the world.
What lessons about survival did you learn, as an individual pitted against a deathly political machine?
When people can't survive, they must change the situation. In prison, I had to improve the human condition without the use of force. And nations and individuals can go either way. It's in the genes. We have some good and some bad, like Chinese philosophy—yin and yang. Better to learn to balance the conflicting forces to solve the problem. Learn to negotiate.
Did you feel a desire to revenge yourself on those who conspired for your capture?
I haven't had the idea in my head. Communists can die, but communism can stay around. I worry about the human rights in the country. It's so important not to use force to solve problems. Diplomacy, talking is the way. And we should teach children to be peaceful and kind, not selfish, critical, and greedy. We can try to change for the better. That is part of human history. We always have a choice.
Why do you think you survived when others did not?
They got too pessimistic. I had to believe in myself. Willpower. I wanted to win over the communists. I had to think that I would be able to endure—that I would live and see my family again.
You survived to bear witness. What can you tell us about the danger of politics to human rights?
After Sept. 11, there was torture in prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq. When it comes to questions of freedom, we have to ask ourselves questions. Do we want to be a beacon for freedom in the world? Can we set an example for freedom and democracy? To torture people to get answers is not the American way. I am a U.S. citizen and this is not what we do. We are not run by fear. At such times, there's an urge to sweep civil liberties aside, to give into fanaticism. We must remember our role in the world.
Was it possible that people knew about the camps and yet did nothing?
Remember, Lao People's Democratic Republic is a police state. The camps were isolated. The party taught us three things. One, you did not see anything; two, you did not hear anything; and three, you do not know anything. You can't say anything about prison conditions. It's very secret. Many people didn't know about the prisons. Now they are becoming more aware.
What can America learn from your experience in Communist prisons?
Do not give into your fears. It's [through] fear that our enemies will overthrow us. But shutting them in prison doesn't change the situation. Using torture to have your fears confirmed doesn't make you safer. I learned not to be afraid. And that you can solve problems not with violence, but by listening to the others, learning what they need and want.
What can you say about the wise use of power?
I don't complain about the human condition, suffering, and violence. I want to work in a positive way to improve human dignity. There needs to be an increase in love and peace for all peoples. Condemning talk is a form of violence. We need a lot of talk, diplomacy to resolve conflicts, not war. Wise people come to agreement. They rule with a sense of serving the dignity of others.
Susan Weinstein is a public relations professional in New York, N.Y. She specializes in book campaigns for publishers.