Sousath Phetrasy – Child of a Secret War
I was saddened to hear that Sousath Phetrasy, the owner of the Mali Guest House in Phonsavan in Northern Laos, died, in his late 50s, on 25. September 2009. A brilliant and troubled man, Phetrasy was an unlikely veteran of the CIA’s secret war in Laos in the 1960s and 70s, the agency’s largest campaign, which arguably destroyed the small landlocked Southeast Asian country.
“I feel nervous all the time,” he told me the first time we met in 2002. “When it all gets too much, I take an M16 to my field and just let loose. I can’t let go, I was a child in the war.”
Phetrasy’s father, Soth, was the spokesman for the Pathet Lao – the Lao communists who fought the French in 1950s and then the US from 1964 to 1973. Officially, Laos had been declared neutral by the US and the Soviets in 1962. But Kennedy, along with the next two US Presidents, Johnson and Nixon, never adhered to these agreements. The US was obsessed with the domino theory – if Vietnam was going to turn red, Laos would not be far behind – and with winning at any price. While pumping millions of dollars of aid into Laos, much of which ended up in the hands of corrupt right-wing generals, from 1960 on, the Americans secretly trained and equipped an army of 30.000 mercenaries recruited from one of the ethnic minorities in Laos – the Hmong – to fight the communists. At the same time, the US built hundreds of small airstrips and a gigantic secret airbase in the Laotian jungles, from where they supplied troops and kick-started the global heroin trade. For a while, this base, Long Cheng, was the world’s busiest airport. When the Hmong had all been killed, the US bombed the country flat. Laos ranks as the most heavily bombed country in the world.
As the secret war was heating up, Phetrasy was smuggled out of Vientiane to China. “I did not like to stay in China, alone, no news from my family, so I traveled back to Laos, I was twelve then. At the border between Vietnam and Laos, the bus in front of me was hit by enemy fire. All the passengers burned inside.”
For several years, Phetrasy lived in caves around Sam Neuea, the Pathet Lao headquarters in North Eastern Laos, and survived on insects and rodents. American POWs taught him English.
After the collapse of the American wars in South East Asia, Phetrasy went to study in East Germany. In the early 1980s, he moved to the Plain of Jars (PDJ), a vast, mythical stretch of land in northern Laos that is still covered in UXO – unexploded ordnance – today. He claimed to have been a gold smuggler and opium dealer for a while, before opening his guest house.
The PDJ takes its name from several fields of giant sandstone jars that have been lying here for thousands of years. Phetrasy pioneered tourism in the area – after making it safe. “I used to go to the sites, with my family, with my knife. Later I had a metal detector. We removed 2.500kg of UXO. Eventually I got help from UNESCO.”
Sousath was pleased, “When I arrived in Phonsavan, I knew that I’d be able to do some great work on Lao history. I knew I could open the jars to the world.”
His efforts proved successful and today the PDJ has become part of regular tourist itineraries. And while the pine trees outside his home were hung with grenades, mortars and old US army helmets around Christmas time, the ‘child of the war’ was beginning to make peace with his past and told me, “I have come around a lot in the last years, even so far as helping several US organizations to locate MIAs.”
Phetrasy’s biggest dream had always been to visit the secret airbase of Long Cheng. No outsiders had been there since the mid-1970s.
In 2002, film director Marc Eberle and I sat down with Phetrasy to plan a trip to the most secret place on earth, the title of the documentary that eventually resulted from this initial meeting. The undertaking was anything but easy, as Hmong fighters were still fighting the Laotian government around the base, more than thirty years after the end of the war.
The film took six years to complete, and documents Phetrasy’s journey into his very own Heart of Darkness, Long Cheng.
Phetrasy’s reasoning for wanting to visit the base was simple, “Long Cheng was the busiest airport in the world and no one knew about it. It was top secret. It was built by the CIA. In my country. I want the world to know what happened in Laos.”
Since his visit to Long Cheng in 2006 – he found the old airbase virtually abandoned – the most secret place on earth has locked its doors once more. But Sousath Phetrasy managed to fulfill his dream, to make peace with his past and tell the world about the Secret War in Laos.
I will always remember Sousath Phetrasy, walking in front of me, fearlessly, from US bomber crash site to battle field, across the PDJ, reliving his war, and his country’s suffering, over and over again.
The Most Secret Place on Earth – The CIA’s covert War in Laos by Marc Eberle (Screenplay Marc Eberle, Tom Vater) has been nominated for the North German Film Prize and the Gold Panda in China.
This story was published in South East Globe.