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It has been a long time since I have thought of Laos.

It seems like there is always a new war to take our minds off of the old ones. Of course, we were never at war with Laos. We just bombed the hell out of the country, dropping 2.5 million tons over nine years, or the equivalent of one B-52 load of bombs every 8 minutes, day and night for nine years, at a cost of $17 million (in inflation adjusted dollars) a day. And creating 400,000 Laotian refugees in the process.

Did you know that our actions in Laos made it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history? And that some 80 million cluster bombs, out of the 270 million dropped, remained unexploded at the end of the bombing campaigns? As of 2013, only 1% had been cleared. Sadly, in this nation that employs 75% of its population in agriculture, most of the remaining bombs are now buried in the agricultural lands that the Laotian people need to cultivate.

Data from a survey completed in Laos (2009) indicated that UXO, primarily cluster bombs, have killed or maimed as many as 50,000 civilians in Laos since 1964 (20,000 since the end of war in 1973). About 60% of accidents in Laos have resulted in death, and in the past few years, almost 60% of the victims have been children. Boys are particularly at risk. In 2011, casualty rates fell below 100 for the first time since the bombings began.

Legacies of War

Between 1995 and 2009, the US spent $42 million cleaning up the mess it left behind, about $3 million a year. Within the last five years, we have been able to bring that total to $74 million (which includes $12 million in fiscal year 2014), or about four and a half days of bombing runs.

This video, from Mother Jones shows the bombing runs from 1965 to 1973 in one minute and thirty-eight seconds. It is stunning.


It is amazing that in 1975 there was any country left for the Pathet Lao to govern.

The Coroner's Lunch
by Colin Cotterill
Published by Soho Press
December 1st 2004
272 pages
“And what do you put the loss of blood down to?” Judge Haeng asked.

Siri wondered more than once whether he was deliberately being asked trick questions to establish the state of his mind. “Well.” He considered it for a moment. “The body’s inability to keep it in?” The little judge h’mmed and looked back down at the report. He wasn’t even bright enough for sarcasm. “Of course, the fact that the poor man’s legs had been cut off above the knees might have had something to do with it. It’s all there in the report.”

In The Coroner's Lunch, we are introduced to the chief, and only, medical examiner in Laos in 1976. Dr. Siri Paiboun, at 72, had not planned on this career choice, having had no pathology experience. Educated in France, he had joined the Communist Party forty-seven years earlier, out of devotion to his now dead wife. Luckily for him, his morgue assistant, Mr Gruen, has been blessed both with Down's syndrome, and complete memory recall and remembers everything the prior coroner had ever taught him and is an encyclopedia of autopsy procedures. His other assistant/secretary, "My name’s Chundee Chantavongheuan, but people call me Dtui," spends much of her time, when not caring for her ill mother, pouring over movie magazines. These three, together with occasional help from Siri's old friend and current Politburo member, Civilai, work to solve the mysteries presented by the bodies that pass through Lao's only morgue.

In The Coroner's Lunch, the first death is that of Senior Party Member Comrade Khan's wife, who apparently relished a fondness for eating lahp or raw pork. But was that what killed her?

Soon, bodies began surfacing in a nearby reservoir. But they hadn't drowned. And there seemed to be some connection to Vietnam, Laos' neighbor and fellow Communist state. Siri is called off of that case to travel to an agricultural development project, run by the Laotian military, to help wean the Hmong people off of opium crops. But strangely, the commanding officer of the project, and three of his replacements, have died of unexplained causes.

As a child, Dr. Siri had been plagued by bizarre dreams. As he aged, they became more frequent and had greater clarity.

Since Siri had started working as a coroner, coming into contact with the bodies of people he hadn’t known when alive, these visitations had become more profound. He was somehow able to know the feelings and personalities of the departed. It didn’t seem to matter how long it had been since life had drained from the body; his dream world could spiritually reassemble the person. He could have conversations with the completed whole, and get a feeling of the essence of what that person had been in real life.

They didn't haunt him, but were simply there, observing the action. Sometimes they even appeared during his waking hours. And sometimes they even helped him figure out how they became dead. And with as many bodies as were turning up in The Coroner's Lunch, Dr. Siri can use all of the help he can get.


Thirty-three Teeth
by Colin Cotterill
Published by Soho Crime
August 1st 2005
256 pages

I so enjoyed The Coroner's Lunch that I immediately started on the second book of the series, Thirty-Three Teeth. It was very good, in spite of the magical realism direction that Cotterill takes with the spirit world of Laos and the very many bodies requiring the coroner's attention.

The humor remained, and perhaps even got better, as Cotterill took aim once again at the Pathet Lao:

Poverty lead him to religion, religion to education, education to lust, lust to communism. And communism had brought him back full circle to poverty.

There was a Ph.D. dissertation waiting to be written about such a cycle.

And displayed a fine working knowledge of the absurd:
A Ukrainian man with a guitar climbed up on the stage, sat on a rickety stool, and proceeded to warm up the audience with American folk songs translated into Russian.
His able assistant, Dtui, receives more ink in this book, as she sets off on her own to investigate the strange animal/creature who was killing random Laos. Dtui has worked hard at preparing herself for training in the Soviet Union, not that it would likely be forthcoming, by translating English surgical texts into Laos and then into Russian using "English– Lao– English, English– Russian" dictionaries. Which is fortunate, as she must deal with a "Randy Russian" animal trainer who fancies himself irresistible to all females of any species. She also must deal with the Laotian prison system, which was not supposed to be needed in the paradise established by the Pathet Lao.

Meanwhile, Dr. Siri is interrupted in his efforts to explain two dead bodies and one mangled bicycle by a visit from Judge Haeng. Siri is sent to the old royal city on a mission so hush-hush that even the Judge doesn't know what it is. Once he gets there, he is ordered to determine the nation of origin of two very badly burned bodies. Not their ethnicity, mind you, but the country from which they came. Ah, the leadership of the Pathet Lao.

In Thirty-Three Teeth, we learn more about the Laotian culture, including the fact that someone with thirty-three teeth, like our coroner Dr. Siri, and Buddha, is said to be a bridge to the spirit world. We also learn that Dr. Siri was an orphan who was rescued by the Church and educated in France, where he fell in love with, and married, the woman who led him into a life of battle for their shared Communist ideals.

The different plot strands of the death investigations weave into an enjoyable tale that includes a memorable scene in which a Party official has gathered together shamans and witch doctors from all over the country, to issue an ultimatum to the spirit world. During Dr. Siri's trip into the Hmong community, he came to believe that he contains the spirit of a shaman, Yeh Ming, who had been dead for 1050 years. As a result of his adventures in The Coroner's Lunch, Dr. Siri, has become Laos' official shaman in addition to being its official coroner, and is invited to the meeting.

After eighteen months of unsuccessful attempts to sever the people from their mystical beliefs, the Party has decided that the spirits would have to "toe the line," and so issues a State directive. In order to facilitate compliance, the Department of Culture had, in fact, written an official manual on when and how such spirits are to be summoned. It was a perfect scene that deftly demonstrated Cotterill's love of the absurd.

Once again, we learn more about the people, the culture, and life under Pathet Lao, painlessly, with good humor and affection, in spite of the murders that provide the framework for this glimpse of Laos in the late 1970s.


Slash and Burn
by Colin Cotterill
Published by Soho Crime
December 6th 2011
290 pages

I jumped way ahead to this, the eighth entry in this series, because it is the one recommended to me by cfk, for its humor, and insight, and it is the one that deals with the American not-at-war war.

Dr. Siri is now happily married and retired, done with murders and investigations, when he is recalled to service by his country. He is ordered to accompany Chinese, Russian and American investigators on a search for an American pilot who went down in Laos during the recently ended Vietnam War. An MIA in Laos, with whom we were never at war, provides Cotterill with a new target: the United States.

Like this exchange between Siri and Judge Haeng at the initial meeting with the Americans:

“What’s all this then?” Siri asked the judge.
“They’re back? Did they forget something?”
Siri was attempting to understand American culture by reading Henry James’s The American, translated into French. But either the translator lacked the ability to extract the precious ore from the dense seams in James’s prose, or James learned his craft writing radio scripts for Thai soap operas. Either way, Siri’s confidence was beginning to ebb. He doubted the book would help him understand Americans in the three weeks he had left to familiarize himself. He was thinking of switching to Melville.
Also involved in the search are the expected characters, a former military officer whose fondness for alcohol assures the group of a seemingly unlimited supply of Johnny Walker Red, the Senator, and father of the missing pilot, who only shows up for ceremonial photo ops, and his capable secretary/chief of staff. But Cotterill's characters are so interesting that one forgets their stereotypical origin. And he includes in the junket Siri's wife, known as Madam Deung, the delightful transgender fortuneteller, Auntie Bpoo, and an appealing translator named Peach. Also accompanying Siri on his mission are his regulars, Civilai, Dtui, Mr Gruen and Phosy, the police investigator, now married to Dtui.

The team sets off to Phonsavan to begin their work. The Hmong farmers slash and burn the undergrowth in the mountain fields, allowing the ash to fertilize the ground which would then provide three or four years of rich harvests. This slashing and burning of the local fields fills the mountain air with smoke, making flight in or out of Phonsavan impossible. But not before the Senator joins the expedition from his lodgings at the Bankok Oriental Hotel for what was to be a quick photo op. And that is when the deaths begin.

(Special bonus tip for those who have read or plan to read Slash and Burn: Note the photo of the Phou Kham Guest House in Phonsavan at the Mother Jones link above. Look familiar?)

For years I have avoided this series, set in Laos, because I did know of the "secret war" and was sure that any mystery occurring in its aftermath would simply be too depressing. I was wrong. Very wrong. Realizing that the series is written from a Western perspective, by a very well-traveled Brit living in Thailand, does not take away from the picture drawn of life under that Pathet Lao. The series reflects the ability of people to rebound from war and navigate their lives in spite of shortages, poverty and the ever present political reach of their government. The affection that Colin Cotterill has for the Laos is clear on every page that he writes.


As for that secret war and its aftermath, the website, Legacies of War provides a wealth of information about the bombing campaign and what is being done to clean up the remaining bombies, as they are known locally.

Eternal Harvest: The Legacy of American Bombs in Laos, by Jerry Redfern and Karen Coates, was released in December, 2013. The website for Eternal Harvest has photos, videos and more information.

Two years ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to Laos, the first Secretary of State to do so since John Foster Dulles in 1955. In her latest book, Hard Choices, she writes of the trip:

This is why I visited a project in Vientiane supported by USAID to provide prosthetics and rehabilitation for the thousands of adults and children still losing limbs from the cluster-bombs littered throughout a third of the country, only 1 percent of which had been found and deactivated. I thought the United States had an ongoing obligation and was encouraged that in 2012 Congress tripled funding to speed up the removal work.

Clinton, Hillary Rodham (2014-06-10). Hard Choices (Kindle Location 1127). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Foreign Assistance Levels by Fiscal Year
Laos - DOS and USAID

These figures are from the Foreign Assistance dot gov website and represent the federal spending of the State Department and USAID on Laos for the six years of the Obama Administration. There has been a great deal of growth under Secretary Clinton that looks to continue under Secretary Kerry. It is not enough, but it is a strong beginning. YEAR PEACE & SECURITY TOTAL
2010 $5.6M $10.9M
2011  $2.8M $7.2M
2012 $6.0M $7.6M
2013  $9.9M $11.3M
2014  $10.8M $13.0M
2015  $10.4M $14.7M
"Peace and Security:  To help nations effectively establish the conditions and capacity for achieving peace, security, and stability; and for responding effectively against arising threats to national or international security and stability"

The balance of the aid is divided between the categories of Democracy, Human Rights, & Governance, Health Education & Social Services, Economic Development, Environment, Humanitarian Assistance, and Program Management, with the bulk of the balance going to Economic Development.

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