Speech of His Royal Highness Prince Soulivong SAVANG
Heir to the throne of Kingdom of Laos
At Bowdoin College, Brunswick, State of Maine, USA
On February 18, 2000
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Why I want to restore democracy to my homeland
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Ladies and gentlemen,
I would like first to express my gratitude to the Honorable President Edwards, Delwin C. Wilson III, director of Special Programs and the faculty, staff and students of this venerable Bowdoin College, for giving me this opportunity to meet with you in this beautiful chapel to talk about my homeland.
Laos is my country. It is situated in Southeast Asia region and has borders with five countries: Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Myanmar (Burma).
Laos is as large as the state of Minnesota but had only 3.5 million inhabitants in 1975.
The population was made up of 68 ethnic groups. Some of them have become extinct. According to the statistics compiled from the 1985 national census by researchers at the Institute of Ethnology, at that point there were only 47 groups left.
For more than a millennium, the kings of Laos federated all these mixed people successfully to preserve and unify the Lao nation.
In December 1975, after the end of Vietnam War, the communists took over Laos, and abolished the constitutional monarchy. The 'Lao People's Democratic Republic' was proclaimed shortly afterwards establishing a communist and brutally totalitarian regime. Their Majesties, the King and the Queen, as well as the Crown Prince, who was my father, were put under arrest and deported to a concentration camp near the North Vietnamese border. The rest of the Royal Family was forced to flee and seek refuge in free countries.
Twenty-five years later, the situation in Laos can only be assessed with concern and sadness:
Lao refugees that are scattered throughout the world have never stopped their struggle for democracy as well as their efforts to secure a return to their home country in dignity and safety. Conscious of the fact that their disorganized struggle has not been able to reach its objective, they have turned to the Lao Royal Family to unify all the Lao people.
The Lao Royal Family is at the disposal of the Lao people as a whole and hopes that it will succeed in reestablishing its Unity, its Independence, its Freedom and its Democracy based on national reconciliation.
After recalling some essential facts and events, I shall explain my understanding of 25 years of communist rule in Laos and my vision to develop Laos in the 21st century.
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KEY FACTS AND EVENTS UNDER THE CONSTITUTIONAL MONARCHY AND THE TAKEOVER BY THE COMMUNISTS IN DECEMBER 1975.
The Kingdom of Laos dates back more than a millennium. A single dynasty reigned from 729 to 1975. The fact that this family respected wisdom, justice and the Rule of Law justified its legitimacy.
A democratic Constitution, which saw to the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, was issued on 11 May 1947. The King reigned for peace and unity but did not govern. The National Assembly elections were multiparty and openly and freely contested.
On 14 December 1955, Laos became a UN member state.
Unfortunately, the wars between Vietnam and France and then between Vietnam and the United States of America did not leave the Kingdom unscathed. The Lao Communists, known as the Pathet-Lao, formed an alliance with their North Vietnamese 'brothers' to try to take over Laos through a war of attrition. After the communists took control of Viet-Nam and of Cambodia in 1975, His Majesty King Sri Savang VATTHANA, my grandfather, abdicated the throne in order to avoid bloodies battles for his subjects.
Police roundups and arbitrary arrests plunged the entire country into a state of terror. Thousands of people were secretly denounced to the regime and the people lived in fear of the midnight knock and the immediate deportation. The population, at all levels of society, farmers, officials, servicemen, workers, business executives, etc., were forced to brave bullets fired by Communist soldiers as they swam or canoed across the Mekong River to Freedom. Thousands of these fugitives died while attempting to escape.
500,000 nationals - more than 15% of the population - left the country while at the same time the deportation of 15,000 civil and military officials from the Royal Administration into internal exile was being carried out. Concentration camps - the so-called 'seminar centers' - had been set up in the jungle to receive them. About a thousand of them have died in such camps. These camps exist to this day.
The King was sent to one of these concentration camps, along with the Queen, the Crown Prince and other members of the Royal Family. They were physically eliminated a few years later.
The King's two daughters and his youngest son were forced to flee with their families to refuge in France. Fortunately, they managed to find jobs, (yes, we all work for a living!).
In 1975, when the Communists took over Laos, I was only 12 years old. I had just completed primary school.
During my studies in high school under the communist regime, all students were required to provide hard labor to the community at large. I myself was no exception. We also had to provide for self-sufficiency. I had to plough the land for planting rice, build houses, dig trenches for irrigation, transport rice to the city. All these activities were controlled closely by political agents. As you can imagine, I did not have a standard education.
In spite of indoctrination with the theory of communism, I resisted and I still remained with my opinion.
I completed my high school in 1981. Then strange rumors went around that I was going to be sent to further my education at some undisclosed location. I could not take a chance for I was a member of the Royal family. Therefore, my younger brother and I had to find a way to escape to Thailand via Vientiane.
How to get there ? It was a big problem.
Fortunately, the common people were still loyal to the Royal Family. They helped us to escape from the communist hand.
On 3 August 1981, we crossed the Mekong River to Thailand by a small boat in the greatest secrecy. Once across the river, we remained incognito. We were allowed by a Thai family to sleep in their small house. The following day we went to a pagoda in order to find food for lunch and then to Thai immigration office to report as refugees.
We were interviewed by Thai policemen and forced to reveal who we are. From that time we were taken by Thai authorities to a safe place in Thailand where we stayed for one month. We were then authorized to resettle in France where I completed my studies in law.
MY UNDERSTANDING OF 25 YEARS OF COMMUNIST RULE
How have the communists ruled my homeland during the last 25 years?
Since 1975, Laos has been governed by a one-party system. The communist party is the ruling party. It is a totalitarian regime.
As everybody knows, in any communist country the people are denied genuine democracy. Members of parliament are selected by the party. At all levels of governmental or social administration, the key post is occupied by a party member or somebody allied to their system.
The results of 25 years communist rule have been disastrous.
National identity is progressively dying out. Lao cultures and traditions have not been preserved. On the contrary, they were replaced by communist ideology and practices.
Peace is impossible to enforce, domestic tranquillity non-existent and National unity is still to be realized. Anti-Communist local guerrilla organizations are supported by the population. Outside the country, there are numerous politico-military organizations whose aim is to fund the purchase of weapons and to provide the guerrilla fighters with supplies. There is no security outside main cities.
The Communists have shown themselves to be unable to unify all ethnic groups living in Laos under their leadership.
The economic situation in Laos has gone from bad to worse since 1975 in spite of massive aid given by free countries. In 1993 this aid was very significant since it amounted to more than 30 US dollars per capita - the highest rate in Southeast Asia.
Corruption has reached a previously unheard of high level and has turned foreign donors and investors away. Investments has fallen from 1.2 billion dollars in 1995 to only 142 million dollars in 1997. The inflation rate was at 8 % in 1996 but two years later, this rate had increased to 104 %.
Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world. According to the Pathet Lao regime, the Annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita amounts to 380 US dollars, but the true rate is probably lower while it is about 3,000 dollars for Thailand, one of the bordering countries.
Agriculture makes up 58% of GDP. This sector is, however, very vulnerable because of a lack of security in the countryside.
The recent economic crisis in Southeast Asia has aggravated the economic situation in Laos. Today the regime is unable to find the appropriate economic formula for recovering from the effects of that crisis while other countries are returning to their former economic situations.
Human rights are not respected. Religious freedom is unheard of. On January 1998, the communist regime arrested and detained 44 individuals including 3 Americans at a Bible study meeting in Vientiane, subsequently sentencing 13 Christians to heavy prison terms. Today thousands of political prisoners are detained under inhumane conditions in different prisons throughout the country. The communist dissident and former vice minister Thongsouk Saysangkhi was arrested in 1990 for having advocated a multiparty system. A sick man, he passed away in prison on February 1998 from lack of proper medical care.
In October 1999 about a hundred students and teachers from universities in the Vientiane area were arrested for having organized a peaceful demonstration for the restoration of democracy and freedom and for the rational economic development of Laos.
The efforts made by all Lao organizations have sensitized American politicians over the Lao problems. Statements in defense of democracy made to the US Congress by His Royal Highness Prince Sauryavong SAVANG -here present- and myself, were presented in February 1998. Five months later the US Senate adopted Senate Resolution 240 requiring the Lao Communist Government to respect democracy and Human Rights in Laos. On 16 November 1999, the US House of Representatives passed Resolution 169 which is similar to the Senate resolution.
No doubt, the current regime is not good for Laos. The communist leaders know that, but even the collapse of the Berlin Wall along with the toppling of 'socialist' regimes in 'brother' countries, has had no impact on them.
MY VISION TO DEVELOP LAOS IN THE 21st CENTURY
I would like now to give my vision on the restoration of Democracy and the Rule of Law together with a program of cultural and economic development in Laos in the 21st century.
To avoid general armed conflicts and social troubles and to raise the standard of living of Lao people above the poverty line, it is necessary to restore Freedom, Democracy and the Rule of Law through multiparty and free elections. This is the only form of government that will allow Laos to develop in its geopolitical situation.
Laos must become a sovereign state endowed with the inalienable rights of self-government and self-determination.
Human rights must be respected in Laos. Political prisoners including the communist dissidents must be released. We shall set all prisoners of war free or give their remains back to their families.
It is imperative to rebuild good relations with all foreign countries particularly our five bordering countries. By the way, I think that Vietnam can become an economic power in south east Asia if they change from a communist system toward genuine democracy. I know that the Vietnamese people are a hardworking people and their country is geographically situated in an excellent position to engage in world trade.
We must speed up the development of the economy and trade. Without the establishment of the Rule of Law, without a transparent, open and incorruptible legal system, a system sensitive to the Lao cultural while at the same time recognizing the needs of international investment and trade for a regularized and predictable framework within which to conduct business, our efforts, like those of the communists, will be doomed to failure.
Refusal to deal with the environmental destruction visited upon the Lao people and nation by the communist regime will adversely impact on our standing among the nations of the world and rightly draw their condemnation. We cannot allow this to happen. An emergency program of environmental restoration, including reforestation of the great tracts of forest lands so callously clear cut by the present regime, must be established if we are to save the lands and waters of Laos.
In the case of Laos, how will the change from a totalitarian, communist regime to a genuine democracy take place?
Suppose the communist leaders themselves change the regime towards a multiparty system ? Can a leopard change his spots? Such apparent change will not be credible for the Lao people or for the free world. When it comes to Democracy, the Pathet Lao have shown themselves to be untrustworthy partners. We Lao know all about the communist version of free elections. As you Americans say, "Been there, done that!" It will be a waste of time and that, in Laos my friends, has and can cause armed conflicts.
For my part I think that the solution is to unify all Lao people, those living abroad in free and democratic countries together with those living inside the country.
I strongly wish that the government of a friendly country initiate and supervise a meeting or meetings between a representatives of the Lao communist party and that of the Lao abroad in order to work out the process of a peaceful national reconciliation leading to open and freely contested elections.
Under the auspices of the Lao Royal Family, the " Assembly of Lao Representatives Abroad " was established on 16 May 1997. Its first conference held in Seattle, in September 1997 was attended by more than 300 representatives of Lao political organizations coming from four continents. Its last conference was held in Montreal in September 1999. At each conference they passed a resolution to confirm the leadership of the Lao Royal Family.
The Royal Family has continually worked for the unity of all Laotians as well as for national reconciliation ever since it began its exile. Reestablishing the monarchy is not its main objective. Yet, if every party considers this institution as the symbol of national unity, as in the case of Cambodia or Spain, the Royal Family is then at the disposal of the Lao people.
However difficult this may prove to be, the Lao Royal Family will carry on its efforts to reestablish Unity, Independence and Democracy in Laos with determination and with the support of all of our fellow-countrywomen and fellow-countrymen . But we also need the help of freedom loving people everywhere. You, as educated and privileged Americans, have a special love and understanding of Freedom. People in bondage all over the world look to you for help and guidance. The blessings of your liberty are meant to be shared. Each individual living under the heal of a tyrant, wherever she or he might be found, diminishes your freedom and as each such person emerges into the light of Democracy, the cause of humankind is advanced for all of us. Join with us in our work.
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