Guns and opium in the Xaisomboun Special Zone

Journeywatch takes a look at a little known part of Laos where Vietnam war era alliances and long memories are a continuing source of instability.

Armoured R-28D-5 plane at Long Tieng airfield ...

The airfield at Long Chen c1970. Image via Wikipedia

The mountainous Xaisomboun Special Zone (pron: sigh-som-boon) in North Laos has been turbulent for years. Even today it is closed to most foreigners. During the Vietnam War the CIA ran clandestine operations out of an airfield in a broad valley in the middle of the zone called Long Chen. The Americans trained the local Hmong inhabitants in guerilla warfare to support US operations and harass the Lao and Vietnamese communists.

In 1975, when the Americans withdrew from Indochina, the Hmong were left to fend for themselves against the communist Pathet Lao government. Those who didn’t receive asylum in the US either fled to Thailand or faced persecution at home. The trouble has rumbled on over the years and even now it is reported that some Hmong groups live in jungle camps to escape government forces. In the 2000s, news of banditry and skirmishes with Lao government forces emerged periodically from this part of Laos. These were the long term effects of Vietnam war era expediency, as Journeywatch was to discover first hand.

We went to the region recently following an incident where a foreign worker had been shot by an unseen assailant. He had been returning on foot to a work compound with his colleagues one afternoon when a burst of gunfire had erupted from bushes nearby. In the hail of fire, several cars, the building and he had been hit. Fortunately for him his wound had been superficial. The bullet had tunnelled cleanly through the flesh above his collar bone.

On looking around the site, we found the place where the gunman had lain. An area of flattened leaves, empty bullet cases and dry chalky white spit stains suggested that whatever grievance had been the cause of this incident, the gunman had been high on opium at the time. Who did it was never discovered. In this turbulent area where AK47s abound and people live in the forest it would have taken many weeks of investigating and months of patient hearts-and-minds campaigning to find out.

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