Laos is a landlocked, mountainous country that lies between Thailand and Vietnam. It was founded in 1353 as the Kingdom of Lan Xang, “Land of a Million Elephants.” After ongoing struggles and incursions by its neighbors, Laos was ruled by Siam (modern-day Thailand) from the late 18th century until 1893, when it became a protectorate of French Indochina. In 1954, Laos became a fully independent constitutional monarchy and remained so until the takeover by the Pathet Lao government in 1975. It is currently one of the few remaining one-party socialist states. About the size of Great Britain, Laos has a population of only 6.8 million people, making it one of the least densely populated nations in Southeast Asia. Most of the populace resides in the Mekong River valley.
The nation has 47 ethnic minority groups, including the Hmong and Mien, who reside mostly in the mountainous regions. The term “Laotian” usually refers to all ethnic groups except the Hmong. Subsistence agriculture is the primary means of support, employing about 80 percent of the workforce. The country relies heavily on foreign aid and loans from international organizations, individual donor countries and non-governmental organizations.
» BBC News Country Profile: Laos. April 29, 2009.
» CIA World Factbook: Laos
» de Domenico, John E. G. Land of A Million Elephants: Memoirs of a Canadian Peacekeeper. Renfrew, Ontario: General Store Publishing House, 1998.
Laos and the Vietnam War
Once it had gained its independence from France, Laos became a center of the Cold War struggle against communism. In 1954 and again in 1962, international treaties declared Laos a neutral state and forbade foreign military intervention. Regardless, the country soon became a secondary front for the Americans in the Vietnam War. Since the United States could not send ground troops, the CIA took the war to the air and conducted a secret air war in Laos.
The U.S. presence in Laos illegally provided support on three fronts in the fight against the Pathet Lao and Vietnamese communist troops: The Royal Lao Army received arms and training; the CIA trained and funded a large paramilitary insurgent force, primarily Hmong, that operated covertly in Pathet Lao held territories; and, from 1964 to 1973, the United States conducted one of the largest bombing campaigns in history. The bombing campaign primarily targeted Pathet Lao held areas and the Ho Chi Minh trail that ran through eastern Laos, where the Vietnamese army transported goods and arms to South Vietnam. However, many civilian villagers were injured and killed. Laos became the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of modern warfare, with more than 2 million tons of bombs dropped on it.
The war divided the people of Laos, as some allied with the Americans and the Royal Lao Government, while others fought for the Pathet Lao forces, who were themselves allied with the North Vietnamese. The war ended in 1973 and the two sides formed a coalition government, but in 1975 the communist party took control. Many who had fought on behalf of the Royal Lao Government and the United States were persecuted and sent to reeducation camps. At least 10 percent of the population fled the country to avoid reprisals. It is believed that thousands died in the course of postwar persecution.
Presently, up to 78 million unexploded bombs, primarily cluster bombs, and other ordnance remain buried in the land, posing a deadly threat to civilians, in particular rural villagers and farmers. The Lao government has estimated that at least 13,000 civilians have been killed or injured by unexploded ordnances, almost half of them children. Many incidents go unreported due to the lack of health care access in more rural areas. Meanwhile, political relationships between the Lao government and its neighbors and between the Lao government and the United States have improved greatly over the past 15 years, though the United States presently has not officially recognized the secret air war conducted in Laos. Laos currently enjoys normal trade relations with the United States and is also a member of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).
» BBC News Country Profile: Laos.
» Byrne, Rory. “Unexploded Bombs Still Taking Toll on Laos.” Voice of America. Feb. 2, 2009.
» Evans, Grant. A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between. Crows Nest, Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2003.
» Khamvongsa, Channapha and Russell, Elaine. “Legacies of War: Cluster Bombs in Laos.” Critical Asian Studies, June 2009, 41:2, 281-306.
» U.S. State Department Background Note: Laos. April 2009.
Upwards of 10 percent of the population of Laos sought refugee status after the Pathet Lao came to power in 1975. Most of those people fled to Thailand. In the next two decades, 250,000 Laotians were brought to the United States from refugee camps. Many were resettled in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin, but Laotian communities can be found all over America. The government of Laos gradually shut down its reeducation camps and released most of its political prisoners. The lessening of tensions has prompted almost 30,000 former refugees to return to Laos. In the last decade, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has reported no evidence of widespread persecution. At the same time, an unknown number of Hmong who were allied with the United States live in hiding in the mountains of Laos, according to the U.S. Embassy in Laos. Living in isolation, these individuals and their families fear retaliation from the government.
» BBC News Country Profile: Laos.
» Fuller, Thomas. “Old U.S. Allies, Still Hiding in Laos.” The New York Times. Dec. 17, 2007.
» Saulny, Susan. “Hmong, Shaken, Wonder if a Killing Was Retaliation.” The New York Times. Jan. 14, 2007.
Southeast Asian Refugees in the United States
In contrast to immigrants, who often leave their native countries voluntarily, refugees are generally victims of political or social persecution who flee their countries and are resettled among other populations. Most Southeast Asian refugees fled Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s due to the conflicts in their home countries. These refugees were resettled in towns and cities in the United States where the population had previously been largely homogeneous.
Refugees face special challenges in their resettlement. Because they have had little opportunity to prepare for their immigration, they have longer adjustment periods and more difficulty finding jobs and learning English. Children typically adjust sooner than adults, causing refugee families to see a breakdown in communication between generations and disruption of the family structure. Mental health issues are particularly significant, given dramatic family changes and the ongoing legacy of war trauma.
Some Southeast Asian ethnic groups with agricultural backgrounds, such as the Hmong, face even greater obstacles. Because of their limited education and work experience in their home country, they have higher rates of poverty and illiteracy, though their situation has improved dramatically over the past 20 years.
Southeast Asian Gangs
Southeast Asian gangs have their origins in the refugees who came to the United States during the Vietnam War era. The challenges of integration, which stemmed from the systematic barriers listed above, increased the involvement of youth in these gangs.
Beginning in the 1980s, officials noted the development of gangs among Laotian immigrant children. Asian youth who become gang members were often drawn to gangs for the same reason other minorities are and tended to be first-generation Americans doing poorly in school who felt disconnected from their parents and who were subject to racism and violence from other groups. Generally, a gang provides youth with a family-type structure, offers its members protection and often leads members to crime.
When Southeast Asian gangs first began, they mostly targeted their own people and committed petty crimes. Fear of gang reprisal kept communities quiet and stopped them from informing police about such internal affairs. Since the 1980s and 1990s, the prevalence of gangs in the Southeast Asian communities has declined, as youth have come of age and the communities’ social and economic integration has increased.
Watch a video of two Laotian American youths talk about the pressures they face and why they have both joined gangs.
» Canham, Matt and Tim Sullivan. “Asian Gangs a Scourge: Violent Rivals in the Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodia Communities are Settling Scores at Malls, Amusement Parks, Asian Gangs Target their Own People.” The Salt Lake Tribune. April 14, 2003.
» Johnson, Dirk. “Hmong Refugees Find Adjustment to U.S. Painful.” The New York Times. July 25, 1988.
» Mydans, Seth. “Laotians’ Arrest in Killing Bares a Generation Gap.” The New York Times. June 21, 1994.
» Sanders, William B. Gangbangs and Drive-bys: Grounded Culture and Juvenile Gang Violence. Piscataway, N.J.: Aldine Transaction, 1994.
» Straka, Richard. “The Violence of Hmong Gangs and the Crime of Rape.” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. February 2003.
» Yen, Randall. “Southeast Asian Gangs in Sacramento.” The Deputy.