Printer Friendly

The rationales for the first joint accounting efforts for US prisoners of war/missing in action in Laos: a Lao perspective.

This article outlines the reasons behind the Lao People's Democratic Republic's (LPDR) decision to reach agreement with the United States in 1985 for the purposes of initiating joint efforts to account for US Prisoners of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) lost in Laos during the Vietnam War. The article attempts to explain why LPDR's domestic security concerns, as well as the government's desire to demonstrate autonomous decision-making in the conduct of the country's foreign policy, were the two main drivers of the 1985 agreement. Domestic concerns arose from the perceived threat of violence from American-supported Thai-based anti-LPDR resistance groups and private groups entering Laos illegally in search of alleged live POWs. (1) Moreover, the LPDR required from the United States mutual respect for its independent foreign policy-making: in other words, the LPDR wanted to be seen as acting as an independent sovereign entity in handling the POW/MIA issue. For the purposes of this article, sovereignty is broadly defined as "a state's ability to control actors and activities within and across its border" (2) and to project "authoritative decision-making". (3) As regards the LPDR's sovereignty concerns, the operationalization of this concept is relatively unexplored in studies pertaining to the POW/MIA issue. Examining the LPDR's sovereignty concerns enables one to better understand Lao's role in POW/MIA negotiations; a role that is clearly marginalized, given that it is the concerns and viewpoints of American scholars and policymakers that dominate the discourse.

The Secret War in Laos and the POW/MIA Issue

Before examining the 1985 US-LPDR agreement, it is useful to briefly recount the activities of the United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV or North Vietnam) in Laos during the Vietnam War. (4) Although prohibited by the 1962 Geneva Accords --which supposedly legalized the neutrality and independence of the Kingdom of Laos--both the United States and North Vietnam secretly conducted military activities against each other inside Laotian territory. On one side, the United States conducted covert military operations, including an extensive air campaign, to disrupt and destroy North Vietnam's logistical supply lines--known colloquially as the "Ho Chi Minh Trail"--which ran through parts of Laos. On the other side, North Vietnam supported the communist Pathet Lao forces which aimed to overthrow the US-supported Royal Lao Government (RLG). (5) This "secret war" in Laos ended in December 1975 when the Pathet Lao took control of the country and renamed it the LPDR. Although no US military personnel were supposed to have been active in Laos during the Vietnam War, the US Department of Defense (DoD) recorded 575 men as Missing in Action (MIA) in Laos as revealed in Table 1 below.

Table 1 shows the number of American MIAs from the Vietnam War in four countries--Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and China--and the record of repatriation and identification which is conducted by DoD's Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii. Data for those lost in Laos is recorded under "Americans Lost in the Vietnam War" rather than the "secret war" in Laos. Since the 1985 agreement, the US government has tried to resolve the 575 MIA cases in the LPDR. Between 1985 and 2015, 135 joint field activities were conducted in Laos. According to the DPAA, only 270 cases, or less than half, including 23 "no further pursuit" category, (6) have been repatriated and identified. Presently, approximately 50 US personnel, together with their Lao counterparts, conduct four joint field activities each year in the LPDR.

The origins of the joint US-LPDR accounting efforts are still little understood. This is surprising given the continued importance to Washington of the on-going field excavations, and counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism cooperation between the United States and LPDR, (7) as well as the need to better understand the background of the current bilateral relationship. The administration of President Ronald Reagan, which successfully initiated POW/MIA cooperation with the LPDR, laid out a condition to improve ties between the two countries that rested on "Lao sincerity" measured by the "progress on the POW/MIA issue" taken by the Laotian side. (8) The US commitment to pursue the fullest possible accounting of missing personnel has been repeatedly cited--for example, by David Lambertson, who, as the US State Department's Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, is in charge of monitoring ties between the two states--as a "principle standard of measurement", (9) and by Carlyle Thayer as the "principal yardstick" used by the United States for gauging "progress or setbacks" in all aspects of US-LPDR relations. (10)

Diplomatic and Security Concerns

This section highlights two concerns of the LPDR regarding its need for independent foreign policymaking. The POW/MIA issue has a complex legal background. In 1973, the United States and North Vietnam reached a settlement to end the Vietnam War through the Paris Peace Accords. This gave rise to a question as to the extent of the LPDR's independent foreign policy-making authority regarding the resolution of the POW/MIA issue, even before the country was established in 1975. Put differently, the LPDR's ownership of the diplomatic process was technically absent due to the accords "applying only to the DRV". (11) In addition, the United States believed that the socialist revolution of the LPDR in 1975 had occurred under the direction of North Vietnam. Henry Kissinger, the former US National Security Advisor and chief US negotiator for the Paris Peace Accords, described the Laotian side as "stooges of Hanoi". (12) The LPDR was concerned about US perceptions that the country's foreign policymaking was not autonomous and instead was directed by Hanoi. Consequently, the LPDR's demand for recognition and respect from the United States could only be met through bilateral cooperation.

Equally important was the LPDR leadership's fear of subversive activities conducted by US-supported anti-LPDR groups based in Thailand. The anti-LPDR resistance consisted of groups associated with the RLG, which was overthrown by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party (LPRP) in 1975. The resistance movement mainly took refuge in Thailand, where different groups consolidated in refugee camps along the Lao-Thai border. In 1981, US DoD estimated their total strength to be between 6,000 and 8,000 people. (13) Soon after the establishment of the LPDR, the Lao leadership felt threatened by the activities of these groups, which included cross-border raids against Lao security personnel conducted from sanctuaries across the Mekong River in Thailand. Included in the anti-LPDR groups inside the country were remnants of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-trained Hmong resistance, which also posed a security threat to the newly-established regime. (14) Lao Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane, who served from 1975 to 1991, accused the United States of supporting anti-LPDR groups both inside and outside the country, and further claimed that they represented "the gravest threat to national independence, peace and stability". (15) LPDR leaders were also extremely suspicious of groups of US veterans of the Vietnam War who collaborated with the resistance to search for alleged live POWs in Lao territory. (16) In a speech delivered in 1986, Kaysone denounced the United States for engaging in behind-the-scenes subversive activities aimed at weakening and destroying the LPDR. (17)

Distorted Views

This section examines two misconceptions regarding the LPDR's policy towards the POW/MIA issue. The first concerns the view that the LPDR was incapable of independent decision-making because of its alliance with Vietnam. (18) The second is the view that the LPDR only cooperated with the United States in order to gain monetary rewards in the form of aid.

The view that the LPDR was an appendage of Vietnam was deeply rooted in the psyche of US officials involved in the POW/MIA issue. (19) For instance, in a report published in 1993 by the US Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, Godley McMurtrie, the US ambassador to the former Kingdom of Laos from 1969 to 1973, averred that the leadership of the Pathet Lao was controlled by Hanoi. In his words, "anything that Le Due Tho [one of the DRV's chief negotiators at the Paris Peace Accords] said about Laos would be law in the Pathet Lao areas". (20) Similarly, Kissinger told the Select Committee that the American "perception of the Pathet Lao was that they were stooges of Hanoi, that they had no independence whatsoever, that they were totally controlled by the communists in Hanoi ... we had every confidence that Hanoi could make the Pathet Lao do what they wanted." (21) In reality, however, while the two countries consulted one another, the LPDR did not act at the behest of Vietnam. (22) In fact, Article 5 of the 1977 LPDR-Vietnam Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation required "each side to respect the foreign policy of the other", (23) and there were no Vietnamese civilian advisers in the LPDR's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (24) When the LPDR moved to improve relations with the United States over the POW/MIA issue in 1982, Hanoi opposed the move, thus proving that Vientiane was acting on its own initiative. (25)

The second view, that the LPDR used the POW/MIA issue to elicit US financial aid, has also been exaggerated. (26) Although the 1973 Paris Peace Accords stipulated that the United States should provide post-war reconstruction aid--aid that the US Congress was unwilling to appropriate--the LPDR was not a party to the Accords. (27) In any case, US financial aid during the Reagan era was mainly used to prevent developing countries from turning towards communism. (28) As a socialist state, the LPDR was not qualified to receive US financial support. As Steven Radelet succinctly noted, "If some [US] foreign aid meant throwing money down rat holes, Washington at least makes sure that they weren't going to be communist ones." (29) More significantly, an investigation conducted by the US Congress from 1991 to 1992, and released in 1993, revealed that there was "no credible evidence" that the LPDR had ever used the POW/MIA issue in exchange for aid. (30)

Research on POWs/MIAs in Lao PDR

Past research on the POW/MIA issue has mainly focused on the American interest in the fates of those still missing, (31) with little attention devoted to the LPDR itself. (32) H. Bruce Franklin provides a pertinent example: his six-page section regarding the LPDR33 was far less informative about Laos than his substantive and lengthy discussion demonstrating how POW "mythmaking in America" draws upon Hollywood movies about covert rescue operations of POWs inside the LPDR--for example, Missing in Action (1984) and Rambo First Blood Part II (1985). (34) Similarly, the works of Thomas Hawley and Michael Allen looked at the post-war impacts of the POW/MIA issue on US domestic politics and the evolution of America's relations with Vietnam. For these researchers, the LPDR is treated merely as a place where progress of accounting efforts could be reported in numbers--for example, the number of bone and dental fragments derived from the joint accounting efforts, or to provide an exciting account of covert operations to rescue POWs. (35) Tellingly, the authors failed to mention that the latter constituted a breach of Lao sovereignty.

While Paul Mather's work enhances our understanding of the important events in the POW/MIA issue, such as visits, technical and policy-level talks, which led to the first joint excavations in February 1985, it relies too heavily on US official records as well as providing a questionable account of the US government being relatively powerless to prevent its citizens from crossing into Laos to search for POWs. (36) The veracity of Mather's assertions are doubtful, at least from a Laotian perspective. Adopting an American perspective, Timothy Castle heavily emphasizes the importance of the POW/MIA issue itself rather than discussing the subject of Lao sovereignty. Castle's work primarily concentrates on one specific event: the disappearance of eleven Americans in 1968 from a secret radar installation (codenamed Lima Site 85) located inside Laos. In Castle's opinion, joint accounting efforts were merely a "tactical agreement" manipulated by the Lao side in their "search for economic survival". (37) The most recent work by Thayer on US rapprochement with the LPDR comes closest to recognizing that America has regarded the POW/MIA issue as the principal yardstick by which to assess progress in the development of US-LPDR ties. Although Thayer accurately notes that the LPDR was, at the time, "pressed to cooperate in providing full accounting", (38) he stops short of explaining the factors that drove the LPDR to its final decision.

This article sets out to fill this gap in the literature by using primary sources from the US Library of Congress and the Presidential Library of Ronald Reagan (RRL). In addition, the author reviewed communication cables between the US State Department and the US Embassy in Vientiane, as well as key documents such as the daily logs of the US Defense Intelligence Agency and the memos used to produce the 1993 Report of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. The Select Committee was charged with investigating the events, policies and information that guided the US government's POW/MIA-related actions over two decades, and its report was backed up by more than one million pages of declassified documents which give critical insights into US policy on this issue. (39) The report revealed not only American perceptions concerning the LPDR's alleged subordination to the Vietnamese, but also official US attempts to support anti-LPDR political groups. In addition, a critical primary source derived from the RRL--following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request--was a 1987 one-page policy-level document entitled, "Joint Statement on POWs-MIAs issued by US and Laos". (40) This document contains insights into why the joint efforts were necessary from the LPDR's viewpoint pursuant to its sovereignty concerns. Published in 1989, the Final Interagency Report of the Reagan Administration on the POW/MIA Issue in Southeast Asia was also a very important document as it shed light on the US sanctions against the LPDR during the period covered by this article.

Unlike previous research, and in accordance with this author's focus on the LPDR position on the POW/MIA issue, this article incorporates Lao views from two primary sources. The first are the political reports presented by Secretary-General Kaysone Phomvihane to the third and the fourth Congresses of LPRP, which has ruled the LPDR since 1975. These reports provide the strongest evidence to date on the official views of the LPDR's domestic security concerns in the early 1980s and its policy to mitigate sovereignty concerns through joint accounting efforts with United States in 1985. The second are untapped primary sources including two interviews with members of the Lao political elite: Dr Pheuiphanh Ngaosyvathn, (41) a former head of the Second Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), (42) and one of the leading officials in the POW/MIA negotiations from 1981 to 1986; and a former Lao diplomat, who has chosen to remain anonymous, with insider knowledge of the negotiations between the LPDR and the United States.

Autonomous Decision-Making at Work

It is argued here that the LPDR's ability to take autonomous decisions was a matter of great importance to the resolution of the POW/MIA issue. This section proceeds in two parts. First, it shows why the LPDR wanted mutual respect from the United States for its autonomous diplomacy in resolving the issue whilst also requiring the same from its ally, Vietnam. Second, it illustrates the LPDR's commitment to achieve autonomy in the making of its foreign policy.

The US position on LPDR's autonomous decision-making regarding the POW/MIA issue in the early 1980s was arguably ambivalent. Indicative evidence can be found in diplomatic cables and in an interview with a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Reagan administration, Daniel O'Donohue, who visited the LPDR in 1982 to propose steps to improve US-LPDR relations. A cable sent from the US Embassy in Vientiane to Washington in June 1981 reported the following: "We always assumed that the subject of MIA affairs was one in which the top leaders of the LPDR were in very close contact with [Vietnam], and that the policies of the two countries were reasonably well coordinated." (43) This uncomfortable position that the Lao side felt it was in, and wanted to reverse, can also be observed from O'Donohue's comment that the American focus at the time was on Vietnam, and that the LPDR was "not a major factor", but rather a "backwater". (44) For the Laotians, however, American perceptions of the LPDR needed to be changed. It is important to note that during this period, diplomatic relations between the United States and the LPDR remained intact. On 21 February 1981, during a discussion between Leo Moser, the US Charge d'Affaires in Vientiane and Soulivong Phasitthideth, the Secretary-General of the Political Department in the LPDR's Foreign Affairs Ministry, the latter made clear that the foreign policy of the LPDR "was and continued to be based on peace, independence and non-interference". (45)

With regard to the LPDR's determination to achieve joint accounting efforts with the United States, it is important to survey evidence drawn from academic works and field interviews so as to demonstrate that the LPDR's diplomatic decision-making was autonomous. It can be argued that LPDR's decision to advance the POW/MIA issue and improve relations with the United States from 1982 to 1984 was of its own volition rather than a Vietnamese-guided decision, as it encountered opposition from Hanoi; (46) this is corroborated by interviews with former Laotian diplomats who were familiar with the issue. An interview with Dr Pheuiphanh Ngaosyvathn, (47) a former head of the Second Department of the MFA who had direct involvement in the diplomatic process from 1981 to 1986, provides evidence for this assertion. According to Ngaosyvathn, soon after the joint initiative with the Americans was in place, Vietnam's Vice Foreign Minister Phan Hien was sent to Vientiane, where he requested a courtesy call with his Lao counterpart. However, his request was turned down, and instead a lower-ranking official received him. (48) At one point during the tense meeting, Phan Hien warned the Lao official that the joint accounting initiative was a mistake. This was because LPDR was not included in a "memo" on the POW/MIA issue handed over by Kissinger to the Vietnamese leadership. In response to a question about whether Vietnam's position constituted an obstacle to the initiative, Ngaosyvathn replied, "No, we continued", as the initiative was endorsed at the highest level by the Politburo of the LPRP. (49) These accounts underscored the LPDR's determination to pursue independent foreign policymaking as regards POW/MIA negotiations with the United States on the one hand, and managing its relations with Vietnam on the other. In Ngaosyvathn's opinion, one possible reason for the apparent warning from Vietnam was because Hanoi wanted to take the lead in joint excavation efforts with the United States. Doing so could then help Vietnam advance its national interest by way of strengthening its bargaining position, particularly in regard to its relations with the United States. (50)

The LPDR's autonomous foreign policymaking to resolve the POW/ MIA issue with Washington was tested during a difficult negotiating process. Well before the first joint field excavation, a little known incident kick-started the initiative. In 1980, after visiting the LPDR, an American journalist by the name of Shepard Sherbell forwarded to the US DoD a secretly made sound recording, which later came to the attention of the upper echelons of the Laotian leadership. According to a US cable, the DoD learnt from the secret recording that the Lao army museum in Vientiane contained "I.D. cards, ration cards, a blood chit (51) and photographs of US military personnel". US officials immediately visited the LPDR ambassador to the United Nations in New York, and the US State Department instructed its Charge d'Affaires to the LPDR, Leo Moser (52) to "immediately seek an appointment with the most senior Lao MFA official" and "urgently request" the return of all MIA personal effects that the Lao government had in their possession, including those displayed in the museum. It also requested for a Bangkok-based investigator to be granted a visa to visit Laos in order to hold talks with relevant officials, in an apparent move to ease US concerns. This was followed by a visit to the LPDR by Desaix Anderson, the US State Department's Director of East Asia overseeing the Vietnam, Lao and Cambodian Desk, to meet with MFA officials on 10 June 1980. (53)

US officials viewed the reports of artefacts belonging to American service personnel in the Lao museum as "disturbing", "offensive", and a "failure" by the Lao government to resolve the issue. (54) In May 1980, Phoune Siphasert, a Politburo member and concurrently Lao Foreign Minister, summoned the Director of the Second Department, Ngaosyvathn, to ask him why the United States had made the urgent requests, given the concern it has aroused within the Politburo. (55) Needless to say, "It was the museum incident", said Ngaosyvathn, "that resulted in the initiative", which, in turn, led to the 1985 excavation. (56) In response to the author's question about whether a link existed between domestic security and LPDR's hosting of the first joint field excavation, Ngaosyvathn admitted that "if we [LPDR] did not cooperate, they [the United States] would send their mercenaries (57) to search for [American] remains ... thus it was better to make them [the efforts] official". (58)

Ngaosyvathn was not the only MFA official who linked the first joint effort to the sovereignty concerns of the LPDR. For instance, Saly Khamsy, a member of the LPDR's permanent mission to the United Nations, clearly stated in the presence of David Lambertson, the US State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, that "the basis of the principle of mutual respect of independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference in the internal affairs of each other" was attached to this issue which laid the initial foundations for bilateral cooperation between the two countries. (59) In another interview, a former Lao diplomat who wishes to remain anonymous gave a correlative set of reasons reiterating that the starting point of the initial joint effort was the LPDR's demand for US recognition of Lao sovereignty. (60) Concerns about upholding sovereignty pertained not only to diplomatic interactions, but were also linked to the threat to domestic security arising from US attempts to rescue alleged American POWs.

Clandestine Operations

This section describes how US-supported clandestine operations in support of anti-LPDR resistance groups to rescue alleged American POWs, as well as to recover the remains of American MIAs in Laos, heightened the Lao leadership's suspicions that Washington sought to subvert the LPDR. As is evident from the congressional records, the US government is known to have supported, or at least been partially involved, in five covert operations to search for evidence of American POW/MIAs in Laos. (61) Though all of those operations failed to find any POWs, or evidence of their remains, two of them --conducted in 1981 and 1982--heightened the domestic security concerns of the Lao government.

The Lao leadership viewed the covert operations as concrete proof of American subversion, and therefore, a threat to the country's sovereignty. One of these operations, codenamed Pocket Change, was launched on 29 March 1981. The mission, supported by the CIA, was conducted by members of a Lao resistance group, and was designed to monitor a detention camp in Ngommalath district of Khammoune province where a group of US POWs was allegedly being held. A report concerning the mission appeared in the Washington Post on 21 May 1981. (62) The Lao side reacted angrily to the incursion into its territory. (63) In June 1981, Leo Moser reported from Vientiane to Washington that the "news story of the forays" had resulted in Lao "indignation". (64) For the Laotians, according to Moser, the US mission was a violation of the country's sovereignty. (65) Accordingly, on 10 June 1981, the Lao MFA lodged a formal protest with the US government. (66)

However, Operation Pocket Change was not the only incident that convinced the Lao leadership that America was subverting the country. A subsequent operation, dubbed Lazarus, was launched on 27 November 1982. The operation was conducted by a team of fifteen Lao resistance members led by four Americans and which succeeded in entering the country to rescue American POWs allegedly held in captivity in the Sepone district of Savannaket province. (67) According to one intelligence report, the team was closely monitored and later attacked by an LPDR army unit. (68) Details of the raid were reported in the New York Times in February 1983. (69) Naturally, the Lao government protested the incursion. (70) Operation Lazarus convinced the LPDR government that the Reagan administration was committed to supporting anti-communist insurgencies around the world. (71) As a result, the White House was viewed as "the headquarters of the organization charged to implement the doctrine and the place where assistance to the 'freedom fighters' [or anti-LPDR resistance] was drawn up". (72)

The Road to the First Joint Effort

Perceptions of Lao's domestic insecurity resulting from the rescue operations and subversive activities of the United States undoubtedly had an effect on how the LPDR handled the MIA issue in its wider relations with Washington. For example, President Reagan's speech on 28 January 1983 to mark the tenth anniversary of the Paris Peace Accords prompted a response from the LPDR. In a paragraph explicitly designed to make it known to the Lao side, Reagan overtly reminded the Lao through his American audience that the "government bureaucracy" would take "decisive action" to resolve the POW/MIA issue in the LPDR and some of the associated "approaches must be done quietly". (73) Reagan's warning that the United States would deal with the issue using covert operations confirmed the LPDR's longstanding suspicion that Washington has colluded with anti-LPDR resistance groups to launch rescue missions. To mitigate this, the same month as Reagan's speech, Lao Vice Foreign Minister Soubanh Srithirath secretly met with Daniel O'Donohue in New York to review the visit of a POW/MIA technical team to the LPDR. (74)

Unsurprisingly then, in mid-February 1983, when the initial technical-level meeting took place in Vientiane, it was not trouble-free as it was interrupted by news of American-led missions into Laos. According to the account of one participant, the meeting was abruptly broken off due to a report in the Bangkok Post of an ongoing incursion into the LPDR by American citizens searching for POWs. (75) Prior to the meeting, US officials were informed of the Lao side's seven criteria. Two of the criteria were for the United States to stop individuals from illegally entering Laos and end its support for anti-LPDR resistance groups taking refuge in Thailand. (76) These two criteria demonstrated a clear-cut expression of concern by the Lao government for the sovereignty of the country. In this respect, the LPDR's policy, as postulated by Lao Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane, set conditions for cooperation with the United States in the search for MIAs so long as Washington "abandon acts of intervention into internal affairs of the country". (77)

Gradually, the two sides made progress. The LPDR initially seemed unconvinced by the American proposal for joint excavation of MIAs because they "do not see any need for joint US/Lao search and recovery efforts". (78) However, Lao officials could also not ignore the "concerted campaign" launched by their American counterparts at the US Embassy in Vientiane, following a preliminary joint survey conducted in December 1983. (79) In July 1984, the Lao government agreed in principle to the first joint excavation, but "an illegal cross-border foray by private Americans ... caused the Lao government to delay the excavation for nearly a year". (80) Agreement to move forward with the excavations was reportedly aided by US "technical briefings" to a Lao delegation at the Joint Casualty Resolution Center (JCRC) and the US Army Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) in Hawaii (the predecessor of DPPA). (81)

The long-awaited first joint accounting efforts between the LPDR and the United States were conducted from 10 to 22 February 1985. (82) A joint crash site excavation--which yielded approximately 50,000 pieces of highly fragmented skeletal and dental remains belonging to thirteen men from a US AC-130 gunship shot down near the city of Pakse in 1972--preceded similar excavations in Vietnam by ten months. (83) The first US-Vietnam joint excavation did not take place until mid-November 1985, despite the fact that the first technical meeting had taken place in October 1980, followed by six subsequent meetings. The US-Vietnam excavation ended in early December, resulting in no identifiable remains or personal effects being found. (84) The delay was because the Vietnamese were angered by a comment by US Secretary of State George Shultz regarding Hanoi's "cruel and heartless action" on the POW/MIA issue. (85)

The Pakse excavation led to a substantial improvement in US-LPDR relations. Richard Childress, the chief US negotiator, praised it as "a major step" in improving ties, (86) while the Reagan administration lauded it as "the first" and "unprecedented" bilateral cooperation with the LPDR since the end of the Vietnam War. (87) In addition, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush hailed it as a significant "step towards a sustained pattern of progress" to improving bilateral relations, (88) and George Shultz sent a letter to his counterpart, Phoune Siphasert, thanking him for the first "highly successful" joint accounting effort. (89) Elsewhere, the joint accounting effort was described as "a model of cooperation". (90) Subsequently, the LPDR was removed from the "Congress-approved list of enemy states", allowing for the US ban on Laos accessing American bilateral development aid to be relaxed. (91)

In terms of joint statements and testimonies, the joint statement of August 1987 between the LPDR and the United States was reinforced decades later by the release of testimony by Richard Childress, a former Asian Political and Military Affairs Directorate of the US National Security Council. A year before the joint statement was issued, indicative gestures aimed at improving relations with the United States became apparent in the LPDR's policy on the solution to the POW/MIA issue announced by Kaysone Phomvihane at the Fourth Party Congress in 1986. He stated:
   In relations with the United States, we have shown our good-will
   with concrete deeds, in particular our cooperation in the search
   for Americans missing in action. We demanded that the United States
   abandon acts of intervention in our country's internal affairs as a
   way to restore the relations to normal conditions". (92)

In less than a year in 1987, US and Lao officials issued a joint statement, explicitly favouring the Lao side. The one-page document, titled "Joint Statement on POWs/MIAs issued by the US and Laos" declared: "Both sides reaffirmed their respect for the principles of independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity in their relations"; and on the part dealing specifically with Lao resistance groups, the statement noted that "the US side reaffirmed its opposition to irresponsible private efforts", dovetailing with the security-first approach demanded by the Lao government. (93) Reinforcing this statement was the testimony by Childress, who admitted to the US Congressional Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs that the purpose of the 1987 visit was to agree on a joint communique in which "the US would respect their [Lao] independence, neutrality and territorial integrity due to their concerns over the Lao resistance and potential US support" and that it was "done to build the requisite trust between our governments to make POW/MIA cooperation possible". (94) In short, both statements constitute concrete evidence of the LPDR's concern for its sovereignty.


This article offers a fresh account, from a Laotian perspective, of the joint accounting efforts between the LPDR and the United States to resolve the POW/MIA issue after the end of the Vietnam War. It outlines Laos' concerns regarding the need to defend the country's sovereignty vis-a-vis such joint efforts. Domestically, the Lao government wanted to end incursions by anti-LPDR groups taking refuge in Thailand. POW/MIA negotiations with Washington were used as leverage to end American support both for Lao resistance groups and POW searches conducted by private entities. Diplomatically, the LPDR wanted to be respected as a sovereign nation and not be viewed as subordinate to Vietnam, which is how the United States had often regarded it. In this regard, POW/MIA negotiations with Washington also helped to establish Lao sovereignty with respect to Vietnam as well. Illustrated in this article by primary sources, autonomous diplomacy on the part of the LPDR was at play as evidenced by the POW/MIA negotiations, which led to the first joint accounting effort in 1985. Domestic security and diplomatic considerations would remain of utmost importance for the LPDR as the joint search for the US POW/MIA continued into the future.

DOI: 10.1355/cs37-3f

SOULATHA SAYALATH is a PhD candidate at Hiroshima University, Japan. Postal address: 1-5-1 Kagamiyama Higashi-Hiroshima, Hiroshima 739-8529, Japan; email:


The author would like to thank Kathryn Sweet for her editorial assistance, Kazuhito Nakazono, Carlyle A. Thayer and the two anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments.

(1) Paul Mather, M.I.A. Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia (Washington D.C.: National Defense University Press, 1994), pp. 106-9, 140-41.

(2) Janice Thomson, "State Sovereignty in International Relations: Bridging the Gap between Theory and Empirical Research", International Studies Quarterly 39, no. 2 (June 1995): 213.

(3) Ibid.

(4) See Timothy Castle, At War in the Shadow of Vietnam: U.S. Military Aid to the Royal Lao Government, 1955-1975 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

(5) Ibid., pp. 47-61.

(6) "Of the remaining 305 Americans still unaccounted for in Laos, 23 are in a 'no further pursuit' category. This means that as a result of rigorous investigation, we have conclusive evidence the individual perished, but do not believe it possible to recover his remains." US Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, available at < Article/569617/progress-in-laos.aspx>.

(7) Carlyle A. Thayer, "US Rapprochement with Laos and Cambodia", Contemporary Southeast Asia 32, no. 3 (2010): 444-45.

(8) Department of Defense and Department of State, Final Interagency Report of the Reagan Administration on the POW/MIA Issue in Southeast Asia (Washington, D.C.: Department of Defense and Department of State, 19 January 1989), p. 10.

(9) David Lambertson, "US-Lao Relations", in Laos: Beyond the Revolution, edited by Joseph Zasloff and Leonard Unger (London: Macmillan, 1991), p. 315.

(10) Thayer, "US Rapprochement with Laos and Cambodia", op. cit., pp. 443-45.

(11) United States Senate, Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, 1st Session, 103D Congress (Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 13 January 1993), pp. 12, 60.

(12) Ibid., p. 114.

(13) Ibid., p. 303.

(14) Kaysone Phomvihane, The Third Congress of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, April 27-30, 1982; Documents and Materials (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), pp. 14, 29; Martin Stuart-Fox, "National Defence and Internal Security in Laos", in Contemporary Laos: Studies in the Politics and Society of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, edited by Martin Stuart-Fox (New York: St. Martin Press, 1982), pp. 233-38; Carlyle A. Thayer, "Laos and Vietnam: The Anatomy of a 'Special Relationship'", in Contemporary Laos, edited by Stuart-Fox, op. cit., pp. 255-57; Geoffrey Gunn, "Resistance Coalitions in Laos", Asian Survey 23, no. 3 (1983): 318; Grant Evans, The Politics of Ritual and Remembrance: Laos since 1975 (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 1998), p. 16.

(15) Kaysone, The Third Congress of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party, op. cit., pp. 14, 51.

(16) Mather, M.I.A. Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia, op. cit., pp. 108-9, 140-41.

(17) Kaysone Phomvihane, Sip pee bonsentang kaokum sungkomniyom [10 Years on the Path towards Socialism] (Vientiane, LPDR: State Printing House, 1986), pp. 4-5.

(18) Stephen Johnson, "Laos in 1992: Succession and Consolidation", Asian Survey 33, no. 1 (January 1993); Timothy Castle, One Day Too Long: Top Secret Site 85 and the Bombing of North Vietnam (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).

(19) Castle, One Day Too Long, op. cit., p. 195.

(20) United States Senate, Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, op. cit., p. 114.

(21) Ibid.

(22) Thayer, "Laos and Vietnam: The Anatomy of a 'Special Relationship'", op. cit., p. 246.

(23) Martin Stuart-Fox, "Foreign Policy of the Lao People's Democratic Republic", in Laos: Beyond the Revolution, edited by Joseph Zasloff and Leonard Unger (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991), p. 191.

(24) Ibid., p. 192.

(25) Ibid., p. 202.

(26) Roger Hall, "Abandoned in Laos", Conservative Review 7 (November/December 1996); John Corry, "The MIA Cover-Up", The American Spectator (February 1994).

(27) MacAlister Brown and Joseph Zasloff, "Laos 1976: Faltering First Steps towards Socialism", Asian Survey 17, no. 2 (February 1977): 115; MacAlister Brown and Joseph Zasloff, "Laos 1978: The EBB and Flow of Adversity", Asian Survey 19, no. 2 (February 1979): 102.

(28) James Lebovic, "National Interests and US Foreign Aid: The Carter and Reagan Years", Journal of Peace Research 25, no. 2 (1988): 116.

(29) Steven Radelet, "Bush and Foreign Aid", Foreign Affairs 82, no. 5 (September/October 2003), available at <>.

(30) United States Senate, Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, op. cit., p. 9.

(31) H. Bruce Franklin, M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America: How and Why Belief in Live POWs has Possessed a Nation (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1993); Thomas Hawley, The Remains of War: Bodies, Politics, and the Search for American Soldiers Unaccounted for in Southeast Asia (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2005); Michael Allen, Until the Last Man Comes Home: POWs, MIAs, and the Unending Vietnam War (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

(32) Mather, M.I.A. Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia, op. cit., pp. 95-118; Castle, One Day Too Long, op. cit., pp. 194-213; Thayer, "US Rapprochement with Laos and Cambodia", op. cit., pp. 443-49.

(33) Franklin, M.I.A or Mythmaking in America, op. cit., pp. 108-13.

(34) Ibid., pp. 129-63.

(35) Hawley, The Remains of War, op. cit., pp. 68, 93-100; Allen, Until the Last Man Comes Home, op. cit., pp. 219-37, 240.

(36) Mather, M.I.A. Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia, op. cit., pp. 108-9.

(37) Castle, One Day Too Long, op. cit., pp. 209-11.

(38) Thayer, "US Rapprochement with Laos and Cambodia", op. cit., pp. 442-43.

(39) United States Senate, Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, op. cit., p. 6.

(40) The one-page Joint Statement was the only document released using the Freedom of Information Act. A request using the Mandatory Declassification Review (MDR) Form for a release of classified documents titled, "POW/MIA US-LAO negotiation under the collection name of Childress, Richard:files" by the author in April 2014 resulted in a reply advising that the request would be subject to review in a few years, suggesting that the issue is still sensitive. I wish to thank RRL's archivist, Ray Wilson, for his kind assistance.

(41) Pheuiphanh Ngaosyvathn, "Thai-Lao Relations: A Lao View", Asian Survey 25, no. 12 (1985): 1242.

(42) Foreign relations of LPDR with capitalist countries fall under the jurisdiction of the Second Department and its director is responsible for very POW/MIA issue including relations with United States in general.

(43) Library of Congress, "LA: DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] MISCELLANEOUS/ Messages Discuss U.S.-Lao Contacts in 1980 and 1981 Concerning the Joint Resolution of the POW/MIA Issue", Vietnam-Era Prisoner of War/Missing-in-Action Database: POW/MIA Databases & Document, June 2013, p. 25, available at <>.

(44) Daniel A. O'Donohue, interviewed by Charles Kennedy, 28 May 1996. The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project, Library of Congress, p. 116, available at < O'Donohue,%20Daniel%20A.toe.pdf>.

(45) Library of Congress, "LA: DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency]", op. cit., p. 14.

(46) Stuart-Fox, "Foreign Policy of the Lao People's Democratic Republic", op. cit., p. 202.

(47) Interview with Pheuiphanh Ngaosyvathn, Vientiane, Lao PDR, 29 November 2013. Dr Pheuiphanh worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from 1975 to 1986 and served as Director of the Second Department from 1981 to 1986.

(48) Ibid.

(49) Ibid.

(50) Ibid.

(51) A blood chit is a notice carried by military personnel and addressed to any civilian who may come across an armed-services member in difficulty such as a shot-down pilot.

(52) The instruction dated 12 May 1980.

(53) Library of Congress, "LA: DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency]", op. cit., pp. 1-3.

(54) Ibid.

(55) Interview with Dr Pheuiphanh, op. cit.

(56) Ibid.

(57) Pheuiphanh, "Thai-Lao Relations: A Lao View", op. cit., p. 1243. In this work, the author preferred the term "Lao mercenaries" to "Lao resistance". A summary of Pheuiphanh's work can be found in Mayoury Ngaosyvathn and Pheuiphanh Ngaosyvathn, Chao Anou (1767-1829): The Lao People, and Southeast Asia (Vientiane, LPDR: State Printing House, 2010).

(58) Ibid.

(59) Saly Khamsy, "Relations between Laos and Thailand", in Laos: Beyond the Revolution, op. cit., pp. 212-13.

(60) Interview with anonymous former Lao diplomat, Vientiane, LPDR, 29 November 2013.

(61) United States Senate, Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, op. cit., pp. 26, 33-34, 218-19, 221, 302-8, 314; Franklin, M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America, op. cit., pp. 137, 143-44, 186-87; Mather, M.I.A. Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia, op. cit., pp. 95-120; Travis Masters, "Prisoners of War: The Search for Answers", The Upsilonian 10 (Summer 1998), available at < html>; Jeffrey Richelson, "Truth Conquers All Chains: The U.S. Army Intelligence Support Activity, 1981-1989", International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence 12, no. 2 (1999): 172-73; Douglas Waller, "The Americans Left Behind", Time, 24 June 2001, available at < magazine/article/0,9171,163082,00.html>; Hawley, The Remains of War, op. cit., p. 68; Allen, Until the Last Man Comes Home, op. cit., pp. 221, 225-27; Bill Hendon and Elizabeth Stewart, The Enormous Crime: The Definitive Account of American POWs Abandoned in Southeast Asia (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007), pp. 210-18.

(62) Masters, "Prisoner of War", op. cit.; Waller, "The Americans Left Behind", op. cit.

(63) Ibid.

(64) Library of Congress, "LA: DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency]", op. cit., p. 22.

(65) Ibid., p. 25.

(66) Ibid., p. 28.

(67) Masters, "Prisoners of War", op. cit.; Hawley, The Remains of War, op. cit., p. 68.

(68) Library of Congress, "LA: DIA [Defense Intelligence Agency] MISCELLANEOUS/ American Mercenaries Illegally Enter Laos and Search for POW/MIAs in Savannaket Province", Vietnam-Era Prisoner of War/Missing-in-Action Database: POW/MIA Databases & Documents, June 2013, p. 45, available at <>.

(69) "Private Raid on Laos Reported", New York Times, 1 February 1983, available at <>.

(70) Paul Quinn-Judge, "Laos Cracks Door to Search for Missing US Servicemen", Special to The Christian Science Monitor, 7 July 1983.

(71) Geoffrey Gunn, Rebellion in Laos: Peasants and Politics in a Colonial Backwater (Bangkok: White Lotus, 2003), p. 245.

(72) Ibid., pp. 245-46.

(73) Library of Congress, "VM: DIA MISCELLANEOUS/DIA's Daily Log of POWMIA Documents", Vietnam-Era Prisoner of War/Missing in Action-in-Action Database: POW/MIA Databases & Documents, June 2013, p. 164.

(74) Department of Defense and Department of State, Final Interagency Report of the Reagan Administration, op. cit., p. 10.

(75) Mather, M.I.A. Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia, op. cit., p. 109.

(76) Library of Congress, "VM: DIA MISCELLANEOUS", op. cit., p. 29.

(77) Kaysone Phomvihane, "Botlaiyarn kanmouang kong kanaborlihanyan sounkangpak pasason pativatlao tor kongpasumyai kangti IV kongpak" [Political Report of the Fourth Congress of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party Central Committee] (Vientiane, LPDR: State Printing House, 1986), p. 78.

(78) Library of Congress, "VM: DIA MISCELLANEOUS", op. cit., p. 29.

(79) Mather, M.I.A. Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia, op. cit., p. 141.

(80) Department of Defense and Department of State, Final Interagency Report of the Reagan Administration, op. cit., p. 10.

(81) Mather, M.I.A. Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia, op. cit., p. 142.

(82) Department of Defense and Department of State, Final Interagency Report of the Reagan Administration, op. cit., pp. 10-11; Mather, M.I.A. Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia, op. cit., pp. 140-42.

(83) Allen, Until the Last Man Comes Home, op. cit., p. 204.

(84) Mather, M.I.A. Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia, op. cit., pp. 123-39.

(85) Ibid., p. 128.

(86) Michael Putzel, "Remains of 13 US Airmen Recovered in Laos", Associated Press News Archive, 2 July 1985, available at < Remains-of-13-US-Airmen-Recovered-in-Laos/id-78e684556e97d165bf63d449a4dd9351>.

(87) Department of Defense and Department of State, Final Interagency Report of the Reagan Administration, op. cit., p. 11.

(88) Allen, Until the Last Man Comes Home, op. cit., p. 243.

(89) Mather, M.I.A. Accounting for the Missing in Southeast Asia, op. cit., p. 142.

(90) Ibid.

(91) Ibid., p. 142; Stuart-Fox, "Foreign Policy of the Lao People's Democratic Republic", op. cit., p. 202.

(92) Kaysone, [Political Report of the Fourth Congress of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party Central Committee], op. cit., p. 78.

(93) This Joint Statement is derived from a request by the author to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. It is the only one-page document released at the time of the request. It is kept in the library collections in RAC Box 16, named "U.S.-Lao POW/MIA Negotiations (l)-(3)" under the file name of Richard Childress, a chief negotiator of the Reagan administration, available at <>. Though it is undated, another version with a different title, "U.S. Lao POW/MIA Consultations Held in Vientiane", released on 12 August 1987, can be found in the Department of State Bulletin, The Official Monthly Record of the United States Foreign Policy/Volume 87/Number 2127/Oct 1987, p. 23.

(94) United States Senate, Report of the Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, op. cit., p. 306.
Table 1
US MIAs in the Vietnam War

                             Vietnam   Laos   Cambodia   China   Total

Original Missing              1,971    575       90       10     2,646
Repatriated and Identified     699     270       38        3     1,010
Remaining Missing             1,272    305       52        7     1,636

Source: US Defense POW/MIA Accounting
Agency (DPAA) as of 11 February 2015.
COPYRIGHT 2015 Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2015 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Sayalath, Soulatha
Publication:Contemporary Southeast Asia
Geographic Code:9LAOS
Date:Dec 1, 2015
Previous Article:What next for the Indonesian Navy? Challenges and prospects for attaining the Minimum Essential Force by 2024.
Next Article:Brunei: From the Age of Commerce to the 21st Century.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters