The Rationales for the First Joint Accounting Efforts for US Prisoners of War/missing in Action in Laos: A Lao Perspective

By Sayalath, Soulatha | Contemporary Southeast Asia, December 2015 | Go to article overview

The Rationales for the First Joint Accounting Efforts for US Prisoners of War/missing in Action in Laos: A Lao Perspective


Sayalath, Soulatha, Contemporary Southeast Asia


This article outlines the reasons behind the Lao People's Democratic Republic's (LPDR) decision to reach agreement with the United States in 1985 for the purposes of initiating joint efforts to account for US Prisoners of War/Missing in Action (POW/MIA) lost in Laos during the Vietnam War. The article attempts to explain why LPDR's domestic security concerns, as well as the government's desire to demonstrate autonomous decision-making in the conduct of the country's foreign policy, were the two main drivers of the 1985 agreement. Domestic concerns arose from the perceived threat of violence from American-supported Thai-based anti-LPDR resistance groups and private groups entering Laos illegally in search of alleged live POWs. (1) Moreover, the LPDR required from the United States mutual respect for its independent foreign policy-making: in other words, the LPDR wanted to be seen as acting as an independent sovereign entity in handling the POW/MIA issue. For the purposes of this article, sovereignty is broadly defined as "a state's ability to control actors and activities within and across its border" (2) and to project "authoritative decision-making". (3) As regards the LPDR's sovereignty concerns, the operationalization of this concept is relatively unexplored in studies pertaining to the POW/MIA issue. Examining the LPDR's sovereignty concerns enables one to better understand Lao's role in POW/MIA negotiations; a role that is clearly marginalized, given that it is the concerns and viewpoints of American scholars and policymakers that dominate the discourse.

The Secret War in Laos and the POW/MIA Issue

Before examining the 1985 US-LPDR agreement, it is useful to briefly recount the activities of the United States and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV or North Vietnam) in Laos during the Vietnam War. (4) Although prohibited by the 1962 Geneva Accords --which supposedly legalized the neutrality and independence of the Kingdom of Laos--both the United States and North Vietnam secretly conducted military activities against each other inside Laotian territory. On one side, the United States conducted covert military operations, including an extensive air campaign, to disrupt and destroy North Vietnam's logistical supply lines--known colloquially as the "Ho Chi Minh Trail"--which ran through parts of Laos. On the other side, North Vietnam supported the communist Pathet Lao forces which aimed to overthrow the US-supported Royal Lao Government (RLG). (5) This "secret war" in Laos ended in December 1975 when the Pathet Lao took control of the country and renamed it the LPDR. Although no US military personnel were supposed to have been active in Laos during the Vietnam War, the US Department of Defense (DoD) recorded 575 men as Missing in Action (MIA) in Laos as revealed in Table 1 below.

Table 1 shows the number of American MIAs from the Vietnam War in four countries--Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and China--and the record of repatriation and identification which is conducted by DoD's Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) based at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii. Data for those lost in Laos is recorded under "Americans Lost in the Vietnam War" rather than the "secret war" in Laos. Since the 1985 agreement, the US government has tried to resolve the 575 MIA cases in the LPDR. Between 1985 and 2015, 135 joint field activities were conducted in Laos. According to the DPAA, only 270 cases, or less than half, including 23 "no further pursuit" category, (6) have been repatriated and identified. Presently, approximately 50 US personnel, together with their Lao counterparts, conduct four joint field activities each year in the LPDR.

The origins of the joint US-LPDR accounting efforts are still little understood. This is surprising given the continued importance to Washington of the on-going field excavations, and counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism cooperation between the United States and LPDR, (7) as well as the need to better understand the background of the current bilateral relationship. …

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