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The Little General Without A War

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 12, 1998

  Style Showcase

FRESNO, Calif.—The home is small and plain, identical to many others in this flat, dusty farming city. Beside the front door sits a carefully tended lily plant and a mound of scuffed shoes. Like a supplicant entering a temple, you too remove your footwear,to await an audience with the General.

Inside it is dark. You notice a single shabby couch. Three bare walls. But the fourth wall resembles a shrine, festooned with candles, paper flowers and photos of groups of soldiers. At the center is a framed copy of a 1964 Time magazine; the cover depicts a wiry, grinning soldier in a red beret, posed against lush jungle foliage.

Squatting barefoot on a worn rug are a dozen sunburned, middle-aged refugees from Laos – mostly tenant farmers who grow eggplant, peppers and melons on small plots outside town. They are hushed, expectant. When a van arrives outside, an excited murmur courses around the room. He is coming!

A tiny figure appears at the door. He is bald man in his sixties, with deep furrows around his eyes and a toothy grin. The same face as the man on Time's cover. He wears a crisp green combat vest. His forearms are still brawny. Wrapped around both wrists are tattered white strings. Magical strings, his followers believe. Some of the squatting men wear them, too.

As the little man grunts a greeting, each Laotian bows down, hands pressed together, and touches his forehead to the rug – a sign of respect for the beloved General.

On the great stage of history, players come and go, their stature often determined by chance collisions of circumstance and opportunity. Once upon a time, Gen. Kong Le was an actor of crucial importance, an ally in the American fight against communism in Indochina.

Today, he is a stateless nomad trying to stay one step ahead of deportation by U.S. immigration authorities. He has become a bureaucratic annoyance and a minor diplomatic embarrassment. In official Washington, he enjoys no more respect than any other illegal alien – say, an undocumented dishwasher in a Georgetown bistro.

But back in the summer of 1960, when he was a dashing 26-year-old paratrooper, trained by American and French advisers, Kong Le made international headlines by seizing Vientiane, the Laotian capital, with 800 troops. He declared a new, politically neutral government. A profile in the New York Times described him as a revolutionary hero.

In this sideshow to the Vietnam conflict, Kong Le was suddenly seen as the plucky, 4-foot-11 defender of a crucial, tottering domino. Time, in its cover story of June 26, 1964, said: "He stood almost alone in Laos last week as the West's only effective battler against Communism." The Pentagon invited him on a month-long visit, and The Washington Post carried a large photo of him reviewing troops at Fort Myer.

These days, the only significant news about Laos involves a discredited newscast about nerve gas, reviving dim memories and causing some career consternation. (As CNN correspondent Peter Arnett said in self-defense last week: "Laos was a black hole during the war. A lot went on there that we didn't know about.")

And today few people remember the name of Kong Le; he slipped off the stage of history more than 30 years ago, fleeing into obscure exile from a political maelstrom involving the CIA, various Laotian princes and the Pathet Lao, a communist insurgency backed by the North Vietnamese.

In 1975, shortly after the fall of Saigon, the communists took over Laos. They remain firmly in power. But for the General and his followers, the war rages on. They imagine their return to glory and plot sweet revenge against the Pathet Lao.

Kong Le himself owns no property, holds no actual rank and has no job – hasn't worked in decades. He sleeps in the spare rooms of his supporters in Laotian enclaves around the country, from California to Arkansas to Virginia, surviving on their generous financial contributions.

His story reflects the dreams and divisions of a scattered, nearly invisible immigrant community – which happens to be Laotian but could easily be Ethiopian or Kurdish, Salvadoran or Cuban – where people toil for years at menial jobs in America, but live their real lives in the past, and fantasize that it can become the future.

"We are going to go back and fight the communists until we win!"

In a cramped living room in Arlington, the General is holding court before a circle of mesmerized Laotian admirers, sitting bunched together on the rug. Last month it was farmers in Fresno, where 20,000 Lao live. This month it is the Washington area, where an additional 10,000 live.

Today, 50 people have gathered to hear him speak. They are not the educated elite of the capital area's refugee society. They are factory workers and janitors and technicians, some of whom drove all night from Massachusetts and North Carolina for the occasion.

"Some Lao come here and want to settle down to a comfortable life, but not us," Kong Le is saying. "Some people have sent money or gone back to support the communists. But we are ready to fight. . . . When the moment is ready, we will go back and fight, and we will win. The people of Laos are getting angry, and this is from their hearts."

The room erupts in applause.

Kong Le's speeches, delivered in Lao (and translated on the spot by his right-hand man, a sharp young lawyer named Tony Saisomorn), ramble from patriotic harangues to fatherly advice. One moment he is excoriating the Pathet Lao, the next he is expounding on the benefits of Lao herbal medicine, specifically a kind of tree bark that guarantees long life when ground up and boiled with rice.

In many ways, Kong Le seems more like a Buddhist monk than a military commander. His bald head bobs for emphasis, his voice is a gutteral singsong, his wrists are wrapped with dozens of baci strings for good luck. They are a large part of a legend that the General has cultivated for nearly four decades.

When he took power in 1960, Kong Le vowed to make Laos a little Switzerland: neutral, united and peaceful. Instead, his forces were driven from the capital after four months of chaotic political and military maneuvering that The Washington Post described as having "more plots and counter-plots than a 5-act Verdi opera."

Despite his elusive grasp on power, Kong Le proved a popular leader and a shrewd survivor; he first accepted Soviet support, then swerved toward the Americans, during five years of seesawing battles. As U.S. covert military operations expanded inside Laos, American officials touted Kong Le's utopian quest for "neutrality" as the best bulwark against North Vietnamese encroachment.

Time magazine's report depicted Kong Le as a hero of mythic proportions: a guerrilla fighter who slept in the jungle with his men, shielded from bullets by the magical Buddhist baci wristlets and a powerful guardian spirit called a phi. Some Laotians were said to believe he was the reincarnation of Setthathirath, a legendary Lao king who vanished into the jungle four centuries ago.

But it turns out that the General was never even a general at all. His last official rank in the Royal Lao Army was captain. It was afterward, during his years as a jungle fighter, that he acquired the honorary title. "My men gave me that name," he says today, with a grunt and a giggle.

Kong Le's military prowess also failed to match his press notices. While he was stealing the show, the Pathet Lao were advancing implacably on the ground. In late 1966, exhausted by successive military defeats, political plots and international pressure, he flew into exile, leaving Laos to another decade of fighting.

He wound up in France, but by 1988 his constant political activities – including a mission to China to train freedom fighters – had grown tiresome for his government hosts. So Kong Le decided to try his luck in the United States. More than 250,000 Laotian refugees had resettled here, including some of his old paratrooper forces. The General was older now, but still fit and vigorous. He still had friends in the American military; he still had his guardian phi. And he still had true believers.

Kong Le's devotees include men like Phouthone Savathvongxay, 63, a tenant farmer in Fresno who joined his guerrilla forces in 1963, living on frogs and leaves in the jungle until 1975, when the Pathet Lao took over. He was caught and sent to a communist "seminar camp," where he was forced to do hard labor and given a little rice to eat. Eventually he escaped to Thailand and came to the United States in 1989.

And men like Ly Khoxayo, 58, a medical warehouse worker from Lowell, Mass., who drove to Virginia last month for a brief meeting with his leader. Khoxayo also escaped from a Pathet Lao prison camp, swam the Mekong River to safety while pulling his wife and children on an inner tube, and was resettled in the United States in 1980.

Both of these men set aside a large portion of their pay to send to the General and his cause. In both Fresno and Arlington, followers of very modest means said they sent several hundred dollars a month to Kong Le's party, the Procession for the Revolution of the Lao National Neutrality.

Kong Le launches his fund-raising trips from Hawaii, where he has been living at Saisomorn's house. The General is reluctant to discuss his personal life. He reportedly has had four wives; he says he has five sons. According to Kong Le and Saisomorn, most of the cash they raise goes to support a force of several hundred resistence fighters in the jungles of Laos – an army that includes three of the General's sons and a brother.

But it's impossible to verify that any such fighters exist. The odds are next to nothing that Kong Le will ever lead his troops back to liberate Laos; even his own immigration attorney in Washington, Donald Schlemmer, calls the General's crusade a bit of a "fantasy."

Still, Kong Le's disciples cling to the quest their exiled leader embodies: the dream of reclaiming their country from the enemy. In many of their homes, pinned to the wall near old photographs of the General, is a bright blue flag with a circle of white stars – the Laotian "neutralist" flag designed by Kong Le.

"The General loves my people and my people love him," Khoxayo, the warehouse worker, explains in halting English. "He is our only leader. My dream is to follow him, to go back and free my country. When he says it is time to go, we will go."

To a large extent, the General is all his men have. In this country, they are nobodies; farmers and factory workers who speak little English. Once they were paratroopers and pilots and rebels battling for a land they loved – a fertile paradise of rich culture, sensuous women and strong mystical beliefs.

"In a way, I admire Kong Le. His passion keeps the candle burning," said Vilay Chaleunrath, a Lao who heads a nonprofit refugee agency in the District. "Perhaps people believe he can perform some miracle. They have a dream, and I doubt it will materialize, but they are entitled to it."

To the American immigration authorities, Kong Le's past glories are irrelevant. Since 1988, when he arrived at Kennedy Airport with a tourist visa and settled for a time in the Northern Virginia suburbs, Kong Le has repeatedly applied for political asylum and legal residency. He has been turned down at every level of the system, most recently by an appeals court panel in Richmond.

In appearances and affidavits before various immigration courts, he has dropped names of famous acquaintances from Charles de Gaulle to Richard Nixon, described attempts on his life by "North Vietnamese agents" in the Paris subway, and declared himself a freedom fighter with "thousands of followers" worldwide, who will not rest until Laos is liberated from communist rule.

"I am, undoubtedly, a key figure in the fight against communism and oppression still going on in Laos," he wrote in an autobiography submitted in court. "I request legal residency in the United States so that I can best co-ordinate international efforts to distabilize [sic] and finally overthrow the Pathet Lao."

But officials are reluctant to set any precedent by allowing Kong Le to stay here. While agreeing his life might be in danger if he were forced to return to Laos, they suggest he would be perfectly safe back in Paris.

In 1995 the General was ordered to report to an INS office with no more than "2 pieces of baggage," ready for deportation to France. He appealed that ruling, but the Board of Immigration Appeals upheld it and ordered him deported again in 1997. He appealed to the federal courts, and lost once more. Technically, Kong Le could be picked up and deported today.

"This court appreciates the difficult circumstances described by the Respondent," Judge John M. Bryant wrote after listening to Kong Le's story in an Arlington courtroom in 1995. But he found that the General had failed to prove a "well-founded fear of persecution" if sent to France – or even that he was likely to face threats because of his race, religion, birthplace, affiliations or political views.

In other words – and this was most humiliating of all – Kong Le was simply not important enough to merit asylum in the United States. More than anything else, says lawyer Schlemmer, the General is "afraid of losing face."

The most punishing foe of Kong Le is the march of history, which has simply bypassed his cause. Although the United States lost the battle in Indochina, it has since won the war. Vietnam may be communist, but it is likely to be vanquished by market forces. Laos, once the domino President Kennedy most feared falling to the communists, is now viewed as inevitably tilting in the direction of Wall Street.

Officially, the United States is on fairly good terms with Laos these days. According to the State Department, bilateral relations have been "steadily improving" in recent years. The Pathet Lao's jailing of Christian missionaries has been a sticking point with Congress, but U.S. officials are especially pleased at the Laotians' cooperation in efforts to locate missing U.S. servicemen and eradicate opium trafficking. Thus, Kong Le's protestations of grave human rights abuses in his homeland lack credibility with the INS.

American diplomats confirm that several insurgent groups are operating in the northern jungles of Laos, but they say none constitutes a serious threat. "These groups don't seem to get along very well," one diplomat notes dryly. "They don't like each other, and they often seem to work at cross-purposes."

Once, the General's boasts of an army of several hundred resistance fighters poised for action might have invited an offer of covert U.S. support. Now they seem more likely to create a diplomatic incident. We'd prefer he just went away.

Kong Le is not the most famous Laotian refugee military leader living in the United States. That distinction belongs to his old political and military rival Vang Pao, who led a secret army of Hmong tribesmen that was trained by the CIA to rescue American pilots, guide American bombs and sabotage Vietnamese communist forces. Today, he lives on a farm in Minnesota, the heart of the 150,000-strong population of Hmong refugees.

The Hmong veterans are embarked on their own crusade to win official recognition and benefits from Congress for their clandestine service to the U.S. military. Their leaders, including aides to Vang Pao, profess to be "unfamiliar" with Kong Le's current activities. Some said they were not even aware he has been living in the United States.

When asked about Vang Pao and the Hmong veterans' campaign, Kong Le offers a characteristic grunt of contempt: "We are still fighting a war. We are not veterans yet. There are other right-wing groups that are trying to campaign here, but they cannot touch our party. . . . We will do what needs to be done."

Although Kong Le's followers are fervent, they are few and scattered. Unlike the more numerous Hmong, the Lao in America have no unifying leader. Their communities are rife with suspicions that one group or another is sympathetic to the Pathet Lao government and slyly influencing refugees to send money or return home to live.

The divisions are especially sharp in the Washington region, where many Lao refugees are former military officers. In the past five years, the Embassy of Laos has been attempting to win over this populace by inviting them to events, issuing upbeat reports about conditions back home and wielding influence at the Buddhist temple near Manassas that is the heart of Lao community life.

"Our community is sliced up like a pizza. In each Lao family, in each house, in each organization, either you are pro-embassy or against it. It is a terrible split, and there is no trust," says King Pathammavong, 40, a Lao housing specialist for Arlington County.

Some younger, U.S.-educated Lao are open to a new relationship with Vientiane. Older refugees like Khamthene Chinyavong – a former army colonel who lives in Alexandria – are bitterly opposed. He and his friends spend hours plotting ways to combat "sabotage" and "infiltration" by agents and allies of the Laotian Embassy.

Kong Le also warns his disciples against the insinuations of "red Lao" in their midst. Yet compared with the poisoned atmosphere among Lao in this area, his spiritually tinged crusade across the heartland seems innocent and quixotic – not unlike a young paratrooper's quest, 38 years ago, for elusive "neutrality" in an ideological minefield.

But this squat, grinning guru is no fool. At every whistle-stop, in shabby towns like Tupelo and Pawtucket, Fort Smith and Fresno, his men ask him how soon the moment will come to attack. At every stop, he tells them to wait, the people of Laos aren't ready yet, the time is not yet ripe.

And at the end of every visit, after he has been treated to feasts and sometimes wreath-strewn parades, there comes a moment when Kong Le or his aides mumble something in Lao. Without hesitation, a dozen tired-looking men pull out their wallets, peel off $50 or $100 in cash – and hand it over to their beloved General.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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