The Kingdom of One Million Elephants
TO THE EXTENT THAT, having, as a university student, read newspaper reports about the Lao crisis of 1959-61 and its resolution at the Geneva Conference of 1962, I knew the names and the political leanings of Princes Souvanna Phouma, Souphanouvong and Boun Oum, I had thought Laos was familiar territory. From other readings I was aware that we were going to a land where the dominant religion was Theravada Buddhism. But I was not prepared for the political, social and diplomatic realities of the Laos of the early 1970’s, in which we began our stay in not the most auspicious circumstances.
My wife, my two very young children and I arrived by train at the railhead town of Nongkhai in northeast Thailand early in the morning of 2 nd July 1970 at the end of an irritating twenty-hour journey by air and rail from Kolkata. Service in the flight the previous day from Kolkata to Bangkok had been poor and when we landed in Bangkok, the first thing we had on our minds was food for the children who were by then very hungry. When the man from the embassy in Bangkok who had come to meet us at the airport asked if we would like to do any shopping in the four or five hours we had before catching the train to Nongkhai, we told him we were only interested in going to an eating place so the children could have some food. Yet the man, after depositing our baggage in the cloakroom at the railway station, took us to a department store, where we bought nothing, before taking us to an eating-place. He must have been used to people doing shopping in Bangkok before going to the ‘wilderness’, and assumed that we must likewise make some purchases. He would not understand that we had no such need. We lost so much time at the department store and on traffic-choked (how choked, I had no idea at that time) streets of Bangkok that we made it to the train to Nongkhai just in time. Having taken us to our berths, the man from the embassy went to bring our baggage from the cloakroom, which we saw being trundled along on a trolley on the platform as our train rolled out of Bangkok railway station. I have no other memory of our first encounter with Bangkok, not even the department store, except, perhaps the airport, which in appearance and in facilities was quite like the airports in Delhi and Kolkata.
We were without some of the most basic necessities, early in the morning the next day at Nongkhai, a small town on the Mekong, which people crossed by motorized country boats to enter Laos on the opposite bank of the river, and then on to Vientiane by road some 38 kilometres upstream. During the rest of our stay in Laos we would come back to Nongkhai many times. On that morning of our first arrival, we had to go into town to buy a few things that we would need in the absence of our baggage. One of the enduring images I have of that morning’s rickshaw ride through Nongkhai is of saffron or ochre robed Buddhist monks with their begging bowls filing silently past houses where at the door housewives, men or young girls stood waiting with rice or other offerings which they gave as alms to these monks, kneeling in front of them as they passed. This picture fitted my image of early Buddhism in India—an idea based more on some syrupy Hindi romance, set in the epoch of the Buddha, than on anything I had seen in India. This sight must have been the genesis of my essentially naïve, even puerile ideas of Buddhist piety and of Buddhist monastic life lived according to rules made some twenty-five centuries earlier. It was not until about three decades later, during a stay in Thailand, that I was able to have a closer look at Buddhism in Southeast Asia. At that stage, in 1970, that simplistic picture was an adequate prop for my Indocentric, arrogant, condescending and ill-informed view of the ‘civilizing mission’ of India in Southeast Asia.
Despite the comic circumstances of our arrival, not only the beginning but also our entire two yearlong stay in Vientiane was comfortable and pleasant. I had been told that the ambassador I was going to serve under was ‘very difficult’. I had a fear that arriving there without our baggage might seem to be a sign of my ineptitude to this difficult man. Our first surprise was to be told by the two persons (one of whom we had known in our embassy in Rabat) who had been sent to meet us at Nongkhai, that we would stay with the ambassador till we decided on a house for ourselves from among those that had been kept in reserve for us. As I got to know the man, I found him exceedingly warm-hearted, generous and honest who had two major faults: he did not suffer fools and made it clear both by manner and words if he thought someone was a fool. Since I gained acceptance easily enough, I guessed I was considered all right.
Likewise, I had been given the most lurid picture of the living conditions of Vientiane. Evidently this small two and a half-avenue town with two or three cinema halls, one and a half hotels and no shopping malls was no metropolis. But between the Chinese and Indian merchants and the morning market all the requirements for daily living except fresh milk were available there. These were topped up by duty free imports under diplomatic privilege. I was able to buy a biggish Italian refrigerator and a good Japanese hi-fi music system off the shelf and a Toyota Corona motorcar also almost off the shelf. There was no television—I do not know if that was a curse or a blessing. Some people who had access to the American Club run for the benefit of the large number of Americans living in Vientiane, most of whom worked for the CIA operated Air America, could watch American movies, take part in other American style amusements and have access to the US Commissary. If you had a taste for good and authentic Chinese or ersatz French cuisine prepared by Vietnamese cooks, there were decent enough and ridiculously low priced places you could go to. For those with a taste for them, there were many nightclubs, including some strip joints, ugly by-products of the large American military and quasi-military presence in the region. It is very rarely that we went to movie halls—we saw once a Hindi movie and on another occasion Dr. Zhivago, which the Russian who was the local head of the KGB also saw, liked, talked about and recommended.
True, the country was in the middle of a civil war and its fortunes were linked to the outcome of the fighting in Vietnam. But the fighting was far away as was the bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and of the Plain of Jars, the principal battleground between the Lao Government forces and those of the Pathet Lao allied to the North Vietnamese. The CIA was fighting another ‘secret war’ through proxies in the shape of Meo tribesmen in the north of the country, armed and financed to fight and harass the Pathet Lao. The closest the civil war ever came to us was during the Lao New Year celebrations in April 1971. We, like other members of the diplomatic corps had gone for the occasion of the Lao New Year to Luang Prabang at the invitation of the King and the Queen. I was India’s man in charge for the time being. After the dinner, dance and the long evening of levity and joy, most people in the diplomatic corps had gone back late to their hotel rooms and slept soundly, not to be disturbed by any noise. The next morning at breakfast time people talked excitedly about a rocket attack by the Pathet Lao at night at the airport, damaging two or three aircraft of the Lao Air Force. The only manner in which this incident disturbed our lives was that our return to Vientiane was delayed by a few hours.
In Vientiane, life was pleasantly somnolent into which the surrounding wars intruded in the form of a curfew from midnight to sunrise. People, at least people in the expatriate community, were only half aware of the nightly curfew. Late night parties and games of bridge, well past the start of the curfew were common. The only natural calamity we knew in our two years there was the flooding by the Mekong, one year, of low-lying parts of Vientiane, though not the areas where most people like us lived. Above all diplomatic life in Vientiane was so full of comic reliefs that it left very little time for ennui. I could not and did not complain of difficult living conditions there.
IN 1964-66, THE CONSTITUTIONAL AND POLITICAL ARRANGEMENTS for Laos agreed at Geneva in 1962, of which the centrepiece was a government formed by leftist, neutralist and rightist factions as equal partners, broke down. The leftist Pathet Lao had retreated to Sam Neua in the northeast, the neutralist Souvanna Phouma continued as Prime Minister but as an ally of the rightists and of the USA, and Prince Boun Oum Na Champassak, who had headed the rightist faction in 1959-61 was quite content in his stronghold of Pakse in the deep South, happily enriching himself out of America’s war against communism. In 1970, neither the opening of negotiations with the Viet Cong and the Government of North Vietnam by the Johnson Administration, nor the election of Nixon in 1968 on the promise of pulling the USA out of the war had brought about any abatement in the fighting in Vietnam. The war had actually intensified. Cambodia, which had managed by and large to keep out of the Vietnam War, was, after the replacement of Sinhanouk by General Lon Nol in March 1970, fully into it. Consequently traffic down the Ho Chi Minh trail, much of which passed through Laos, was as heavy as ever and so was the American bombing of the Trail. The Lao Civil War, a sideshow, had also intensified.
In these conditions the remaining shell of the 1962 Geneva Accords on Laos and of the, earlier, 1954 Accords covering the whole of Indo-China, the three-member International Control Commission looked an anachronism. The Canadians had reduced their presence on the Commission to that of an army colonel, the Poles to that of a senior diplomat who was titled Head of the Polish Delegation and an army colonel. India, which not only carried the onerous responsibility of chairing the Commission but also had the responsibility for its administrative and financial management, had a senior diplomat who as the Head of the Indian Delegation was the Chairman and the Secretary General of the Commission, two other diplomats who functioned respectively as the Deputy Head of the Indian Delegation and the Deputy Secretary General, an Indian army brigadier to head the by then non-existent Indian military contingent to the Commission as well as the even more non existent international military group to supervise the cease fire established by the Geneva Accords, an Indian army major to assist the brigadier and a dozen or more junior Indian personnel to provide help and support to the diplomats and the soldiers.
From time to time the Lao Government would complain to the Commission about a cease fire violation by the Pathet Lao (how in a situation of generalized war all around one could complain about localized breaches of cease fire was one of the mysteries of international politics beyond the ken of ordinary people like me) and ask the Commission for investigations. The Canadian delegate would support the request, the Pole would oppose it and the Indian would express his willingness to go with the majority, whereafter the Indian Chairman would adjourn the meeting. Occasionally, in 1971, I would hear the second of the two Indian Chairmen I knew talk of the Commission taking a new initiative to solve the Lao problem. I did not know if these ‘initiatives’ were seriously meant or were a means of puffing up the ego of the gentleman.
Most of the fourteen signatories to the Geneva Accords had privately and not so privately decided that they would no longer make financial contributions to the maintenance of the Commission. From time to time, the Commission would ask the representatives of the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, the two Co-Chairmen of the 1961-62 and the 1954 Geneva Conferences, for financial help. How the Commission managed to keep itself afloat is a detail I was not interested in and did not try to understand from friends working at the Commission. Apparently the emoluments at the Commission as well as the facilities were so good that a tour of duty there was very popular with people in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and in the Indian Army. Though those who worked there were supposed to be in a ‘non-family’ station, any of the Indians who could manage and afford, brought at least his wife along to join him in this ‘hardship’ post. Their wives accompanied the two Indian Chairmen and one of the three Indian brigadiers I knew in Vientiane.
The Commission had an aircraft in which its personnel could commute between Vientiane, Hanoi, Saigon and Phnom Penh. That aircraft offered cheap fares to these places to outsiders also so that for many diplomats and people like them in Vientiane those days a journey to Saigon was a necessary part of stay there. Many would come back with one and a half or two-foot high porcelain elephants with flat slabs on their backs, to be used as side tables or as tabourets in their living rooms. Some brought Vietnamese lacquer ware. The only interest I had in the Commission’s aircraft was in a possible journey to Phnom Penh and on to the Angkor Vat but I was told that after the fall of Sinhanouk, the Angkor Vat had become inaccessible. We never made that journey to Saigon as the idea did not appear very attractive and we never became owners of those porcelain elephants.
Many parties with an interest in Indo-China had probably concluded that the International Control Commission was no longer much use but most had an interest in keeping up the pretense that they accepted and abided by the Geneva Accords of 1962 and 1954. For that reason no one was willing to ask for a formal end to the International Control Commission. Whatever the Commission and the large Indian contingent there did or did not do, the Indians at the Commission considerably enlarged the official Indian community in Vientiane, a community big enough to have its own stock of gossip and scandals, adding spice to life.
IN THE SPRING OF 1971 AND OF 1972 Prime Minister Prince Souvanna Phouma proposed the neutralization of the Plain of Jars which had become the fulcrum of the see saw Lao Civil War between the Government forces and the ‘communist’ Pathet Lao. I was to learn soon enough that that proposal was an annual feature and its true meaning was to suggest that the Pathet Lao which, faced by the mechanized government troops, would withdraw from the Plain during the dry months, should not be allowed to return there when the rains started—not that this proposal or the heavy US bombardment of the Plain prevented or deterred the Pathet Lao from returning to the Plain every year when the rains set in. Also, in early 1971 some prominent Lao politicians proposed the formation of a Federation between Laos, Cambodia and South Vietnam. This proposal, which did not make progress, would, if accepted, have given legal cover to the USA for sending in ground troops to interdict traffic down the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In fact during those years when the USA was officially working towards a withdrawal of its troops from Vietnam and the rest of Indo-China, gradually ‘vietnamising’ the war while at the same time its land war and aerial bombardment had both become fiercer than before, there would scarcely be a month when some party or the other to the Indo-Chinese conflicts would not make a grand proposal, the real reasons and the purposes of which would then be analyzed and interpreted by diplomats, journalists and politicians. No one was duped and yet such grand plans never ceased being put forward.
Sometimes, parties not directly involved in these conflicts also took ‘initiatives’. In the spring of 1971, Indira Gandhi endorsed Leonid Brezhnev’s proposal for the neutralization of Southeast Asia, which was short hand for asking for the withdrawal of US and Western armed forces from the region. Instructions went out to Indian embassies everywhere to canvass the proposal. I was the Indian man in charge for the time being in Vientiane then and in that capacity met the Secretary General of the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a gentle, kindly man who, as a Roman Catholic, was also a rare breed in the Laos of those days. He heard me out and then said that the proposal had very little chance of being accepted by China and the USA as long as it was seen as an instrument of Soviet policy. Reporting this response, I also added my own view that the proposal had very little chance of gaining support as long as the Vietnam War remained a divisive issue in Southeast Asia. In actual fact it did not take off.
I received a response from the Ministry of External Affairs, which I found both amusing and puzzling—the head of the concerned division in the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi who had sent out the original instructions wrote to say that he agreed with me fully. But then I understood quite soon that my entirely misplaced puzzlement was due to my own naïveté. These initiatives of Brezhnev and Indira Gandhi were based on calculations which had very little to do with Indo-China.
Diplomats, their professional cousins, traditional journalists and their newer kinsfolk, ‘political analysts’ and ‘area specialists’ make careers out of interpreting and analyzing public statements made by political leaders. The existence of breeds such as ‘kremnilogists’ and ‘sinologists’ was explained by the absence of open political discussion in the Soviet Union and in the People’s Republic China because of the ‘secretive’ nature of these societies. But if the archives of many an embassy the world over are likely to be full of reams of dispatches explaining the real meaning of public statements made or initiatives taken by political leaders, it is because such public positions adopted by politicians whether in closed authoritarian societies or in open democratic ones cannot always be taken at their face value. Why in democratic societies where open political debate is not only claimed as one of its most important virtues but is expected to guarantee that public good will not be sacrificed, there should be a gap between the apparent and real meaning and purpose of a political declaration is a question that has since those days in Laos troubled me.
LIFE IN VIENTIANE, in spite of the tragedy of Indochina had the quality of a comedy with occasional shades of the vaudeville. The fighting, the death, the suffering and the spoliation of these countries were matters for the newspapers to report on, or for politicians and diplomats ‘to discuss’, not for anyone who was not directly involved in them nor directly affected to have any feelings about. At one level life in Vientiane, Luang Prabang and Pakse went on as if there was no fighting. At Luang Prabang, the King and the Queen regularly celebrated the Lao New Year and the annual boat race at which the diplomatic corps participated in full strength, both ending with almost nightlong feasting, carousing and dancing at the Royal Palace. There was an annual That Luang festival at Vientiane which the King inaugurated, and at which not only merchants sold their wares and people had fun as at any popular fair, but embassies competed with each other in displaying the ‘culture and civilization’ of their countries in the most attractive manner possible. Embassies likewise competed with each other in raising as much money as possible by selling merchandise from their countries for the Lao Red Cross Society at an annual event—these were trivial amounts of money when measured against the needs of those affected by the fighting, but the event was important in the diplomatic calendar of the town.
One year, those in the diplomatic corps who wanted, were ferried in an old military DC-3 to Pakse for an event organized by Prince Boun Oum na Champassak. After landing at an airstrip in the middle of paddy fields and freshening up at a large, reasonably well-equipped and well-furnished house, we were taken to what looked like a badly maintained school building. As we arrived there we saw an elderly, buxom lady, dressed like any ordinary Lao woman, asleep, flat on her back, on a bare table. We learnt that she was Princess na Champassak, the wife of the Prince. And then we saw a gentleman who played on a one stringed instrument and sang old French ditties, off key. He was dressed in what looked to me like a half-length dhoti and a short-sleeved shirt of a style worn by people in rural north India—if I had encountered him in India, from his dress I would have taken him to be a peasant from Gangetic plains. We were given lunch, the first course of which was soup served in large earthen pots placed on the ground, each pot with four or five cane pipes about four feet long through which guests standing on their feet sucked the soup as people suck drinks out of bottles or glasses through straw pipes. Almost as if to add to the exoticism of the setting, the soup had been seasoned with large red ants which we could see floating in the liquid, the formic acid from the ants adding a pleasant tang. I had to make an effort to overcome my higher caste Hindu squeamishness about food before taking the first sip of that soup. After or during lunch, those with a clear agenda such as defending the free world from communism probably used the opportunity to hawk their view of contemporary events in Indo-China to the Prince and to the people around him. People like us who had only the ancient historical and cultural links between our two countries and our desire to further strengthen relations between our two countries to talk about, spent the rest of our time chatting, generally enjoying our day out and walking, which included a climb up a small hillock to see Wat Phu, a Khmer style Hindu shrine. And then the return to Vientiane in the evening, aboard the same DC-3.
At dinner at the home of a fellow diplomat from the US embassy, I had settled down in one corner of the living room, to a conversation with a Minister-Counsellor in the Japanese Embassy, a fine man who had done a tour of duty in the protocol department at the Imperial Court in Tokyo before coming to Vientiane. Having spent his childhood and early adolescence in Marseilles where his father had been the Japanese Consul General during the late 1930’s and the early 1940’s, he was perfectly fluent in French. His favourite Indian story was about a dinner at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo in honour of Indira Gandhi during her visit to Japan one or two years earlier. A very carefully prepared and rehearsed scheme to help the waiters at the Imperial Palace know who in the entourage of Mrs. Gandhi was a vegetarian and who was not, went all wrong because some people in that group decided to pick up the flowers in front of them to pass them to their neighbours at the table or put them in their pockets as soon as they were seated. This friend and I were talking about such and more serious matters like a game of bridge till our and other groups’ low voiced conversation was roughly interrupted when we heard General Oudorn Sananikone, the Chief of the Royal Lao Army, say loudly and angrily to our host in another part of the room: ‘ Why do you say that? Why don’t you ask Mr. Tovar how much money he has given to…?’ People in the diplomatic and official community in Vientiane said openly that Mr. Tovar, a First Secretary in the US Embassy was the local station chief of the CIA.
Likewise, Viktor Mikhailovich Jukov, a Counsellor at the Soviet Embassy, was openly talked about as the head of the KGB office in Vientiane. One evening the Czechoslovak Chargé d’affaires who ran a one-man embassy had come home for dinner along with his wife. In the post-dinner conversation he mentioned, probably unthinkingly, Viktor Jukov as the KGB chief and then spent some time pleading with us never to let anyone know that he had named Jukov as the KGB man. He said: ‘You know I am alone in my embassy and you know how many they are at the Soviet Embassy. If ever they find out that I have been saying such things, I shall be in great trouble’. I have not been able to forget the fear in the eyes of the Czech as he spoke those words, just as I have found it difficult to forget the sleepless eyes and the drawn expression of a Czechoslovak first secretary I knew in Rabat on the morning after Dubcek had been arrested by the Soviet troops in Prague in 1968. At that time, the Czechoslovak Embassy in Rabat had circulated a statement pledging their loyalty to the Czechoslovak Government headed by Dubcek. After the Red Army had put an end to the Prague Spring, the entire Czechoslovak Embassy in Rabat had been recalled.
Viktor Jukov and I established close enough personal relations. Once in six weeks or so we lunched together in some restaurant or the other exchanging gossip and ‘analysis’, Viktor paying for the lunch more often than I—he insisted on doing so. Obviously he had the financial means. He also drove a lada, which was personal to him, while another Soviet diplomat, a first secretary, whom also I knew, had no personal car and used an Embassy car, a Volga. Compared to others in the Embassy, Viktor seemed better off, more gregarious and freer in his manners. Looking at him and some others earlier in the Soviet Embassy in Rabat who had the reputation of being KGB men, it seemed to me that KGB men in Soviet Embassies had a different, richer lifestyle, compared to other diplomats. This remained only an impression until I read Anatoly Dobrynin’s memoirs, In Confidence, in which he actually says that the KGB men in his embassy in Washington DC had more opulent lifestyles than the diplomats from the Soviet ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Viktor was delightful company. Once in a conversation I said Russia while I meant the Soviet Union, and when, remembering the repeated injunctions from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs about using only the official name of the country while referring to the Soviet Union, I started apologizing, he cut me short, saying: ‘What is the Soviet Union if it is not Russia?’ He also entertained at home. On one occasion, after dinner, he played a record of what he said were gipsy songs. One of them was a song about some Viktor Mikhailovich—Viktor our host said with impish delight that the Viktor Mikhailovich of the song was none other than him. Then we talked of other things including frequent burglaries in his house when the intruders just ransacked some rooms in the house but took no valuables away except a record player or a tape recorder once. He did not live in an isolated area. He said that among his many neighbours, a second secretary from the US Embassy was the nearest, suggesting that the burglaries were the handiwork of US secret services.
Another diplomatic colleague I saw frequently was the First Counsellor in the French Embassy, the number two man there. I went to meet him every once in a while. As soon as we were seated, he would offer me a cigar, take one himself, and we would light them. He would ask me very few questions but did not mind talking. He would talk almost till our or at least my cigar had been smoked. There were other friends too, diplomats and Lao alike. And then my hierarchical superior the Ambassador of India to Laos had established such a reputation that any anti-establishment American journalist who came to town had to have a session with him. He talked openly and often in a manner to irritate the US Ambassador. He was always au fait with what was happening in the country. Partly because of this I was believed to be more knowledgeable than I actually was. I did not see much advantage in correcting that impression. Once a second secretary in the US Embassy said to me that since I met so many different kinds of people, I would know some things that he might be interested in and that we could make an arrangement so that I could pass on to him some information he might be interested in. I thought he was trying to recruit me. I told him I would think over. This proposition was never repeated possibly because the man found out the real extent of my knowledge!
On one occasion, when I did pick up something very interesting, my knowledge was of no use to any one. In December 1970, the Indian ambassador was on home leave. From the beginning of my stay in Vientiane, the arrangement had been that while I would do routine reporting from the embassy only the Ambassador would send special dispatches. This time was still early enough during my stay for me not to depart from that practice even though I was chargé d’affaires and in theory my own master. At the end of a dinner at our house, when all the guests had left, the second counsellor at the French Embassy and his wife stayed on for some time. Over coffee and cognac the counsellor told me that he had seen some interesting papers from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sent after a visit to Beijing in October that year by Maurice Couve de Murville, the former Prime Minister of France. According to these papers the USA and China were rapidly moving towards a number of understandings and normalization of relations and that during the UN General Assembly session of September-December 1971, the USA would let the People’s Republic of China be admitted to the United Nations ‘in spite of its opposition’ and that this would be followed fairly soon by a significant and public overturning of relations, perhaps by means of a high level political visit. I took note of this but did not send a dispatch. When I reported this conversation to the ambassador on his return, he dismissed all of it as highly unlikely. Later events showed how correct what the French counsellor had told me about the shape of things to come had been—the People’s Republic of China was accepted in the autumn of 1971 as the legitimate occupant of the seat of China in the United Nations, the mock anger of the US State Department against those Third World delegates who nearly broke into dancing on the floor of the General Assembly notwithstanding, and Richard Nixon visited Beijing in the spring of 1972.
I regretted not having sent a report to Delhi when the Frenchman told me what he did. That regret left me only when at another place and another time some people had again told me about the shape of things to come and I had actually sent a report. No one believed me then, though later events showed how precise my informants had been. I was probably still too naïve to know that oracles are oracles not because they tell the truth but because men set them up as oracles.
OTHER MEMBERS OF THE DRAMATIS PERSONAE included above all Prince Souvanna Phouma, who at the age of 70 had energy enough for bridge or poker till well past midnight and a game of tennis early next morning. A bon vivant who probably by then had lost all sense of idealism, given up his neutralist stance which had propelled him to the position of Prime Minister and was quite content to be Prime Minister of a divided country, letting events take their course. Had he concluded that the events around him in Indo-China were too big for him, I wondered. On one occasion in late 1970, when I was present during a conversation between him and an Indian emissary, he gave a detailed description of the people who led the Pathet Lao and of their intimate relations with the leaders of North Vietnam, adding that the Pathet Lao worked for all practical purposes under the guidance of the North Vietnamese and that his half-brother, Prince Souphnouvong, was no more than a figure head. He had had very little else to say about what was happening in Indo-China or what should be done in the future. Like Souvanna, most of the other senior people in the Lao Government were quite happy leading easy lives, also, at the same time, providing for their futures. We met some of these people, including Prince Mankhala, the younger son of Sovanna Phouma in Paris in 1976 once or twice; one year after the Pathet Lao had taken over in Vientiane.
Among the other notable people was the General who commanded the Vientiane garrison. Ever since he opened a bowling alley, he was to be found every evening between 7 and midnight at or near the cash counter of the alley drinking beer and chatting with people. In that city, there lived an unlikely figure, the representative of the Pathet Lao, a gentleman called Soth Phetrassy who occupied a government bungalow, in the centre of the town, guarded by Pathet Lao militia. His presence in Vientiane was probably part of the pretence maintained by the Pathet Lao that they would return to the Government in Vientiane if the Geneva dispensation of 1962 were restored. Soth Phethrassy moved around freely enough and was often to be seen at diplomatic gatherings. He came home once for lunch with us. When he arrived, our children and the children of an Australian second secretary who lived across the street were playing in the garden. At the sight of Soth’s guards, dressed in camouflage fatigues, the Australian children ran away in great fright—the Pathet Lao were obviously their bugbears.
Almost as a subtext to the life of the larger diplomatic community, there was persistent competition between the US and the French Ambassadors (their respective spouses being fully involved in it), both personally about which between the two was more important and about building the greater influence for their countries. One of them was pro-consular in fact, attitude and bearing (in a play upon his name, Godley, the British Ambassador who made no secret of his disapproval of his own Government’s Indo-China policy, sometimes called him God) since his country was waging a war in and over Laos. The other, a Frenchman with a Scottish family name, Ross, who had the language and civilization of France as his principal diplomatic tool, was in a weaker position. He later went to Mobutu’s Zaire where I found a few traces of his footsteps. He went on to become the Ambassador of France to India. Others like the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Thai and the Japanese were quite content quietly doing their work without attracting too much attention.
Australia, France, Japan, the UK and the USA maintained and managed a foreign exchange stabilization fund which meant keeping up, by periodic injections of cash, the external value of the local currency, which was not backed by domestic economic strength or by trade in goods and services. This arrangement was at best designed to maintain the existing political and economic order, an order which was condemned to disappear soon, I thought. On one occasion, I quite angered my next door neighbour, the Australian second secretary, by saying that in a few years there would be no South Vietnamese Government or state left—he had said that after his tour of duty in Vientiane he would like to serve in the Australian Embassy in Saigon. The Japanese Government and the Asian Development Bank were notable for their investments in the future—of these the most important was the construction of a dam and a hydroelectric power station at a place called Nam Gum on a tributary of the Mekong. The Japanese were the largest donors for the project. Started during our time in Vientiane, it would, when completed, not only give to Laos all the electricity it needed but some more to sell to Thailand, so much so that earnings from the sale of electricity to Thailand are an important source of revenue for Laos even at the present time.
We, at the Indian Embassy, thought we were making a worthy contribution to the well being of the Lao people by maintaining at the expense of Government of India an Indian professor to teach ancient Indian history at the Vientiane Polytechnic. We also had a feasibility study of an agricultural cum water management project prepared by a water resources consultancy undertaking owned and managed by Government of India. In addition we would from time to time try to advance the cause of peace in Indo-China.
A few months before the failure of Indira Gandhi’s (originally Brezhnev’s) proposal for the neutralization of Southeast Asia to take off, Government of India decided in the fourth quarter of 1970 to send a special emissary to several capitals in the region, ending with Vientiane and then Hanoi. Very early during his mission, Indian newspapers not only reported this ‘secret’ mission but also the rough outline of the proposals the emissary was carrying. The North Vietnamese liked neither the fact that there had been publicity about this mission nor the contents of the proposal the emissary was reported to be carrying, blaming the ‘imperialists’ for the publicity. Even before the emissary landed in Vientiane they made it known that they thought the moment was inopportune for the visit of the emissary to Hanoi. Though he personally conveyed Government of India’s unhappiness over the attitude of the North Vietnamese to the North Vietnamese Chargé d’affaires in Vientiane, the North Vietnamese remained unmoved, while reaffirming their faith in friendship with India and lauding India’s contribution to the cause of peace everywhere in the world. Obviously, the authors of the proposal to send this emissary did not wish to reckon with the quadripartite talks with the participation of the North Vietnamese Government, the Viet Cong, the USA and the Government of South Vietnam that were already formally under way in Paris. They probably had in mind purposes other than peace in Indo-China and that is why there was this advance publicity in India. Whether that publicity made the position of the special emissary untenable did not seem to matter to those in Government of India who dealt with these decisions.
Looking at this special emissary’s plight, I thought of another situation involving a British Ambassador to France that had been reported by the press in 1969. General Charles de Gaulle, as the President of France, had had a serious conversation with Sir Christopher Soames, the British Ambassador there mainly about the balance of political forces in the European Economic Community, suggesting that a British presence in the Community was necessary so that a proper balance between Germany, France and the United Kingdom could be maintained. Some people at 10, Downing Street, it seems, decided not only to pass on the contents of Sir Christopher’s report about this conversation to the West German Government but also to leak it to the press. I had thought then that being made to look foolish by his own government was one of the many dangers an envoy faced.
In Vientiane, I sometimes thought of Louis McNiece’s poem, ‘Bar Room Matins’ as it summed up for me some of the feelings I had about the disjunction between the small concerns around which the existence of many there revolved and the deep tragedy all around us in the three Indo-China countries, killing so many, destroying so much. In this Kingdom, which did not offer much to its King by way of wealth or even a fraction of the military or political power which had led one of his ancestors to call it the Kingdom of One Million Elephants, but which had become a sideshow in the much more crucial Vietnam War, the diplomatic and political sweet life was lived in its own sphere.
When, at the end of August 1972 we left Vientiane for Delhi where I had been asked to move to work at the Ministry of External Affairs in Government of India, it was time for us also to take leave of the sweet life of Vientiane. Two dramatic events of those times had already taken place: the emergence of Bangladesh and the Nixon visit to the People’s Republic of China. The world already knew not only of the secret negotiations between Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho of North Vietnam, but also of the deep involvement of the Americans in Cambodia. Yet none of us bystanders could prefigure the extent and the speed with which changes would come in the three Indo-China countries. President Nixon, having withdrawn a substantial number of GI’s from Vietnam and having achieved a modicum of success in his policy of ‘vietnamising’ the Vietnam War, looked politically unassailable. Hardly any outside observer could at that time have guessed that all that was being negotiated between Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger was a face saving device which would enable the USA to complete its military withdrawal from Indo-China with honour.
WITHIN THREE YEARS OF OUR DEPARTURE from Laos, the Viet Cong had driven the pro US Government of South Vietnam and the residual US defence personnel and the US diplomatic mission out of Saigon, and the Pathet Lao and the Khmer Rouge had swept to power in Laos and Cambodia. To the open or secret delight of many who had opposed the US involvement in Indo-China for political or moral reasons, which included me, the US defeat in Indo-China looked complete. The USA went through its own post Vietnam catharsis.
But when I was once, in Bangkok, forced to look back at the developments of the 1970’s in Indo-China from the perspective of the year 2000, I could no longer say confidently that I knew who had won. I was talking to a Thai friend, a retired diplomat and a member of the King’s Privy Council, about Thanat Khoman, who had been the Foreign Minister of Thailand during all the years of direct US military involvement in Indo-China. This friend did not quite approve of some things that Thanat was doing in that millennium year and in that context said how good he had been for Thailand. It was largely because of Thanat Khoman, he said, that Thailand had, already in the sixties decided to back the winning side in Indo-China, meaning the USA. In 1980, I would have laughed at that statement. I could not do so in 2000. Already, in 1989, I had started having doubts.
Between 1987 and 1989, I made four official visits to Vietnam from my desk in Delhi. On each occasion I went to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City and met Government officials, having practically no contact with the ‘common man’. On each occasion I stayed in the same hotels in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. In 1987, the Cuban built Friendship Hotel in Hanoi was full of Russians and other Slavonic people, some of whom lived there semi-permanently with their families working on Soviet aided projects. There were one or two French visitors. By the time I went back about one year later the number of Russians and other slavs had halved but there was a large number of German and Scandinavian tourists. During the third visit, I found that the Russians had all gone and, in addition to the Germans, the Swedes and the French, there were a handful of American tourists who seemed to have a special fascination for the sites of some of the fiercest battles during the Vietnam War. By the time of my fourth visit I thought the Americans were the overwhelmingly largest group of tourists and, probably, business visitors.
In 1987, exploration for hydrocarbon resources in the South Vietnamese offshore areas was predominantly Soviet business—one site had been allocated to India. By the time of my fourth visit, Shell, BP and a handful of other Western oil companies were also operating in this region so much so that the Indian state enterprise, which had been allocated a site, was negotiating a partnership with one of the Western oil companies. By 1989, Vietnam was talking of introducing market oriented economic reforms and was getting ready to woo Western and Japanese investors. Ho Chi Minh City looked like having a full-fledged market based consumer economy by then. Equally striking was the absence of anti-American rhetoric in all the conversations I had with Vietnamese officials during that period—not for them the long memories like those of Jews or Armenians. Clearly, the Vietnamese from their side were already quite prepared for normal relations with the USA; it was the USA, which, for reasons of its own domestic politics, that hesitated. What then had the fighting been for, I asked myself. What had the Vietnamese fought so heroically to defend: a social and economic order? an idea? an ideology? their national independence?
WHEN WE LEFT VIENTIANE, we did not fly back to Delhi, which would have been the normal mode, but with approval from those who controlled government finances, travelled by road and ship back to Madras, now Chennai, and again by road all the way up along the spine of India to Mirzapur on the Ganges, eastward along the Ganges to Patna and then a few weeks later up the Gangetic plains to Delhi.
That road journey took us down three fourths of the length of Thailand from Nongkhai to Sadao on the Thai- Malay border, the entire length of the Malay peninsula, to Singapore and then up again along the Malayan coast on the straits of Malacca to Butterworth and Penang. It was a leisurely journey on which we spent sixteen days between Nongkhai and Penang, stopping in well-known towns like Phuket, Songkhla, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Malacca but also in obscure places on the way because they were convenient for breaking journey at nightfall. It was also an easy journey in the sense that nothing unforeseen happened on the way, not even in the border regions between Thailand and Malaysia, which, we had been warned, was dangerous territory because of a left wing insurgency there. I do not remember any sensation of fear as we drove from Songkhla to Alor Star.
Thailand was an important platform from which the US Air Force carried out its operations in Vietnam and Laos, yet apart from the heavy bombers at the Udorn Thani base in Northeast Thailand that were visible from the road on which we drove, we did not encounter any unusual sign of heavy American presence in the country. This was partly because the places where Americans were present in large numbers did not lie along our route. Thailand did not yet overflow with foreign tourists. We had an easy half-day in Bangkok which was enough for a tour of the Grand Palace complex and a leisurely lunch at a decent place, a kind of place which was simply not there in Vientiane. We did not have to sweat looking for parking places in Bangkok. Travelling through this region we felt we were in countries, which were roughly at the same level of development as India, so much so that it is these impressions, and not statistics, which became my benchmark for gauging the extent of change in Thailand when we returned to the country about one quarter of a century later.
After a stay of three days in Penang our car and we sailed for Chennai on September 17 aboard a Shipping Corporation of India vessel called The State of Madras. That ship was on its last voyage after which it was going to be decommissioned. The age of the ship and the strong monsoon winds and rain in the Bay of Bengal combined together to ensure that four of our six days at sea were miserable. By the end of that voyage we felt we had had enough of the sea. This more than any other feeling made our arrival in Chennai a pleasant experience. Not having visited Chennai ever before we were looking forward to this opportunity to see the city and its surroundings. Vientiane had already passed into the world of remembered places.