Laotian family shares struggle for survival

by Patrick Hayes

In 1975, the Pathet Lao communist regime took over Laos, leaving Prince Soulivang Savang, then 12, and other members of the royal family in fear as the communists started rounding up Laotians by the thousands, packing them into concentration camps.
With the ever-rising human and civil rights violations, Savang and his brother knew they had to escape Laos at all costs. They left in 1981 and trekked across the land trying to keep their identities secret, sleeping in people’s homes along the way.
“I could not take a chance, for I was a member of the royal family, therefore my younger brother and I had to find a way to escape,” Savang, now 37, said in an emotional presentation Monday at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs with the other family members who escaped.
After many months they reached Paris and were greeted by other members of the royal family. They have lived in exile in the French capital ever since.
Savang, heir to the throne, outlined plans in the presentation to restore democracy to Laos, along with a brief history of the family. He also discussed the need for human and civil rights in Laos, specifically addressing the lack of religious and political freedom.
The Pathet Lao communist regime took over Laos in 1975, making arbitrary arrests and forcing thousands of officials, farmers and service workers into concentration camps, Savang said. Since the takeover, more than 100,000 people have died at the hands of the communist regime, said Anne Briseno, assistant to St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman.
The king, an advocate for peace, was also taken away, along with his wife and eldest son. They died in concentration camps with more than 10,000 other Laotians. In all, 50 members of the Laos royal family died.
The family is more than 1,000 years old and its roots can be traced back to Genghis Khan, a Mongolian war ruler in the early 1200s, said Randy Thompson, a family spokesman.
In 1947, Laos formed a constitutional monarchy where the family presided over the country but did not rule, instead playing only a unifying role.
The family has been touring the United States raising support from Congress to bring democracy to Laos. In the Twin Cities, the family met Thursday with St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman and with Gov. Jesse Ventura on Monday morning.
They thanked Ventura for his efforts to help Lao refugees and to provide education for Southeast Asians, Thompson said.
After the meeting, Coleman made a commitment to speak out for the family’s cause to other political leaders, said Briseno. He also signed a letter of support for the family.
“No form of government, under any circumstances, should deny its people the right to live in a society that is free from discrimination on the basis of race, religion and ethnography,” the letter said. “Every citizen in the world should have equal human and civil rights.”
They have also met with Lao and Hmong community leaders in St. Paul to preserve the cultural traditions of their heritage.
Additionally, the family conducted ceremonies in St. Paul to commemorate the deaths that occurred in concentration camps, Briseno said.
Now the task is to mobilize the support of politicians, Laotians and Hmongs, students and churches, Thompson said.
“It is not a question of if democracy will return; the question is when,” he said.
The family will be leaving the Twin Cities soon, returning to France to continue to encourage the United Nations to put pressure on the Laotian government.

Patrick Hayes covers administration and welcomes comments at [email protected]