Episode 79: The Second Indochina War, Part 7



Sorry I’m early!  I finished the next podcast episode ahead of schedule, so I am letting you have it today instead of tomorrow.  This episode covers the part of the Second Indochina War in Laos, the Laotian Civil War, from 1968 to 1974.  Now all we have left to do with Laos is talk about how the Civil War ended, which I plan to do when we wrap up the Vietnam War as well.



This episode is dedicated to Wallace D., Anthony B., and Gregory L., who made donations to the podcast.  To all of you, thank you for ending the dry spell, when it comes to donations.  From a financial point of view, a dry spell can never end soon enough.  Because I am recording part of this episode on the American Thanksgiving Day, I wish all of you a wonderful holiday season.  I also noted that Wallace has donated twice before, so you deserve special recognition.  At the end of this episode I will mention an idea I have concerning that.  And speaking of episodes, let’s get on with today’s show.

Episode 79:  The Second Indochina War, Part 7

or, The Three-Sided Civil War in Laos, Part 4

Greetings, dear listeners!  If you have listened to the podcast before, welcome back, and if this is your first time here, welcome to the show!  I hope all is well on your end.  Myself, I’m feeling better.  I must have sounded a bit exasperated in the previous episode, after all the recordings I did to get it right.

Anyway, this is the last episode I plan to do that is just about the Second Indochina War in Laos.  I’m not going to give much of a recap this time, because we are entering the home stretch of the story.  If you haven’t heard the story so far, and want to catch up to where we’re at, here are the episodes I recommend listening to:

Episodes 64 and 67 talk briefly about Laos during the First Indochina War, when the main conflict was between the Vietnamese communists, then called the Viet Minh, and the armed forces of France.  There we learned how Laos became independent, after sixty years as a French colony, and we met the Laotian leaders who would become the main characters in the Laotian Civil War, which was fought on and off from 1953 to 1975.  Then the narrative moved on to other topics, especially the Second Indochina War in Vietnam.

Episode 74 covered events in Laos from 1955 to 1962.

Episode 75 looked at what was happening in 1963 and 1964.

And Episode 78 followed the civil war from 1964 to 1968.

Now here are the overall trends to remember.  First, the factions.  There were three major factions fighting to control Laos: the communists, better known as the Pathet Lao; the rightists, also known as the royalists; and the neutralists.  The Pathet Lao were heavily supported by North Vietnam, which was also under communist rule, and North Vietnam was in turn supported by the Soviet Union and Red China.  The official leader of the Pathet Lao was a Laotian prince, Souphanouvong, nicknamed “the Red Prince.”

The rightists or royalists were anyone in the royal family, the government, and the armed forces who opposed the spread of communism in Laos.  Since this was the Cold War era, naturally the United States backed this faction.  So did Thailand, because Laos was on Thailand’s northern and eastern borders, it had been part of Thailand in the 19th century, when the kingdom was called Siam, and because the prime minister of Thailand at this time was a right-wing military dictator.  Over the course of the Laotian Civil War, the rightists had more than one leader, but the only one who was very effective was General Vang Pao, the commander of the US-trained Hmong tribesmen.

Most of the royal family belonged to a third faction, the neutralists, who mainly wanted all foreign powers to get out of Laos and leave their country alone.  Their leadership wasn’t very effective, either; the commander of the neutralist armed forces, General Kong Le, was forced to flee the country in 1966, and he never came back.  The top man among the neutralists was the prime minister, Prince Souvanna Phouma, the “White Prince.”  As time went on the neutralists shrank as a faction, with members either moving over to the American camp or to the Pathet Lao.  Souvanna Phouma, for instance, went from being totally neutral to pro-American.

Next, remember the ground fighting.  From 1964 onward, the war followed a pattern.  We have seen in previous episodes that warfare in Southeast Asia depended on the wet and dry seasons of Southeast Asia’s monsoon cycle.  During the dry season, which in Laos usually runs from November to May, the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese together launched their attacks.  Then during the rainy season, from June to October, the Royal Lao Army, the Hmong guerrillas, and what remained of the neutralist army would stage counter-attacks, to take back as much land from the communists as possible.  Most of the fighting took place on and near the Plain of Jars, a strategically important area in the middle of the country.  However, the anti-communist forces could not recover everything the communists took, so every year ended with the Pathet Lao controlling more of Laos than they did previously.  We should also note that after the cease-fire of 1962 was signed, foreign military personnel were not allowed in the country.  Most American servicemen did leave as a result, but a few got around this obstacle by being temporarily released from the Army or Air Force, and working under aliases instead of their real names.  As for the North Vietnamese, only a handful left; the rest stayed in the country under disguise, and more North Vietnamese troops sneaked into Laos every year.

Finally, there was the air war.  American aircraft, with the help of a few planes from Thailand, flew missions over Laos from bases in Thailand and South Vietnam.  They had two principal objectives, to give support to Lao government forces fighting on the ground, and to keep the North Vietnamese from using the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the road they had built in southeastern Laos to get supplies to the communists in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong.  The missions were organized under several operations:  missions over northern and central Laos were under Operation Barrel Roll, while Operations Steel Tiger and Tiger Hound were for the missions over the south.  However, they could not stop activity on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, or completely halt the communist advances on the Plain of Jars.  The main result of the air war was that Laos became the most heavily bombed country of all time, and even now they are dealing with the problem of removing unexploded bombs, which can kill or seriously injure the unlucky folks who find them.

Okay, when we broke off the narrative last time, it was 1968, one of the peak years for American involvement.  Now let’s pick up where we left off, and cover what happened as the Americans started to pull out of Indochina.



By November 1968, it was clear that American bombing missions were not stopping the communist infiltration of South Vietnam.  Operations Steel Tiger and Tiger Hound were canceled, as well as the raids on North Vietnam, Operation Rolling Thunder.  In their place came Operation Commando Hunt, a more intense bombing campaign on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Here the thinking was that if the North Vietnamese lost enough personnel and trucks, they would realize it was useless to support the Viet Cong, and maybe they would be willing to talk peace.  Unfortunately, Air Force intelligence never knew for sure how much traffic was on the trail, or how much of it they were taking out.  If North Vietnam had a breaking point, it was not reached, and the operation was called off on March 29, 1972.  Like the other operations, Commando Hunt had not achieved much success.

I mentioned earlier that most of the aircraft used over Laos were based in South Vietnam or Thailand.  The main air base in Laos itself was at Long Tieng, in a valley just south of the Plain of Jars.  Almost nobody lived here in 1962 when the CIA set up the headquarters on this spot for Vang Pao and his Hmong troops.  Then in 1964 a runway was built, and the whole community took off.  Soon Long Tieng was the largest Hmong community in the world, with a population of at least 30,000, though it had no sewers and most of it was unpaved.  Because the Americans needed to keep their activities secret, the CIA called Long Tieng “Lima Site 98″ or “Lima Site 20A,” and the town did not appear on most maps until after the war.  In 2008 a German documentary about Long Tieng was released under the English title,“The Most Secret Place on Earth.”

I will read you a quote describing the place, from a USAID officer, Jim Schill, as quoted by Larry Clinton Thompson, in the work Refugee Workers in the Indochina Exodus, 1975-1982.  Quote:

“What a place is Long Tieng.  Tribal soldiers dressed in military garb standing next to traditionally dressed Hmong, with Thai mercenaries milling about.  And the Americans here are mostly CIA operatives with goofy code names like Hog, Mr. Clean, and Junkyard.  The town itself is not much.  There’s one paved road running through it and tin shacks on either side with eating shops, food stalls, and living quarters.”

End quote.

Anyway, in 1969 the seasonal cycle of “communist attacks in the dry season, anti-communist counter-attacks in the rainy season” was broken, because the number of sorties flown by Operation Barrel Roll increased sharply.  From 1965 to 1968 there had typically been 10 to 20 sorties a day; in 1969, however, there were as many as 300 sorties on one day.  The Royal Lao Army started by launching its annual counter-offensive on the Plain of Jars on March 23, 1969, before the dry season had ended.  In response, the North Vietnamese increased their force in Laos to 70,000 men, and with the Pathet Lao they struck back in June; being in the wet season, this was an out-of-time movement for them, too.  This time the communist offensive advanced far enough to threaten Long Tieng.  The Americans launched hundreds of air strikes, and though many were canceled because of bad weather, they were able to halt the offensive.  Thus, Vang Pao could launch a second counter-offensive in August, called “Operation About Face.”  For the first time since 1960, the entire Plain of Jars was in government hands.  Then the North Vietnamese launched a second offensive of their own in mid-September, which lasted until April 1970 and recovered the Plain of Jars.  On February 25, 1970, the Royal Lao government also abandoned Xiengkhouang, the capital of the province containing the Plain of Jars.


By 1970, attempts to keep the air war secret were getting ridiculous, because reports of the fighting in Laos appeared in the news from time to time, and the government in Washington kept denying its involvement.  After the election of a new US president, Richard Nixon, in 1968, members of Congress, who knew about the secret all along, began calling for disclosure.  One of them was Senator Stuart Symington from Missouri, who had visited the air bases in Thailand and was fully briefed.  In 1969 he said, quote, “We have been at war in Laos for years, and it is time the American people knew more of the facts.”  Unquote.

President Nixon had to come clean about it in March 1970, when the communists began to put pressure on Long Tieng again.  On March 6, he issued a lengthy statement on “the situation in Laos,” in which he acknowledged that US aircraft were flying combat missions in northern Laos and against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in the Laotian panhandle.  However, he incorrectly stated that no Americans stationed in Laos had ever been killed in ground combat.  As it turned out, an estimated 27 Americans were killed there in the past year alone.  The story of the secret war was now out, but the controversy was far from over.  Congress passed the Cooper-Church Amendment in December, which again prohibited US ground troops and advisors from entering Laos.

On May 1, 1970, a combined attack by North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao units took Attopeu, the southernmost provincial capital.  Because the Ho Chi Trail ran nearby, this gave the communists a solid grip on the southeast corner of the country.  Around the same time, Washington, believing that US objectives in Southeast Asia were being achieved, cut defense spending for the Indochina War effort, and this reduced the number of missions the Air Force could fly against the trail.  Throughout 1970, the North Vietnamese moved so many men and trucks on the trail, that US intelligence reports suggested they were getting ready for a major offensive in South Vietnam.


To do something about this, 18,000 men from ARVN, the army of South Vietnam, invaded Laos on February 8, 1971.  The invasion force was organized into 18 battalions of infantry (including airborne), four artillery battalions, three armored cavalry squadrons, two engineer battalions and six marine battalions.  They were encouraged to go in by the Americans, who for the past two years had been training the South Vietnamese to fight by themselves, without American help.  This program was called “Vietnamization” by President Nixon, and it will be covered in a future podcast episode.  The Americans felt that a successful operation here would be a big boost to South Vietnamese morale, sort of a “graduation exercise” after the training.  Although American troops could not follow the South Vietnamese into Laos, they could clear the Viet Cong away from the point of entry, near Khe Sanh, and provide air support.

The campaign was called Operation Lam Son 719, and its objectives were to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and to destroy two enemy bases near the Demilitarized Zone: Base 604, at the town of Tchepone, and Base 611, between Tchepone and the South Vietnamese border.  Both of the bases had supply depots stocked with tons of weapons, ammunition and food.  If successful, the South Vietnamese would stay in that part of Laos until May, when the rainy season began.  While most of ARVN moved on foot, American helicopters went ahead to drop paratroops and marines at key points.  In fact, this was the largest helicopter operation in the whole Indochina War.  However, the enemy knew the Americans and South Vietnamese were coming, and were ready for them.  The South Vietnamese Army marched on a road named Route 9, which had mountains and a river on the sides, providing several opportunities for ambushes.  Ground fighting was not heavy on the first day, but seven helicopters were shot down by enemy fire and several others were damaged.  On February 11, ARVN encountered the first serious firefights, near the village of A Loui, and the offensive stalled there.  The Americans had urged the army to move quickly, but the South Vietnamese president, Nguyen Van Thieu, told the operation’s commanding general, Hoang Xuan Lam, that the safety of the troops was the first priority, and that he should cancel the operation if ARVN suffered 3,000 casualties.  Consequently the general gave no orders to the troops for three weeks after the firefights, and the troops would not move again until they heard from him.  Meanwhile, as you probably guessed, the communists brought reinforcements into the area, which included tanks, so the next time the South Vietnamese encountered resistance, it was tougher than expected.

Once ARVN resumed its march, President Thieu intervened again.  This time he told General Lam to not bother with the enemy bases, just concentrate on taking Tchepone.   The Ho Chi Minh Trail ran just west of Tchepone, meaning that ARVN would not reach the trail if they stopped in the town, and there were enemy supply caches in the jungle and mountains surrounding the town, but the civilian population had abandoned the town itself a few years earlier.  This meant Tchepone had no real military value; capturing it was just a face-saving move, that would allow the South Vietnamese to claim victory.  The battle for Tchepone began on March 3, with the helicopters leading the way by airlifting troops to four landing sites around the town.  The enemy resisted with anti-aircraft and artillery fire; the heaviest fighting was at a landing zone called LZ Lolo, where eleven helicopters were shot down and 44 were damaged.  It took until March 7 before there were enough troops on the ground to go for the town, and Tchepone was declared secured on March 9.

This was when both President Thieu and General Lam ordered the army to withdraw.  With reports of as many as 60,000 North Vietnamese in southern Laos, it was time for ARVN to quit while it was ahead.  The North Vietnamese did everything they could to prevent the South Vietnamese from escaping, pursuing them with tanks and other armored vehicles while continuing to pound them with artillery, rockets and mortars.  Route 9 became a tangle of disabled and destroyed ARVN tanks and other vehicles.  The American helicopters had to be used to evacuate the ARVN troops; the last of them returned to South Vietnam on March 24.

Although Nixon and Thieu called Operation Lam Son 719 a victory, the South Vietnamese had failed to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail; the farthest they had gotten into Laos was 22 miles.  Moreover, casualties were high for everybody.  ARVN lost 1,529 killed and 5,483 injured, almost 40 percent of their force; in addition, 96 artillery pieces and 71 tanks were destroyed.  Thousands of tons of enemy supplies were destroyed, including 1,500 crew-served heavy weapons, 106 tanks, 76 artillery pieces, and more than 4,000 small arms.  ARVN claimed it killed 13,345 enemies, while North Vietnam admitted to suffering 2,163 dead and 6,176 wounded.  Because of these losses, the next communist offensive in South Vietnam was postponed from 1971 to 1972.  The Americans had heavy losses as well:  253 killed, 1,149 wounded, 38 missing, 108 helicopters destroyed, and 544 helicopters damaged (of which 20% turned out to be damaged beyond repair).  Eventually the Americans realized that the operation wasn’t a victory after all; this was a bad omen, an early warning that the South Vietnamese would not be able to defend themselves, after the Americans got out of Vietnam.

I will finish the coverage of Operation Lam Son 719 with an excerpt from a Newsweek article, dated March 15, 1971.  Like the rest of the American news media, Newsweek Magazine has been accused of being biased against the US war effort in Indochina, but this article was more objective than most at the time.  Quote:

“To the modern American cavalryman of the air, the plunge into Laos has been something like an old-time charge on horseback:  admirably heroic, stunningly effective-and terribly costly.  For four weeks now, American helicopter pilots have flown through some of the heaviest flak in the history of the Indochinese war.  One-day alone last week, the Army admitted to losing ten aircraft to the unexpectedly heavy North Vietnamese ground fire, and there were reports from the field that the actual losses had been much worse.  As a result, the customary bravado of the American chopper pilot was beginning to wear a bit thin. “Two weeks ago,” said one gunship skipper, “I couldn’t have told you how much time I had left to serve in Vietnam.  Now I know that I’ve got 66 days to go, and I’m counting every one.”  Another flier added anxiously:  “The roles are reversed over there. In Vietnam, you have to hunt for the enemy.  But in Laos, man, they hunt for you.”

Despite the risks, it was inevitable that U. S. helicopters should be deeply involved in the Laotian campaign, for more than any other artifact of war, the chopper has become the indelible symbol of the Indochina conflict.  Helicopter pilots were among the first Americans killed in the war a decade ago, and, under President Nixon’s Vietnamization program, they will probably be among the last to leave.  In the years between, the chopper’s mobility and firepower have added a radically new dimension to warfare, and the daring young American pilots have scooped up their Silver Stars, Distinguished Flying Crosses and Air Medals by the bushel-along with Purple Hearts.  In the opinion of many military experts, the helicopter has been the difference between a humiliating U. S. defeat in Vietnam and whatever chance remains of attaining some more satisfactory outcome.”

End quote.


Elsewhere in southern Laos, the North Vietnamese 968th Infantry Regiment and Pathet Lao forces reclaimed the Tha Teng and Lao Nam areas, and captured the Bolaven Plateau.  In the north, the usual government counter-offensive on the Plain of Jars took place during the rainy season, and then in December 1971, the communists launched an offensive of their own.  For this, North Vietnam committed the 312th and 316th Infantry Divisions, the 866th, 335th, and 88th Regiments, and nine specialty branch battalions, while the Pathet Lao committed seven battalions.  They took the whole Plain of Jars once more, and spent the rest of the dry season digging into defensive positions.  The final campaign on the plain, another Royal Lao government counter-attack, lasted from May 21 to November 15, 1972.  Here the communists claimed to have killed 1,200 troops and captured 80.  By now it no longer mattered who controlled the plain, because the war was winding down in Vietnam, and that caused the war to wind down in Laos as well; US air strikes decreased in Laos, for example, because American planes were now needed more for bombing missions against North Vietnam.  At this point, about 80 percent of the country was under Pathet Lao control.

In November 1972, Pathet Lao and Laotian government representatives agreed to meet for peace talks.  They could not reach an agreement until a cease-fire was signed for Vietnam, in January 1973, and then the Laotian factions signed their own cease-fire, called the Vientiane Treaty, in Vientiane on February 21, 1973.  As with the 1962 cease-fire, the North Vietnamese violated it by keeping their troops in the country, around 50,000 this time.  At Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma’s request, US aircraft flew some more missions before they left; the final missions were against targets south of the Plain of Jars on April 17, 1973.

Now the political wrangling began, because the agreement called for the creation of a coalition government, the third since independence.  Not until September was an agreement reached on the composition of the Third Coalition Government and how it would operate; then it took another six months, until the spring of 1974, before security arrangements were in place for it to take office.  This time the Laotian cabinet had five communist, five rightist, and two neutralist members.  One of the neutralists was Souvanna Phouma, who continued on as prime minister.  If you remember the previous coalition governments, note the changed balance of political power; in the past the neutralists were the largest faction, now they are the smallest.

In July 1974, Souvanna Phouma suffered a heart attack.  It was so severe, that he spent part of the year recuperating in a hospital in France.  By now he was 72 years old, and had been prime minister, on and off, for most of the time since 1951.  Sensing that his days were numbered, he called for new elections to be held in 1976, and announced he would retire after the elections were finished.  We’ll see in a future episode how that worked out.


Yes!  We’re almost done covering the Laotian Civil War.  The only thing left to do is look at how the war ended, and I’m saving that for a future episode, because it is tied in with the end of the war in Vietnam.  And speaking of Vietnam, next time I plan to return to our narrative for that country, so join me for that.  So far in Vietnam, the Americans have acted a little like the parent whose kids are making too much noise in the basement, and the parent says, “Don’t make me come down there!”  Now it is time for the Americans to “come down there,” so to speak, by sending in the ground forces, thereby completing America’s commitment to winning the conflict.  Of course I have to say “conflict” because war was never declared here.  Don’t miss it, especially if you are an American or Vietnamese listener.


In case you haven’t heard the announcement, it’s time for another question and answer show!  This is when you the listener chooses the topic for an episode, instead of me.  Our first question and answer show was Episode 51, from a little over a year ago, so listen to that, to hear how it is done.  Basically you ask me questions on anything having to do with Southeast Asia, and I do my best to answer them.  For now, think about what you would like to ask, and post your questions on the podcast’s Facebook page, or email them to me, at berosus@gmail.com.  That’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S, @gmail.com.  I don’t know yet when I will do the episode, except that it will be after Episode 81.

Long-time listeners know that I politely ask for donations at the end of each episode, because this is my only compensation for the time, research and work that goes into the podcast, and it makes my wife happy, too!  A few times, I have casually talked about a podcast “hall of fame” for donors.  Now I am thinking of making a webpage that gives credit to the donors, after seeing another podcaster’s page that does it.  If you donate to the podcast, you will get your first name mentioned on the page.  Those who donate in more than one year will get a special icon placed next to their name; so far Wallace D. is the first to qualify for that honor.

If you feel this episode was worth your time, and you would like to get on that page, join the “Heroes of the History of Southeast Asia Podcast,” by making a secure donation through Paypal.  Go to the Paypal link at the bottom of the Blubrry.com page hosting any History of Southeast Asia Podcast episode.  Go below whatever content I have shared, and click on the gold button that says, “Donate.”  Blubrry is spelled like “blueberry” without the “Es,” so the URL or Internet address is http://www.B-L-U-B-R-R-Y.com/H-O-S-E-A-S-I-A/.  If you can’t use Paypal, send me an email and I’ll give you a snail mail address to send a check to.  Finally, I am also thinking of setting up Patreon to receive a small monthly donation, for those who would rather give that way.  Stay tuned for more details about that in a future episode.

In the past I have asked you to write a review where you listen to or download your podcasts.  One of the latest reviews on iTunes complained about popping sounds and terrible acoustics.  I wish I knew where that was coming from, but I don’t hear any of that on this end, either when recording or playing it back to friends.  I’ll admit I did have a problem with popping sounds in the earliest days of this podcast, until I tried the solution some other podcasters have done – I put a sock over the microphone.  Don’t worry, it’s a clean sock, and I don’t remember ever wearing it.  Anyway, thank you for all the iTunes reviews; now do me a favor and leave a few reviews on the other websites and apps offering this show.

Would you like more content related to the show?  Then go on Facebook and “like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page.  There you can see pictures, videos and show announcements.  Last but not least, tell everyone you know who might be interested about the show.  For those who are curious, I just went on Blubrry to look at where the podcast is being downloaded.  Recently I gave you a list of the top ten countries downloading the show; now here are the downloads for the top ten states in the United States.  Can I have a drumroll?


1. California
2. New York
3. Texas
4. Washington
5. Georgia
6. Illinois
7. Virginia
8. Massachusetts
9. Florida
10. North Carolina


Did you notice that Kentucky is not on the list?  All the other states where I have lived are in the top ten, but while I promote the podcast all the time locally, Kentucky ranks Number 27!  That means I’ve got work to do, and you can help by sharing word of the podcast with your family, friends, and acquaintances.  What the heck, share the podcast with your enemies, too, and maybe they won’t be enemies anymore.  Like I was saying, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 78: The Second Indochina War, Part 6



After a two-episode break, we are going back to the narrative about the Second Indochina War in Laos, this time covering events from 1964 to 1968, with special emphasis on the battles for Nam Bac Valley and Lima Site 85.



Episode 78:  The Second Indochina War, Part 6

or, The Three-Sided Civil War in Laos, Part 3

Greetings, dear listeners!  We recently took a two-episode break from our regularly scheduled programming, meaning the narrative that occupied Episodes 74 & 75, and now it is time to get back into it!  Therefore first-time listeners should listen to Episodes 74 & 75 first, in order to be up to date about what is going on in this episode.

For a quick recap, in Episode 71 I started covering the Vietnam phase of the Second Indochina War, what Americans call the Vietnam War and what Vietnamese call the American War.  There, have I confused you enough yet?  Three episodes of that brought us up to the end of 1963, and then I shifted the focus west, to cover the civil war going on in Laos at the same time.  Like Vietnam, Laos was divided into communist and anti-communist factions, but here they made an honest attempt to resolve their differences peacefully.  Elections were held more than once, and two coalition governments were set up, in 1958 and 1962, but neither government lasted very long.  The real source of trouble was that the war in Vietnam fueled the conflict here.  The United States, and to a lesser extent Thailand, supported the anti-communist factions:  the rightists, also called royalists, and the neutralists.  On the other side, the Soviet Union and Communist China supported North Vietnam, which in turn backed the communist faction in Laos, the Pathet Lao.  When they weren’t part of a coalition government, the Pathet Lao usually had their headquarters at Sam Neua, a provincial capital in the northeast.

By outside standards, the Pathet Lao were poor and lazy fighters.  They only succeeded in battles when North Vietnamese troops went with them.  But except for the Hmong tribesmen, who received guerrilla training from the US Central Intelligence Agency, the soldiers on the anti-communist side were even worse.  Only about ten percent of the Royal Lao Army soldiers had more than three years of education, meaning most of them couldn’t read, and most of them were only loyal to the officers they knew personally.  Therefore, in most of the battles during the early years of the war, 1959 to 1963, the Pathet Lao were the winners.  Eventually they gained control over just about all of the highlands, which make up most of the country’s landscape.  That left the Mekong River valley and the strategic Plain of Jars, a flat area in the middle of the country, to the royal government.  The Mekong valley remained under government control, because both Laotian capitals were on the banks of that river; the king stayed in his palace at the royal capital, Luang Prabang, while the rest of the government met in the other capital, Vientiane.  Meanwhile in the east, near the Vietnamese border, the North Vietnamese built the Ho Chi Minh Trail, to smuggle supplies and personnel to their partners in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong.

In 1964 the ground fighting settled into a stalemate.  Each year after that, the Pathet Lao launched their offensives during the dry season, which runs from November to May in Laos, and then during the rainy season months, between June and October, anti-communist forces, led by the US-trained Hmong, launched counter-offensives to take back as much territory as possible.  Most of the fighting was over the Plain of Jars, because both sides now felt they must have this area to win.

In the air, the Americans conducted first reconnaissance missions over communist-controlled territory, then secret bombing raids over the same areas.  Here the first objective was to help anti-communist forces on the ground.  The anti-communists were organized into three armies: the Royal Lao Armed Forces (which included those neutralists who had not gone over to the Pathet Lao), CIA-backed Hmong mercenaries, and the Thai border patrol police, who were then called the Volunteer Defense Corps.  The second objective was to stop the North Vietnamese from using the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Consequently the lion’s share of the bombs fell on the Plain of Jars, and in the provinces the Ho Chi Trail ran through.  From December 1964 onward, the bombing runs were called Operation Barrel Roll by the Americans.

During the air war, there were few Americans on the ground in Laos, and most of those present were civilians.  This was done because foreign military personnel were not permitted in Laos, according to the Geneva cease-fire agreement.  Likewise, most of the aircraft used over Laos were based in South Vietnam or Thailand, and the US Air Force trained Lao pilots at an air base in Thailand, instead of Laos; this activity was called Project Water Pump.  On the other side, the North Vietnamese also kept quiet about their activities in Laos, because they were not supposed to have any soldiers there either, but when the Geneva Accords called for them to leave, North Vietnam withdrew no more than 40, leaving thousands more in the country.  As a result, both the United States and North Vietnam would have liked to publicize the enemy’s violation of the accords, but both had more to gain by keeping quiet, so as not to reveal their own activities.

Finally, I pointed out that the bombing of Laos was simply overkill, no matter how you look at it.  Besides striking military targets, bomber crews came here to drop the ordinance they failed to drop on Vietnam and Cambodia, because it was safer to get rid of the bombs than it was to come back to an air base with them.  This meant that almost any place in Laos could get hit by bombs, and most of my sources pointed out that Laos is the most bombed country of all time; the Americans dropped more bombs here than they did everywhere in all of World War II.  And this hazard is not a thing of the past; a lot of the bombs landed without exploding, and since the war ended, they have killed and maimed thousands of civilians who were unlucky enough to find them.  Efforts have been made to find and disarm the unexploded ordinance, but there are so many bombs lying around, especially on the Plain of Jars, that it doesn’t look like the danger will go away any time soon.

All right, we have caught up.  Let’s resume the narrative!


The commander of US forces in and over Laos was a civilian, the US ambassador to Laos.  For the first half of the air war, from December 1964 to June 1969, the ambassador and commander was William H. Sullivan.  He was also the most controversial person to hold that title.  Considered brilliant by most and tyrannical by many, Sullivan was despised by the American high command (both Army and Air Force) in Saigon, because he demanded complete control over every aspect of American military operations in Laos.  To start with, every target the Air Force went after had to be approved by him.  General William C. Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. forces in South Vietnam from 1964 to 1968, sarcastically referred to Sullivan as the “Field Marshal.”  But you have to admit that the ambassador had a difficult job.  He had to balance the competing interests of the CIA, the Seventh Air Force, the US armed forces in South Vietnam, and the Thais, and this had to be done without alienating the prime minister, Souvanna Phouma; by allowing US activities in the country short of an outright invasion, Prince Souvanna had become an ally in all but name.

With the intervention of US ground forces in South Vietnam in 1965, the Americans thought they would beat the North Vietnamese in a year or two.  They figured Vietnam would be like the Korean War in the fall of 1950, before the Chinese got involved in that conflict, with the communists forced to retreat everywhere they were attacked.  No one expected the Indochina War to go on for another decade.  Therefore the Americans did not see the need to send ground forces into Laos.  With Laos their principal objectives were to keep the North Vietnamese from using the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and to prevent a communist invasion of Thailand, so a holding action was all that they thought was needed.  As US Secretary of State Dean Rusk put it, quote:  “Laos was only the wart on the hog.”  Unquote.  Here is how Air Force historian Colonel Perry F. Lamy described Washington’s view of the situation.  Quote:

“Since the fate of Laos did not depend on a military solution in the air or on the ground in Laos and could only be decided by the outcome in Vietnam, winning the war against the DRV in northern Laos was not the objective. Instead, maintaining access to the country was paramount and keeping the Royal Lao government in power became the primary objective.”

Unquote.  By “DRV” Lamy meant the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, North Vietnam’s official name.

Laos experienced two military coups in January 1965.  The first coup, on January 27, was launched by General Phoumi Nosavan, the rightist leader, who wanted to run the government again.  For taking part in the unsuccessful coup attempts in 1964, Phoumi had lost his job as defense minister, and thus supposedly had no troops under his command; nevertheless, he persuaded one battalion and two companies to march on Vientiane, by telling them they were needed to stop an attack on the capital by another army unit.  Then on January 31, Lieutenant Colonel Bounleut Saycocie, who was unaware of Phoumi’s coup, launched a second coup with three companies, which occupied the radio station and some other critical points in Vientiane.  Five announcements were aired on the radio station before US Ambassador Sullivan got an Australian technician to sever the radio station’s connection to its antenna, thereby taking the radio station off the air.  General Kouprasith Abhay, the military region commander, used the troops already in Vientiane to suppress both coups by February 4.  Phoumi fled to Thailand and stayed there in exile until his death in 1985, so we won’t hear from him anymore.  Two other generals were purged and one was jailed.  Behind the scenes, elite families settled scores, causing several junior officers to be jailed, murdered, or dismissed from the army, further weakening the government armed forces.

In March of 1965, the first US combat troops arrived in South Vietnam.  As a result, from this point onward American activities in Laos were done for the purpose of supporting American activities in Vietnam.  On April 3, the US Air Force launched its second operation over Laos, Operation Steel Tiger.  This operation went after targets in southern Laos, where the objective was to destroy enemy forces and supplies moving on the Ho Chi Minh Trail.  Henceforth, the first Air Force operation, Operation Barrel Roll, would continue, but only over northern Laos.  The communists responded by increasing their infiltration along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and by conducting most of their movements at night, making them harder to detect.  To stop this action, in December 1965 a third operation, Operation Tiger Hound, was launched.  This operation was concentrated on the part of Laos adjacent to the border of South Vietnam, and it used aircraft from the Air Force, the US Navy, the US Marines, the South Vietnamese Air Force, and the Royal Laotian Air Force.

Now let’s move to the ground war; did the Americans and the Royal Lao Army have any plans for driving back the communists?  The best idea they could come up with was to take back the Nam Bac valley.  This valley was located in the north, halfway between Luang Prabang and the Chinese border.  It had been abandoned to the Pathet Lao in 1961, and if the government held it again, this would block the traditional invasion route into Laos from Vietnam.  The problems in taking and holding the valley were the same that the French experienced at Dienbienphu, which I covered in Episode 68.  The only road going to Nam Bac was controlled by the North Vietnamese, so any troops in the area would have to be supplied by air, and they would have to occupy the hills surrounding the valley to prevent communist attacks from succeeding.

In July 1966, Royal Lao Army troops, composed of three infantry regiments, one independent infantry battalion, and one artillery battalion, were airlifted to the Nam Bac valley by helicopter.  This, combined with the bombing raids from Operation Barrel Roll, slowed down the Pathet Lao advance on the Plain of Jars, allowing government forces to counter-attack there as well.  By August, there were Royal Lao Army troops within 45 miles of the North Vietnamese border, the closest they had gotten since the battle of Lak Sao, three years earlier.  So far there had only been a few casualties, and this action was hailed as a great victory by the Royal Lao Army.  In response, North Vietnamese troops were sent into the hills surrounding the valley, and they thwarted attempts by the Royal Lao army to break out of the valley in early 1967.  Both sides sent reinforcements in 1967, building the troop strengths up to 4,100 for the communists, and 7,500 for the Royal Lao Army, which included 3,000 guerrillas.

Because of a shortage of helicopter pilots, government forces did not receive enough supplies, and as was the case at Dienbienphu, artillery bombardment of the valley’s airfield made it unsafe for fixed-wing aircraft to come in.  But there weren’t that many planes available, either; in July 1967 the North Vietnamese staged a ground attack on Luang Prabang airfield, destroying about a dozen T-28s of the Laotian Air Force.  By the time the dry season began in October, the battle for Nam Bac had become a Dienbienphu-style siege, with the initiative passing to the communists.  The government sent a unit of General Vang Pao’s Hmong guerrillas in an attempt to lift the siege, but communist reinforcements arrived first.  December saw the North Vietnamese commit their battle-hardened 316th Division, along with the 335th Independent Regiment.

On January 11, 1968, the North Vietnamese 41st Special Forces Battalion attacked the northern outskirts of Luang Prabang.  Two days later, thinking that the rest of the Nam Bac valley had already fallen to the communists, the Royalist commander, Savatphayphane Bounchanh, left his command post and withdrew south.  In reality it hadn’t fallen, but once the command post was abandoned, the communists routed the leaderless Royal Lao Army and quickly occupied the valley.  About 200 Royal Lao Army troops were killed in action, and 2,400 were captured, of which more than 600 eventually switched sides, joining the Pathet Lao.  Only about 1,400 Royal Lao Army soldiers returned to government service after the battle, meaning that a lot of soldiers simply deserted; the army never completely recovered from these losses.  The communists also captured a great deal of equipment: lots of small arms, seven howitzers, 49 recoilless rifles, 52 mortars, and plenty of ammunition.


Podcast footnote:  For 1968, I have estimates on the size of the forces in Laos.  By this time there were about 40,000 North Vietnamese regular army troops, divided between keeping the Ho Chi Minh Trail open, and helping some 35,000 Pathet Lao forces.  The Royal Lao Army, (still entirely paid for and equipped by the US), numbered 60,000; Vang Pao’s CIA-trained Hmong guerrillas were half that number, and Kong Le’s neutralists numbered 10,000.  End footnote.

The Battle of Nam Bac wasn’t the only communist victory in 1968.  On Phou Pha Thi, a 5,600-foot-high mountain in northeastern Laos, the US Air Force had set up a tactical air navigation system in 1966.  The mountain is located 100 miles south of Dien Bien Phu, 160 miles west of Hanoi, and just 25 miles west of the Pathet Lao capital, Sam Neua; no buildings had been on the mountain previously because the local Hmong and Yao tribesmen thought the place was a home for spirits.  The new installation was a radar station and radio transmitter, used to guide American fighters and bombers to their targets in North Vietnam, and it was code-named Lima Site 85.  At the foot of the mountain, a 700-foot airstrip was built so that everything needed could be flown in.  Finally, opium poppies were grown near the mountain, and were a major source of revenue for the Hmong; however, we don’t know if General Vang Pao and the CIA were actually involved in the local drug traffic.

Of course all this was a violation of the 1962 cease-fire, but Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma allowed it on condition that the site not be manned by US military personnel.  Therefore the Americans working here were temporarily released from military service, so they could pretend to be civilian technicians; the soldiers guarding the facility were Hmong and members of the Thai Border Patrol Police.  I found a declassified report which stated that between November 1967 and March 1968, Lima Site 85 guided 427 sorties against North Vietnam, and 1,472 sorties for Operation Barrel Roll.

Naturally the other side couldn’t ignore the installation after they found out about it, and before the end of 1967, American reconnaissance aircraft detected the North Vietnamese building paved roads heading for Phou Pha Thi.  The Pathet Lao overran a nearby village in December, but the Hmong drove them out again.  Then in January 1968, the North Vietnamese staged a rare attack on the site by air.  I will read a description of the air raid from a book by Jane Hamilton-Merritt, Tragic Mountains:  the Hmongs, the Americans, and the Secret War for Laos, 1942–1992.  Quote:

“On 12 January, CIA spotters reported a four-aircraft formation flying in the direction of Lima Site 85.  They were Soviet-made Antonov An-2 biplanes.  Two aircraft continued towards Lima Site 85, while the others turned away.  The Vietnam People’s Air Force, in one of its few air attacks during the conflict, tried to destroy the radar at Lima Site 85.  The An-2s flew over Phou Pha Thi, and their crewmen dropped 120 mm mortar shells through the aircraft’s floor and then strafed their targets with 57 mm rockets mounted on the wing pods.  As they repeatedly attacked the facility, ground fire heavily damaged one AN-2, and it crashed into a mountainside.  By now, CIA officers and US controllers at Lima Site 85 had managed to contact an Air America helicopter, which was faster than the Soviet-made biplanes.  The Huey pilot Captain Ted Moore sighted the remaining An-2, and promptly gave chase.  As he pulled alongside, flight mechanic Glenn Woods armed with an AK-47 assault rifle opened fire and caused the biplane to crash into a ridge.

The remaining An-2s had observed the attack from a distance and managed to escape without damage. Four Hmongs, two men and two women, had been killed by the communist attack. The TSQ-81 radar and associated equipment were undamaged.”

End quote.

Over the course of February, North Vietnamese forces assembled in the vicinity of Phou Pha Thi.   On Februray 18, the Hmong ambushed a small party of North Vietnamese five miles southeast of the site.  Among those killed was an officer who carried a notebook with plans for an attack on Phou Pha Thi.  The notebook said three North Vietnamese battalions and one Pathet Lao battalion would take part; the exact location of the installation was also given.  Now that the Americans knew the North Vietnamese were coming to get them, they requested more arms to defend the installation; this request was denied, out of fear that it would blow the cover of the American personnel.  Although a CIA report said that Lima Site 85 would not hold out past March 10th, the officers on the site were confident that the enemy couldn’t scale the mountain’s cliffs,

The North Vietnamese had completely surrounded the mountain by March 9, and they launched their assault on March 10, led by a 33-man platoon that had received special training in mountain fighting.  Against expectations, they went up the cliffs, and on the early morning of March 11 they reached the buildings on top and began attacking with grenades.  Helicopters were belatedly called in to evacuate the Americans, but twelve of the nineteen Americans were killed; this was the greatest loss of Air Force personnel in any Laotian battle.  Years later the North Vietnamese reported killing 42 enemies in the battle, mostly Hmong and Thais.  By the middle of the day, the site was completely overrun; the Americans now decided they needed to destroy the radar so that the enemy could not use it, and also destroy any intelligence the North Vietnamese could gather.  During the next seven days, 95 sorties were flown against the site, which also obliterated any American remains that were left on the mountaintop.


All right, that will do it for today.  I want to apologize for getting behind schedule, when it came to recording this episode.  For some reason, whenever I played back what I had recorded, it just didn’t sound right, and by the time my self-imposed deadline arrived for putting it up, the recording was too long to edit easily.  It makes me wonder how the more long-winded podcasters get their recordings done in the time they have.  I will also admit that after all the time and episodes I have spent on the war in Laos, I was getting impatient to return to the war in Vietnam.  As it turns out, the original script sounds better when divided in two, so I will need one more episode to make it to the 1973 cease-fire, and Vietnam will have to wait until the last episode scheduled for this year.  The good news is that I think I can get the next episode done quickly, since a lot of the footage I recorded for today will go into that episode instead.  On that note, join me next time for the fourth (and I promise the last) episode on the Laotian Civil War!

Recently I decided that it’s nearly time to record another question and answer episode.  It won’t be coming up right away, I plan to do it after the new year begins, which means it will be Episode 81 or later.  In the meantime, think of some questions you would like to ask me, anything having to do with Southeast Asia.  To get the questions to me, post them on the podcast’s Facebook page, or email them to me, at berosus@gmail.com.  That’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S, @gmail.com.

Unfortunately, the podcast has not received any donations since the previous episode went online.  If you are getting anything from this podcast, I am asking you to support it with a donation; for most of its existence, the podcast has been listener-supported.  It doesn’t have to be a lot; I know money has to be stretched during the upcoming holiday season, and a lot of small donations will be just as good – maybe even better – than a few large donations.  The easiest way to do it is to make a secure donation through Paypal.  Just go to the Paypal link at the bottom of the Blubrry.com page hosting any History of Southeast Asia Podcast episode.  Go below whatever content I have shared, and click on the gold button that says, “Donate.”  Recently I added the Paypal button to the top of my personal blog, so you can make a donation there, too.  Blubrry is spelled like “blueberry” without the “Es,” so the URL or Internet address is http://www.B-L-U-B-R-R-Y.com/H-O-S-E-A-S-I-A/.  My blog URL is Xenohistorian.wordpress.com.  That’s http://, no WWWs, and then X-E-N-O-H-I-S-T-O-R-I-A-N-dot-W-O-R-D-P-R-E-S-S.com.  If you can’t use Paypal, send me an email and I’ll give you a snail mail address to send a check to.  There, have we covered all bases?

If you listen to or download the episodes anywhere besides Blubrry, you can also help by writing a review and giving the podcast some stars, the more the merrier!  And I mentioned a minute ago that Facebook has a History of Southeast Asia Podcast page, so “like” it if you are on Facebook and haven’t done so already.  That way you will see the related content I share, and announcements, like the one I posted about this episode being a bit late.  When you’re in the real world, don’t forget to tell the people you know about the show:  family, friends, anyone who works a boring job, or anyone planning to go on a long trip.  Take it from me, podcasts are a great way to pass the time!  Finally, if you’re in the United States, I want to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!  That’s all for now.  Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!


Episode 77: What Buddhism is All About



Today the podcast has another special episode, prompted because a donor to the podcast asked three questions that I should have answered two or three years ago. May you find the answers enlightening (pun intended). You may want to go back and re-listen to the early episodes that discussed Buddhism’s impact on Southeast Asia, especially Episodes 2, 3, 5, 6, and 7, after hearing this.



Episode 77:  What Buddhism Is All About

Greetings, dear listeners!  If you listened to the previous episode, I hope you had a good time getting spooked by it.  If this is your first time here, we’re glad to have you!  Originally, for this episode I was going to return to the topic that filled Episodes 71 through 75, the Second Indochina War.  You were probably expecting that, if you saw the picture I recently shared on the podcast’s Facebook page; the picture showed a Buddhist monk in Laos, with two unexploded bombs that the Americans dropped on his country, fifty years ago.

Then I got a donation from Jouke C. (I hope I’m pronouncing that right).  Jouke, of course this episode is dedicated to you, more so than with previous dedications, because of the three questions you asked in the email that came with the donation.  I should have answered those questions long ago, so I am going to devote this episode to answering them now.  Better late than never, as the saying goes!

I’ll take care of the easiest question first.  Jouke asked if there were horses in the Philippines before the Spanish conquest.  In the previous episode, when I was talking about a horselike monster called the Tikbalang, I said no, but it turns out I was wrong; I spoke too soon.  Today I looked it up, and found that Pangasinan, the pre-Spanish kingdom in northern Luzon, had horses; they got them from one of their trading partners, either Japan or Ming dynasty China.

Even so, I don’t think there were enough horses, either among the natives or among the Spaniards, to make a difference in the battles, the way they made a difference in the Spanish conquest of Latin America.  Take it from me; I live in Kentucky, and my home town calls itself the “Horse Capital of the World”; I see horses when I go out of town.  Horses don’t do well in tropical climates, and as you know, all of Southeast Asia is tropical.  For that reason, I think the first encounter most of Southeast Asia had with horses came in the late thirteenth century, when the greatest horsemen of the Middle Ages, the Mongols, raided Burma, Chiangmai in northern Thailand, Vietnam and Java.  However, we have also noted in the past that the mountains of northern Luzon are relatively cool, compared with the rest of the Philippines, and that would have allowed the people of Pangasinan to raise their own horses.  The shortage of horses in the rest of Southeast Asia is one of the reasons why Southeast Asians continued to use war elephants until the late 1800s, though elephants are less reliable than horses in a battle.


And now, for the biggest question.  Jouke also asked what are the differences between the two main sects of Buddhism, Mahayana and Therevada.  Three years ago, I thought about doing a whole episode on how Buddhism got started, because it would tie in with what I said in the earliest episodes about how Buddhism was introduced by missionaries from India, but then I decided it was a more appropriate subject for a podcast on Indian history.  Now here is the episode I cut out for the sake of saving time; you may want to call it Episode 2.5!

The Man Who Woke Up

From a spiritual point of view, the sixth century B.C., the years between 600 and 500 B.C., were a remarkable time.  Almost every ancient civilization in those days produced great thinkers and religious leaders.  In the Middle East, this was the time of three great Old Testament prophets – Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel – plus some lesser prophets like Haggai and Zechariah.  Meanwhile in Greece, the first philosophers appeared, men like Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Xenophanes and Pythagoras.  Persia had Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism, and China produced its two greatest philosophers, Confucius and Laozi.  Egypt had a famous priest at this time named Udjahorresne, but he isn’t known for any revolutionary theology.  However, this was when Egyptians started carrying animal worship to its logical conclusion by mummifying thousands of animals.  They continued this practice all the way into the Greco-Roman era, because by then it was “the Egyptian thing to do.”  Even Native Americans may have taken part in this intellectual activity.  Of course we have no written records on what was happening in the Americas this far back, but the oldest of the North American mound-building cultures, the Adena culture, got started around 600 B.C., in what are now Ohio and the surrounding states.  I wouldn’t be surprised if we find out someday that a great “medicine man” told his people to start building mounds.

Finally, India had the founders of two major religions: Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, and Siddartha Gautama, better known as the Buddha.  Jainism would never become popular outside of India, but Buddhism would find powerful patrons that would spread its teachings extensively until it became the most important religion of the Far East.  Therefore I will begin by telling the Buddha’s life story.

Siddhartha Gautama was born in 563 B.C., to a minor prince or raja in the foothills of the Himalayas.  According to the legends that have grown up around the facts, he was a promising son from the start.  Before his birth a wise man predicted that if he kept his mind on worldly matters, he would grow up to become the world’s greatest king, but if he saw the real misery of the world, he would become the world’s greatest teacher instead.  Siddhartha’s father definitely wanted him to become a king, so he sheltered the child from all sickness and decay, surrounding him with youth and beauty constantly.

As Siddhartha grew to manhood, it seemed that his father got his wish.  When he was not in school learning the skills of war or the traditions of his culture, he went on tiger hunts.  Back in the palace were more delights: a garden full of mango trees, and a sizeable harem that would be his on the day he became raja.  Before long he also had a beautiful wife named Yasodhara.  However, not long after the wedding came four incidents that would change the prince’s life completely.

According to legend, Siddhartha was riding with his charioteer, Channa, in the sheltered precinct, and he discovered a broken-down old man whom the guards had somehow overlooked.  Siddhartha asked Channa what that creature was and learned that people grow old.  Not long afterward, on another ride, the prince saw a man covered with sores and shivering with fever, and learned that people get sick.  The third sign he saw, a corpse being carried on a litter to the cremation ground, taught him that people die.  But the fourth sign gave the unhappy prince hope; he saw a cheerful holy man who had nothing but a yellow robe and a bowl for begging.  With that he knew what he had to do to find real peace in the world.

The palace was no longer a pleasant place for him; the next time he went to his father’s harem, he saw the kingdom’s most beautiful women as they would one day appear, with grey hair and wrinkles.  Soon after, his wife gave birth to a son, but he felt no pride.  That night, he said goodbye to them while they slept and rode away in his chariot with Channa.  When they were well beyond the palace grounds, he got out of the chariot, removed his clothes and cut off all his hair, and said goodbye to Channa as well.  Now that he was separated from everything that had ever belonged to him, he was ready to begin a new life.

The young ex-prince began his quest by learning the Uphanishads an important set of Hindu scriptures, from a guru he met.  That failed to satisfy him, so he went with five other seekers into the forest to practice the most extreme asceticism possible.  Siddhartha outdid them all, eating only one grain of rice a day, and continuing this discipline until he could feel his spine whenever he rubbed his stomach.  Yet self-torture did not teach him the meaning of life, so after five years of this, he gave up and went to a village to beg for food.  His companions were appalled to see him eating and drinking again with enjoyment.  They called him a reprobate and left him.

Siddhartha, now 35 years old, wandered to Magadha, the most important kingdom on the Ganges River, and there he sat under a great tree that is now called the Bodhi (tree of wisdom).  For seven weeks he stayed there, vowing not to move until he discovered the cure for suffering.  After rejecting the evil spirits that offered him greater powers and pleasures than the ones he enjoyed as a youth, he descended into a trance that was somewhere between life and death, a perfect realm he would call Nirvana.  When he woke up he became the Buddha, meaning the Enlightened One.  Afterwards, as he tried to explain to others what had happened to him, he met again the five ascetics who had spurned him.  They sensed at once the change that had come over him, and to them the Buddha preached his first sermon.

The Buddha’s message was that there are four absolute truths:

1. Suffering is inevitable in this life.
2. Desire is the cause of suffering.
3. Suffering ends when desire is forsaken.
4. The cure for desire is the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path, simply put, is eight rules to live by.  It is symbolized by a wheel with eight spokes.  Here are the rules:

1. Hold the right views.
2. Have the right aspirations.
3. Use the right speech.
4. Show the right conduct.
5. Pursue the right livelihood.
6. Expend the right effort.
7. Maintain the right attitude.
8. Practice the right meditation.

The Buddha believed in the doctrine of karma, but his goal was not to get ahead in the next life.  To him, the ultimate goal of following the Eightfold Path was to get to Nirvana, which literally meant "the blowing out," like the blowing out of a candle.  Once I heard Nirvana described as, quote, “the state of perfect nothingness.”  Unquote.  By reaching Nirvana, one could escape the whole sorrowful cycle of human existence through oblivion.

As the Buddha grew older, he gained many followers who strove to live by his example.  He also gained the attention of Bimbisara, Magadha’s first important king.  According to one story, the Buddha was visiting Bimbisara when a priest approached the king and told him to sacrifice fifty of his finest goats, assuring him that if he did so, both his prayers and offerings would go, quote,  "directly to Heaven."  Unquote.  The Buddha asked the priest if his father was still alive.  The priest answered that he was, and the Buddha inquired, quote, "Then why not sacrifice him?"  Unquote.  Delighted at this turn of events, Bimbisara kept the goats and banished the priest.  With the traditional power of the Brahmans broken, the kingdom of Magadha had made an important step toward becoming an empire.

As you can see, Buddhism first presented itself as a moderate alternative to Hinduism, a creed that demanded less from its followers than Hinduism did.  Likewise, the Buddha died moderately, in a way you wouldn’t expect a holy man to go.  He lived to the age of eighty, and one day in 483 B.C., he overdosed on a meal of spoiled pork.  It would be more than two hundred years after that before a Magadhan king converted to Buddhism.  You have probably heard of that king; I mentioned him in Episode 2 – Asoka.  Still, even in the early years, Magadha’s tolerance of the new creed allowed its fortunes to grow along with those of the kingdom.  From Asoka onward, missionaries would go forth to make converts in all the lands surrounding India.


The Great Buddhist Split

Now what caused the division of Buddhism into separate sects?  To answer that question we need to fast-forward, to the first century A.D..  Around the year 60, a nomadic tribe in Afghanistan broke camp and moved south, into the Indian subcontinent.  China called them the Yuezhi, and most Western history texts call them the Tocharians.  They settled down in the upper Indus valley, changed their name to the Kushanas, and founded an empire named Kushan, which grew to encompass Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and even the upper half of the Ganges valley.  The greatest Kushan king was named Kanishka, and we think he ruled during the years 78 to 102, but we aren’t sure; all of Kushan’s dates are uncertain.  Anyway, under Kanishka, Kushan’s rule stretched from the Caspian Sea to Khotan in what is now northwest China, and as far east as Varanasi in India.  Kushan’s capital was Purushapura, modern Peshawar in northern Pakistan, and it became a center for commerce and religion.  The famous Silk Road, the great trade route between China and the Roman Empire, passed through the northern part of the realm, allowing Kushan to make a profit from the traffic on it; Kushana merchants could also sail down the Indus to the Arabian Sea, and they sold their wares as far west as Egypt.  Thus, the Eurasian landmass was dominated by four empires as the first century ended:  the Roman Empire, the Parthian Empire in Iraq and Iran, Kushan, and China.  Romans, Parthians, Indians and Chinese could all be found in Kushan, pausing here as they traveled from one country to another.  On top of all that, Kanishka was a great patron of Buddhism; while he was king, Buddhism was both reformed and introduced to China.

For a long time, perhaps as far back as the reign of Asoka, Buddhists had argued over how they should teach their creed.  Some believed that it was asking too much to make everyone get to Nirvana on his own.  Their solution was to introduce the idea of the Bodhisattva, a saint who has achieved the ethical perfection needed to enter Nirvana, but has instead chosen to stay on earth and save as many ordinary people as possible.  Under Kanishka’s leadership, the revisionists held a council in Kashmir, where over a six month period they hammered out an elaborate theology to explain what they believed.  They called their doctrine Mahayana, meaning "Greater Vehicle," because as they saw it, "Why should salvation be portrayed as a small raft that can only carry a few, when it is really a big ship with space for everyone?"  The Buddhist fellowship in Sri Lanka boycotted the Kashmir council and promoted a conservative doctrine that followed the original teachings as much as possible.  Followers of this doctrine called it Therevada, meaning "The Way of the Elders," while Mahayanists called it Hinayana, the "Lesser Vehicle."

Two more differing creeds that claim to be the same religion would be hard to find.  Indeed, Protestants and Catholics in Europe, and Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East, have fought wars over smaller differences than these.  The only thing Mahayana and Therevada have in common is that both accept the Buddha’s four truths and the Eightfold Path.  The differences between Mahayana and Therevada Buddhism are summarized as follows:

1. The view of God and the Afterlife: Therevada talks so little about God that it can be called an atheistic creed.  Therevadists say that God, if he exists, is irrelevant–as a being of the universe He/She/It is subject to the same law of Karma as humanity.  Mahayanists on the other hand teach that piety is a virtue, and Mahayana easily combines with other religions.  For example, the Japanese combine Mahayana Buddhism with Shinto, while the Chinese combine it with Confucianism and Daoism.  Often Mahayana sects bring in a vision of Heaven and Hell, replacing the Buddha’s formless Nirvana.

2. Ritual: Therevada cares little for metaphysics and ritual; prayer is limited to meditation.  Mahayana has a place for ritual and petitionary prayer.

3. Man’s Role:  Therevada teaches that man is an individual, who must achieve salvation on his own.  Mahayana teaches that man is not alone, and he is in this world to help others.

4. Ideals:  Therevada’s ideal is the arhat, a monk who steers for the goal of Nirvana without letting anything get in the way.  The Mahayana ideal is the Bodhisattva, one who vows not to leave this world until, quote, "the grass itself be enlightened."  Unquote.  Therevada’s highest virtue is wisdom, Mahayana rates compassion as the most important quality to have.

Podcast Footnote:  The best explanation I have heard of the differences between the two sects comes in the form of a story told by Mahayanists.  Here it is.  Once upon a time there were four men wandering in a desert, desperately seeking food, water and shelter.  Eventually one of them came to a place that was surrounded by a long wall.  The wall was crumbling in a few spots, and he found a spot where he could climb it.  From the top of the wall he looked into the enclosure, and there was a beautiful garden, with all kinds of fruit, springs of water, and other wonderful things.  The man shouted with joy and jumped into the garden.  Later on the second man found the wall and climbed it, and so did the third man; both of them were also delighted, and they jumped into the garden, too.  When the fourth man discovered this oasis with a wall around it, he climbed the wall as well.  But at the top of the wall, after he saw the garden, he said, “Wait a minute.  There are other people in the desert, who would like to find a place like this.”  So instead of jumping in, he climbed down, and went back into the desert; his goal now was to tell other people about this place.  According to the Mahayanist storyteller, the first three men are the kind of monks who manage to reach Nirvana without help, while the fourth man is a Bodhisattva, who feels he cannot enjoy that pleasure until he has shared it with everyone else.  End footnote.

Mahayana Buddhism is a greater vehicle when it comes to its geographical spread; today it is the most widely practiced religion in China, Tibet, Bhutan, Mongolia, South Korea, Japan and Vietnam.  The form of Mahayana followed in Tibet, Mongolia and Siberia combines Mahayana teaching with mystical practices called Tantra, and is called Lamaism, because its monks are called Lamas.  Therevada is found in a much smaller area:  Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.  Except for Sri Lanka, all of those countries are in the area I define as Southeast Asia.  Longtime listeners will also remember that in Episodes 20 and 27, I told about two Siamese kings who felt the clergy had strayed off the straight, narrow path taught by the Buddha, and they made reforms to get the clergy back on track.  For that reason, modern-day Thais will claim that Thailand has replaced Sri Lanka as Therevada’s headquarters.


The Way of the Ancestors

The last question I was asked called for information about animism in Southeast Asia.  This will be the toughest to answer, because the beliefs and customs we call “animism” vary from one locality to the next, starting with the names and jobs of the gods.  The one constant is that followers of animism believe there are supernatural spirits all around them:  in plants and animals, in the air, in large objects like lakes and volcanoes, and so forth.

None of the majority ethnic groups in Southeast Asia practice animism today; all of them have adopted a major religion from another part of the world, usually Buddhism, Christianity or Islam.  Hinduism used to be popular as well, as we saw in the early episodes of the podcast, but today it is restricted to Bali and the cities where Indian communities exist.  The current practitioners of animism are minority tribes, of which these are the most famous:

1. In Laos: The Rmeet and the Katu.
2. In Malaysia: The Chewong.
3. In the Philippines: The Ifugao.
4. Indonesia has several animist tribes scattered across Borneo and the eastern islands.  I will just give you the names of the tribes for now: Kelabit, Bentian, Toraja, Bugis, Sasak, Bima, Nage, Alor, Hualu, Banda Eli.
5. Finally, most of the people of East Timor were converted to Catholicism in the twentieth century, but you can still find animism practiced by three of their tribes: the Atoni, Makassi, and Naueti.

Podcast footnote:  Forty years ago, I watched a thirteen-part British documentary about world religions, called The Long Search.  Each episode went to a different place in the world, to look at religious practices there; for example, the show on Islam went to Egypt, and the show on Protestant Christianity went to the United States.  For an example of animism, the producers of that documentary went to eastern Indonesia, and introduced a tribe living on the island of Sulawesi, the Torajas.  I found the Toraja episode on YouTube, and posted a link to it on the podcast’s Blubrry and Facebook pages.  Unfortunately, the second half of the video is dubbed over in Italian; hopefully those who watch the whole thing can understand what’s going on.  Because of the work of Dutch missionaries, most of the Torajas converted to Christianity in the first half of the twentieth century, and because this is Indonesia, the world’s largest Moslem country, a few have converted to Islam, but a core group in the tribe still practice the old-time animism, which they call “the Way of the Ancestors.”  It involves water buffalo sacrifices and an elaborate cult honoring the dead.  End footnote.

Throughout the region, animistic customs have remained whenever another religion moved in; the natives were not willing to give up everything they did or believed in previously.  To give one example, today the Philippines is mostly Catholic, but their festivals combine Christian symbols with pre-Christian ones; in that sense, the Catholic Church in the Philippines is like the Catholic Church in Latin America.  In Cambodia, many believe that the ruins of Angkor Wat are protected by a powerful guardian spirit called a Neakta, and that shamans can call on similar spirits to cure illnesses or social problems.  In Thailand, the many shrines outside  buildings, near villages, next to trees and along the roadside are what’s left of that country’s pre-Buddhist heritage.  These were built to pay homage to local spirits that inhabit specific geographical areas; I told you in the previous episode about a shrine set up in Bangkok to keep a specific ghost from haunting the neighborhood.  Visitors will go to the shrines with prayer requests, and leave offerings of food, flowers and drinks.  In Myanmar, much of the population believes in spirits called nats; they employ shamans to deal with the nats, and give offerings or hold festivals to them; these practices are lumped together under the name “Burmese folk religion.”  And all around there are customs of animist origin that cannot be traced to any particular deity or spirit, like shadow puppet plays, the placing of a hexagonal mirror on top of a door to keep evil spirits away, or the Javanese custom of sacrificing a goat and burying it in the foundation of a new building.

The only places where the animist practices are in danger of disappearing completely are those places where radical Islam has gotten popular in recent years, like the Aceh district on Sumatra, and the city of Marawi in the southern Philippines.  I mentioned in Episode 11 that when Islam was introduced to Southeast Asia, it left elements of the old Hindu-Buddhist-Animist culture intact.  As the author Fareed Zakaria explained it in his book The Future of Freedom, most Moslems in the past, quote, "practiced a kind of village Islam that adapted itself to local cultures and to normal human desires.  Pluralistic and tolerant, these villages often worshiped saints, went to shrines, sang religious hymns and cherished art–all technically disallowed in Islam."  End quote.  More recently, however, Moslems in Southeast Asia have learned about the Middle East’s more "universalist" interpretation of the Koran, promoted by Saudi Arabia, Iran, and terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda.  Wherever fundamentalist Islam is introduced, anything not approved by the Koran is in danger of being plowed under.  Zakaria called this, quote, "Islam of the high church as opposed to Islam of the street fair."  End quote.

Animism has made news in Malaysia recently because of a local shaman who can’t seem to get enough attention, Raja Bomoh Sedunia.  When Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 disappeared in 2014, Rajah Bomoh Sedunia and his male assistant came to Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and they conducted rituals to help those searching for the missing plane.  For the ritual, they looked into an old-fashioned fish trap with a pair of bamboo binoculars, and declared that a race of supernatural beings called the Orang-Orang Bunian were hiding the plane in the air over the Philippines, the South China Sea, and an unidentified third location.  A few days later, Raja Bomoh came back to the airport with four assistants, three men and one woman, to perform a second ritual.  This time, Raja Bomoh knocked two coconuts together with his hands while shouting the Arabic phrase “Allahu akbar!”, meaning “God is greater!”  Then, his three male assistants sat on what he called a "magic carpet" and used a number of "magical artifacts" such as a walking stick and a basket, to finish the ritual; he claimed that all this was done to weaken the spirits’ hold on the plane.  As you might expect, this caused Malaysians to giggle, and the whole affair was ridiculed by the Chinese, who had an interest in this because most of the missing passengers on the flight were Chinese citizens.

And that wasn’t the shaman’s last appearance!  In 2017, also at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Kim Jong-nam, the elder brother of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, was fatally poisoned through exposure to a VX nerve agent.  Raja Bomoh Sedunia showed up outside the morgue of the hospital where Kim Jong-nam’s body was held.  Here he performed another ritual, looking though his bamboo binoculars again and saying a five-minute prayer.  Here is his explanation, quote, “The ritual this time is to protect Malaysia from any threat or attacks from other countries especially North Korea.”  End quote.


Cut!  That’s a wrap; we’ll go with that.  It has been just over a year since I did a question & answer episode; maybe it is time to do another one.  Start thinking about what questions you would like to ask, anything having to do with Southeast Asia’s past, and I’ll start planning to do the question & answer episode in a few months.  But first, I should get back to the Second Indochina War narrative that dominated Episodes 71 through 75.  So if you have been following the podcast’s story of the mid-twentieth century war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, next time we will definitely return to it!


And while you are thinking of questions to ask, consider also making a donation to support this podcast.  Currently the podcast doesn’t have a sponsor; the whole show is a labor of love on my part.  Any questions you ask with the donation will probably have to wait for question & answer episode, but you will get your first name mentioned here right after the donation arrives.  The easiest way to make a donation is through Paypal.  I have placed donation buttons on Blubrry, the website which hosts the podcast, and on my personal blog, Xenohistorian.wordpress.com.  The URL for Blubrry is spelled http://www.B-L-U-B-R-R-Y.com/H-O-S-E-A-S-I-A/; once you are there, click on any episode’s page and scroll to the bottom, where you click on the gold button.  As for my blog, the button is near the top of the page, and the URL is spelled http://, no WWWs, and then X-E-N-O-H-I-S-T-O-R-I-A-N-dot-W-O-R-D-P-R-E-S-S.com.  And I know about Paypal not accepting Singapore dollars, so if you can’t use Paypal, let me know by email and I’ll give you my surface mail address so you can send me a check.  My email address is Berosus@gmail.com, that’s B-E-R-O-S-U-S at gmail.com.  Okay, have I given you enough to spellings to remember?

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