Awakening Nyak Khoumpun: The Lao Sleeping Giant
By Sinakhone Keodara
This August marks 30 years since I left Laos. I remember my country like a fading dream. I recall bits and pieces of my life there, a collage of memories that are bittersweet.
Often, nowadays, during the winter months, I reminisced about living in Laos when I was younger. Vivid images of us sitting around a small bonfire transports me back to my village Ban Amone, where we intently hung on to my mom’s every word, huddled together wearing shawls that she loomed, as she’s retelling Laotian folklores and fairytales bringing back feelings of awe, anticipation and great adventure. It was during one of my mother’s oral storytelling performances that I was introduced to the nithan (“story”) of Sang Sinxay–an epic Lao Hero–who came out of his mother’s womb holding a bow & arrow and a sword. My mother was great with the dramatic arts, making her an excellent artist and an even better storyteller who sang, joked and danced in recounting the birth of a reincarnation of Buddha’s past lives, which sparked my curiosity and fired up my imagination ever since I was a kid.
My first recollection and introduction to the Thais was traumatic. We were living in Pakse then. One night my discombobulated parents woke us up when our village was being bombed by stealth bombers of the Thai Air Force. My mother gathered up all her kids as we ran through the woods, to escape terror from above, not knowing what was happening. She screamed through her tears for her kids to hold onto each other’s hands while running, fumbling, crouching down to hide behind bamboo stands. I recall the deafening sounds of bombs exploding, shaking the ground like an earthquake, thunderous pandemonium all around us; flashes of flames shot up to the tops of trees, lighting up the night sky with blinding brilliance. We hid on the side of ravines and inside sewer pipes underneath gravel roads until the bombing raid subsided. Luckily, we made it to the nearest town and spent the night sleeping underneath other people’s houses that opened their hearts to us. Several times that week, I recall my sisters and other village school children running home from school in the middle of the afternoon. They ran for their lives dodging bullets from air fighter jets swooping down with machine guns aiming at the students. How anyone could do this to innocent Lao school children is unimaginable. This was an intimidation tactic from the Thai military in response to border disputes with the Lao government.
On the night we left our home, I slept half naked on a bamboo-sitting platform underneath the house when my mom shook me lightly to wake me up. “Sy, get up, child! Come on, we have to get going,” ordered my mother. I was incoherent when I sat up and wiped the sleep from my eyes. Holding a kerosene lantern, my mom woke my little brother Sone, who was sleeping next to me. Dawn hadn’t broken yet and it was still pitch black outside. I came to and asked my mom where we were going and where my dad and sisters were? “They’ve already gone down to Paksan (my birthplace) for a wedding and we’re going to meet up with them,” responded my mom. That was a lie. We were escaping to come to America.
My mother, Sone and I walked past a guard station of the jail on our way to Vientiane. My mom kept whispering to us to keep quiet. Sone was crying for my dad as my mom was pulling him along. She was walking pretty fast and I was struggling to keep up with her. My mother was carrying all kinds of stuff on her right shoulders. She’s a pack rat my mother. She’d wrapped all her looming equipment up, a Lao musical instrument called Khene and some other stuff to take with us because she was afraid they wouldn’t have it in America. Well, she was right!
All I knew about America was what I had heard from my oldest sister Soumountha (yes, it just dawned on me that my sister’s name is the same as Sang Sinxay’s aunt in this epic poem) when she’d written home. She’d sent us pictures and described America as a place where no one walks on dirt and that people walk on concrete. That everything you ever wanted or needed was within your grasp. I really bought that story and in my mind I saw America as being a place that was like heaven–all covered in concrete! What she was really talking about was that people walk on sidewalks as opposed to dirt roads or paths through the woods that we had back home.
On the night of our escape, I recall us trekking through the woods in the dark in complete silence on our way to the Mekong River. We had two guides who were leading the way. We frequently had to stop and squat down to hide behind the bushes, our hearts were pounding, for fear of discovery by border patrols. There were horror stories about entire families getting robbed, killed and discarded into the Mekong River by their guides.
Once we were on the banks of the Mekong, our guides brought a 12-foot rowboat. All 10 of us, including the two guides, piled into that rowboat and we took off for the other shore. I remember sitting on the top edge of the rowboat looking straight ahead, splashing the water with my feet, as our boat glided in silence under the moonlit sky toward Thailand.
Halfway through our escape we heard my mom praying to Nya Por Chao Sivit Thong Chao Nong Nyah–the Spirits of the Mekong River–asking them to protect us. Our overloaded boat had holes in it and was about to sink because it couldn’t carry that much weight. I could only imagine what my parents were thinking about at that moment if the boat was to sink. The fate of their kids was in their hands. Luckily, our guides suggested that we turn around to obtain a second rowboat. My parents made the right choice to turn around. Miraculously, as soon as our boat reached the Lao shore it sunk. Mother’s prayers to the Gods of the Mekong had paid off. My parents scrambled to salvage as much of our personal belongings as they could.
We waited for 30 minutes, wet and shivering, before our guides brought a second rowboat. My family split up between the two boats and we safely landed on the shore of Thailand. The guides led us up the riverbanks and we came up on someone’s Thong Nah (wet rice farm) on the outskirts of town. They us took us to an empty hut in the rice patties and left us to fend for ourselves. They told my parents that we should hide underneath the hut until the sun came up before heading to the market to catch a bus ride that would take us to a refugee camp called Napho. Once the guides left, silently, my family crouched down and huddled together to keep warm and fell asleep until our parents woke us up in the morning. I don’t think my parents had gotten any shut-eye as they must have feared for their lives and for the lives of their children, hiding underneath someone else’s hut in a foreign land.
Morning broke and we walked toward a town called Bueng Khan. My parents could not flag down a taxicab. We must have looked really country and displaced for a cop to approach our family. My mom, in her infinite wisdom, instructed all of us to quickly get down on our knees and clasp our hands in a prayer position as the cop was crossing the street to get to us. That was an ultimate act of humility and respect in our culture reserved for Kings and Queens, but my mom knew that if we humbled ourselves before the policeman, he would help us. The cop brought us to the police station where our family lived in a gazebo for a month. Good thing my mother had the instinct to bring pots and pans with us. My mother quickly made friends with the wife of the police chief at the post. Mom’s newfound friend happens to be a native of her birthplace, Xiang Khuang.
About a week into our stay, several Hmong families were brought to the station. They slept underneath trees surrounding the gazebo. Their housing accommodation consisted of plastic mats and mosquito nets that the Thai authorities provided. The police guards mistreated the Hmong families. The women were taken at night to be raped and some were forced into prostitution. The men were taken away at night and thrown into the Mekong River. They were given a choice of whether they would swim back toward the Lao shore or risk losing their lives by swimming back toward the Thai shore in the midst of gunfire that the guards were aiming at them in intimidation; a game that the Thai guards enjoyed playing.
After living at the gazebo for a month, my family was bused to Sune Napho Refugee Camp. Sune in Lao means zero. An appropriate name, I supposed, for accommodations for people who’d left their homeland and have nothing left but their hopes and dreams. Dreams that they placed on the shoulders of their offspring to fulfill in their future homes.
The barb-wired fence camp, several miles in diameter, sits on the outskirts of a town on a barren land next to a manmade lake that had dead tree stumps poking out all over the surface of the water. A main avenue ran through the center of the circular camp from front to back. Toward the front of the camp was where the people who had connections settled. They had more favorable accommodations due to their prestige. Some of them were Thai people pretending to be refugees.
Life in Sune Napho was difficult, and it shows on the faces of refugees. Most people kept their heads down and were generally pretty quite. We had to do what the Thai authorities told us. At the end of our first month at the camp and every month thereafter, my dad, with me perched on his neck with my feet dangling, would take me on walks to the post office to check whether my sister Soumountha had replied to his letter asking for money. We made contact with her that we made it into Thailand and are now living in Sune Napho. I used to feel embarrassed for my dad when he would stop to pick up cigarette butts that people had stomped out so he would have shorts to smoke.
After settling in America and in our looking back and missing our homeland, we rented and watched Thai movies, soap operas and concerts. To our shock and horror, there were countless times we saw Thai singers telling their audience, “We Thai people need to love each other; don’t look down on each other. If you need someone to look down on, look across the Mekong River at Laos. The Lao are dumb as cows. Look down on those animals,” or messages with similar sentiment. It was such a disappointment that famous singers in Thailand thought it was appropriate to insult a whole nation of people—on live television. Mind you, most of the people in the live audience watching the concert are Issan people living in Bangkok, whom are historically ethnically Lao.
I didn’t intend to start a civil war with a handful (4 or 5 people) of Lao Americans who support Peter Whittlesey since I launched my Petition on Change.org. They twist themselves into pretzels in order to justify Whittlesey’s actions as him “retelling” the story of Sinxay. What they refused to acknowledge and admit is that Peter can’t “retell” a story he doesn’t have the rights to. To be honest, when I first read the title of an interview of Peter Whittlesey on a blog I was intrigued and annoyed to see the words “Sparking Legendary Renaissance of a Lao-Thai Epic Hero.” I’ve seen that hyphenated words before and it has never sat well with me.
Thai people have always looked down on Lao people, even till today and even in America. Somehow, Thai people often have a superiority complex when it comes to Lao people. I have a ‘friend’ living in Hollywood, California, who is ethnically Chinese, but grew up in Thailand and considers himself Thai, telling me that Khang Keelak (Lao taro leaf soup) and Thum Mak Hueng (Lao Papaya Salad) are Thai; and, when I challenged him that those dishes are Lao food he simply said, “How long did Thailand own Laos for? Because we own you, what’s yours is ours.” This clearly demonstrated the institutionalized discrimination against Lao people and showed the Thai sense of entitlement. They think they own us and our culture by virtue of them subjugating us in the past. They feel entitled to co-opt and appropriate Lao culture at their leisure, and it is not just limited to food, we have Thai people claiming the Lao Khene is theirs. The Lao silk and the Lao sinhs are now somehow miraculously Thai. Not so fast! And not anymore. It stops here. It stops with Peter Whittlesey.
A scholar in Lao studies, who wish to remain anonymous, has verified to me and my team that Peter in fact has translated word for word the Bounyavong’s copyrighted version of Sang Sinxay. Copyright law dictates that you can’t use the character, likeness of character, or even one sentence let alone 197 pages of a book without having permission and/or a copyright assignment to translate it. This now rises to plagiarism and when you have published Lao America authors and non-profits affiliated with universities appearing to actively advocate for flagrant plagiarism by blind loyalty to Whittlesey, the moral bankruptcy is complete.
Those are the facts that I’ve collected. Throughout this scandal it is something of a sad story that the Lao American Press and a faction of Lao American literary “leaders” who are charged with protecting the community not only failed to do their jobs but assisted Peter in stealing our national treasure either to protect their own interest, the implication of their guilt and/or their ambition for empire. And, I find it quite hilarious that the Lao American Press are censoring me and are mum on the biggest historical event involving the global Lao community because they don’t like my approach or don’t like me personally. I can deal with them not liking me personally or not liking my approach, but to absolve themselves of their jobs to report on an issue just because it is controversial is not only a travesty but somewhat shortsighted.
At any rate, now, to hear that Peter might even be interviewed on a popular Lao American radio show, without giving me equal airtime, to explain his positions is just undemocratic. Over 1,100 Lao people across the globe cried out for him to correct his wrong yet he is still stubborn and arrogant. No matter what amount of explanation he intends to give will not make his crimes go away. I am disappointed that there are individuals in the Lao American writing community that don’t feel that Peter has committed any wrong doing. I hope that when this petition prevails that they acknowledge why Lao people globally came together to preserve our culture by ensuring that no one profits off of our cultural treasures so that our children can pass it on for generations to come. Some people in the community believe that the name of the title is no big deal or not worth fighting for but I’d have to disagree with them as this is how our culture becomes diluted and down the road, even dare I say negligible—forgotten.
Peter Whittlesey has committed theft of a national treasure, engaged in deceptive marketing by telling me and Dr. Vinya Sysamouth that he inserted the word “-Thai” into the title of the book Sinxay that he illegally translated to sell more books, and engaged on copyright infringement. And Peter Whittlesey certainly can’t stamp his name and Baythong’s name as authors of a ‘retelling’ of a classic Lao literature that is registered as a national treasure without having permission to or a copyright assignment. When was the last time anybody has ever hear someone taking credit for a retelling of Shakespeare’s masterpiece as anything but as “Translated by” credit? Peter Whittlesey is trying to circumvent having to pay royalties to the copyright holders.
Writing this op-ed was painful! I had to stop and start so many times over the course of two days as it was akin to an emotional, psychological and spiritual surgery. I had to retrace the steps of my family in our journey from Laos to America, and in so doing uncovered the suffering, the injustices and the humiliation my parents endured along the way. Ours is a typical Lao refugee story. But, most heartbreaking was the extent of our parents’ sacrifices in having to leave their homeland behind to bring us to America so we can have a better life. Now that we’ve benefited from their sacrifices, we owe it to our parents to protect our cultural heritage. What Peter Whittlesey has done by demeaning and degrading Lao culture is effectively re-opened that wound and his Lao American counterparts are pouring the salt. What the Lao American community needs to learn is that you can’t promote Lao culture to the west at the expense of the Lao people back home. You can’t aid and abet in Lao literary heist and Lao cultural heritage hijacking and think it’s ok just because you want access to your culture. I feel that the Lao community needs to come together in order to preserve what little we have left of our cultural heritage. We can’t dismiss Lao culture in America and forget our roots in Laos for the sake of making a profit. It’s the epitome of selfishness, self-serving and self-seeking to dismiss Lao people’s history back in the homeland.
We’ve already lost our homeland when we became refugees. And by virtue of us leaving the country, we’ve forfeited our Lao citizenship and forego ownership of Lao’s national treasure. But, for the simple fact that we’re Lao, we will forever have connections to our cultural heritage. However, that doesn’t give us the right to redefine Lao identity for millions of Lao nationals living inside Laos who are still citizens of their country and are stewards of its national treasures.
In closing, in describing his writing process in penning an historical novel he wrote called The Virtues of War about Alexander the Great’s conquests, Screenwriting Guru Steven Pressfield wrote in an article titled The Hero Embodies the Theme, for his blog dated March 23, 2016, which poses this question (paraphrase): “…Can it be “right” to redefine other nations’ identity, to deprive them of their cultural heritage, their pride, their sense of worth?”
In paraphrasing another instance of Mr. Pressfield’s words in said article, I posit this question to Peter and his Lao American writer supporters: “Why, Lao people asks Peter, have you and your army crossed half the earth to bring shame to our people, who have never harmed you? Are you a writer or a plagiarist? How do you justify your life and what you have done?”
Let me leave you with this thought from the same article noting the theme from classic movie Casablanca: “It’s better to act for the greater good than for our own selfish ends.”
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