Noting with alarm the renewed guerrilla activity in South Vietnam and Laos in the late 1950s, American intelligence analysts interpreted these reports as the first signs of Communist plans for the subversion and conquest of Southeast Asia. And so CIA operations with Meo guerrillas in Laos began in 1959 as a part of a regional intelligence gathering program. General Edward G. Lansdale, who directed much of the Defense Department's strategic planning on Indochina during the early years of the Kennedy administration, recalls that these hill tribe operations were set up to monitor Communist infiltration:
"The main thought was to have an early warning, trip-wire sort of thing with these tribes in the mountains getting intelligence on North Vietnamese movements. This would be a part of a defensive strategy of saving the riceproducing lowlands of Thailand and Vietnam by scaling off the mountain infiltration routes from China and North Vietnam." (73)
In the minds of geopolitical strategists in the CIA's Special Operations division, potential infiltration routes stretched from the Shan hills of northeastern Burma, through the rugged Laotian mountains, and southward into the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. According to one retired CIA operative, Lt. Col. Lucien Conein, Agency personnel were sent to Laos in 1959 to supervise eight Green Beret teams then training Meo guerrillas on the Plain of Jars. (74) In 1960 and 1961 the CIA recruited elements of Nationalist Chinese paramilitary units based in northern Thailand to patrol the ChinaBurma border area (75) and sent Green Berets into South Vietnam's Central Highlands to organize hill tribe commando units for intelligence and sabotage patrols along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. (76) Finally, in 1962 one CIA operative based in northwestern Laos began sending trained Yao and Lahu tribesmen into the heart of China's Yunnan Province to monitor road traffic and tap telephones. (77)
While the U.S. military sent half a million troops to fight a conventional war in South Vietnam, the mountain war has required only a handful of American personnel. "I always felt," said General Lansdale, "that a small group of Americans organizing the local population was the way to counter Communist wars of national liberation." (78)
American paramilitary personnel in Laos have tended to serve long tours of duty, some of them for a decade or more, and have been given an enormous amount of personal power. If the conventional war in South Vietnam is best analyzed in terms of the impersonal bureaucracies that spewed out policies and programs, the secret war in Laos is most readily understood through the men who fought it.
Three men, perhaps more than any of the others, have left their personal imprint on the conduct of the secret war: Edgar Buell, Anthony Poe, and William Young. And each in his own way illustrates a different aspect of America's conscious and unconscious complicity in the Laotian opium traffic.
William Young, perhaps one of the most effective agents ever, was born in the Burmese Shan States, where his grandfather had been a missionary to the hill tribes. Arriving in Burma at the turn of the century, Grandfather Young opened a Baptist mission in Kengtung City and began preaching to the nearby Lahu bill tribes. Although they understood little of his Christian message, a local oracle had once prophesied the coming of a white deity, and the Lahu decided that Reverend Young was God. (79) His son, Harold, later inherited his divinity and used it to organize Lahu intelligence gathering forays into southern China for the CIA during the 1950s. When William was looking for a job in 1958 his father recommended him to the CIA, and he was hired as a confidential interpreter-translator. A skilled linguist who spoke five of the local languages, he probably knew more about mountain minorities than any other American in Laos, and the CIA rightly regarded him as its "tribal expert." Because of his sophisticated understanding of the hill tribes, he viewed the opium problem from the perspective of a hill tribe farmer. Until a comprehensive crop substitution program was initiated, he felt nothing should be done to interfere with the opium traffic. In a September 1971 interview, Young explained his views:
"Every now and then one of the James Bond types would decide that the way to deal with the problem was to detonate or machine-gun the factories. But I always talked them out of it. As long as there is opium in Burma somebody will market it. This kind of thing would only hurt somebody and not really deal with the problem." (80)
If William Young was too sympathetic toward the hill tribes to interfere with the opium trade, Anthony Poe was indifferent to the problem. A marine in the Pacific during World War 11, Poe joined the CIA's Special Operations division sometime after the war and quickly earned a reputation as one of its crack clandestine warfare operatives in Asia. (81) Just prior to his arrival in Southeast Asia, he played an important role in the CIA's Tibetan operations. When the CIA decided to back Tibet's religious ruler, the Dalai Lama, in his feud with Peking, Anthony Poe recruited Khamba tribesmen in northeastern India, escorted them to Camp Hate in Colorado for training, and accompanied them into Tibet on long-range sabotage missions. (82) His first assignment in Indochina was with anti-Sihanouk mercenaries along the Cambodian border in South Vietnam, and in 1963 Poe was sent to Laos as chief adviser to Gen. Vang Pao. (83) Several years later he was transferred to northwestern Laos to supervise Secret Army operations in the three-border area and work with Yao tribesmen. The Yao remember "Mr. Tony" as a drinker, an authoritarian commander who bribed and threatened to get his way, and a mercurial leader who offered his soldiers 500 kip (one dollar) for an ear and 5,000 kip for a severed head when accompanied by a Pathet Lao army cap. (84) His attitude toward the opium traffic was erratic. According to a former Laos USAID official, Poe refused to allow opium on his aircraft and once threatened to throw a Lao soldier, with half a kilo of opium, out of an airborne plane. At the same time, he ignored the prospering heroin factories along the Mekong River, and never stopped any of Ouane Rattikone's officers from using U.S.-supplied facilities to manage the drug traffic.
The most curious of this CIA triumvirate is Edgar "Pop" Buell, originally a farmer from Steuben County, Indiana. Buell first came to Laos in 1960 as an agricultural volunteer for International Voluntary Services (IVS), a Bible Belt edition of the Peace Corps. (85) He was assigned to the Plain of Jars, where the CIA was building up its secret Meo army, and became involved in the Agency's activities largely through circumstance and his own God-given anti-Communism. As CIA influence spread through the Meo villages ringing the Plain of Jars, Buell became a one-man supply corps, dispatching Air America planes to drop rice, meat, and other necessities the CIA had promised to deliver."(86) Buell played the innocent country boy and claimed his work was humanitarian aid for Meo refugees. However, his operations were an integral part of the CIA program.
As part of his effort to strengthen the Meo economy and increase the tribe's effectiveness as a military force, Buell utilized his agricultural skills to improve Meo techniques for planting and cultivating opium. "If you're gonna grow it, grow it good," Buell told the Meo, "but don't let anybody smoke the stuff." Opium production increased but, thanks to modern drugs that Buell supplied the Meo, local consumption for medicinal purposes declined. (87) Thus, more opium than ever was available for the international markets.
Since there were too few U.S. operatives to assume complete responsibility for daily operations in the hills of Laos, the CIA usually selected one leader from every hill tribe as its surrogate commander. The CIA's chosen ally recruited his fellow tribesmen as mercenaries, paid their salaries with CIA money, and led them in battle. Because the CIA only had as much influence with each tribe as its surrogate commander, it was in the agency's interest to make these men local despots by concentrating military and economic power in their hands. During the First Indochina War, French commandos had used the same technique to build up a force of six thousand Meo guerrillas on the Plain of Jars under the command of Touby Lyfoung. Recognizing the importance of opium in the Meo economy, the French flew Meo opium to Saigon on military transports and reinforced Touby Lyfoung's authority by making him their exclusive opium broker.
But when the CIA began organizing its Meo army in 1960, only six years after the French disbanded theirs, it found Touby unsuitable for command. Always the consummate politician, Touby had gotten the best of the bargain from the French and had never committed his troops to a head-on fight. As one Meo veteran fondly remembers, "Touby always told us to fire a few shots and run." The CIA wanted a real slugger who would take casualties, and in a young Meo officer named Vang Pao they found him.
Touby had once remarked of Vang Pao, "He is a pure military officer who doesn't understand that after the war there is a peace. And one must be strong to win the peace." (88), For Vang Pao, peace is a distant, childhood memory. Vang Pao saw battle for the first time in 1945 at the age of thirteen, while working as an interpreter for French commandos who had parachuted onto the Plain of Jars to organize anti-Japanese resistance. (89) Although he became a lieutenant in the newly formed Laotian army, Vang Pao spent most of the First Indochina War on the Plain of Jars with Touby Lyfoung's Meo irregulars. In April 1954 he led 850 hill tribe commandos through the rugged mountains of Sam Neua Province in a vain attempt to relieve the doomed French garrison at Dien Bien Phu.
When the First Indochina War ended in 1954, Vang Pao returned to regular duty in the Laotian army. He advanced quickly to the rank of major and was appointed commander of the Tenth Infantry Battalion, which was assigned to the mountains east of the Plain of Jars. Vang Pao had a good enough record as a wartime commando leader; in his new command Vang Pao would first display the personal corruption that would later turn him into such a despotic warlord.
In addition to his regular battalion, Vang Pao was also commander of Meo self-defense forces in the Plain of Jars region. Volunteers had been promised regular allotments of food and money, but Vang Pao pocketed these salaries, and most went unpaid for months at a time. When one Meo lieutenant demanded that the irregulars be given their back pay, Vang Pao shot him in the leg. That settled the matter for the moment, but several months later the rising chorus of complaints finally came to the attention of Provincial Army Commander Col. Kham Hou Boussarath. In early 1959, Colonel Kham Hou called Vang Pao to his headquarters in Meng Khouang, and ordered him to pay up. Several days later thirty of Vang Pao's soldiers hidden in the brush beside the road tried to assassinate Colonel Kham Hou as he was driving back from an inspection tour of the frontier areas and was approaching the village of Lat Houang. But it was twilight and most of the shots went wild. Kham Hou floored the accelerator and emerged from the gantlet unscathed.
As soon as he reached his headquarters, Colonel Kham Hou radioed a full report to Vientiane. The next morning Army Chief of Staff Ouane Rattikone arrived in Meng Khouang. Weeping profusely, Vang Pao prostrated himself before Ouane and begged for forgiveness. Perhaps touched by this display of emotion or else influenced by the wishes of U.S. special forces officers working with the Meo, General Ouane decided not to punish Vang Pao. However, most of the Laotian high command seemed to feel that his career was now finished. (90)
But Vang Pao was to be rescued from obscurity by unforeseen circumstances that made his services invaluable to the Laotian right wing and the CIA.
About the same time that Vang Pao was setting up his abortive ambush, Gen. Phoumi Nosavan was beginning his rise to power. In the April 1959 National Assembly elections, Phoumi's candidates scored victory after victory, thus establishing him as Laos's first real strong man. However, the election was blatantly rigged, and aroused enormous resentment among politically aware elements of the population. The American involvement in election fixing was obvious, and there were even reports that CIA agents had financed some of the vote buying. (91)
Angered by these heavy-handed American moves, an unknown army officer, Capt. Kong Le, and his paratroop battalion launched an unexpected and successful coup on August 8, 1960. After securing Vientiane and forcing Phourni's supporters out of power, Kong Le turned the government over to the former neutralist prime minister, Souvanna Phouma, on August 16. Souvanna announced that he would end the simmering civil war by forming a neutralist government that would include representatives from left, right, and center. The plan was on the verge of success when General Phoumi suddenly broke off negotiations in early September and returned to his home in Savarmakhet, where he announced the formation of the Revolutionary Committee. (92) Perhaps not altogether unexpectedly, dozens of unmarked Air America transports began landing at Savarmakhet loaded with arms, soldiers, and American advisers (93) and Laos was plunged into a threeway civil war. The CIAbacked right wing was in Savarmakhet, the neutralists were in Vientiane, and the leftist Pathet Lao was in the forests of Sam Neua Province (the extreme northeast). Everything in between was virtually autonomous, and all three factions competed for territory and influence in the undeclared provinces.
While the right-wingers quickly consolidated their hold over the south, the neutralists initially gained the upper hand in Xieng Khouang Province, which included the Plain of Jars. This success strengthened the neutralist position considerably; with three major roads meeting on the plain, Xieng Khouang was the strategic key to northeastern Laos. The influential Meo leader Touby Lyfoung was minister of justice for the neutralist government, and seemed to be working closely with Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma. (94) The neutralist position in the northeast further improved when the newly appointed commander of Military Region 11 (Sam Neua and Xieng Khouang provinces), Col. Kham Hou, declared his loyalty to the neutralist government on September 28. (95)
General Phourni's camp was extremely worried about its lack of support in strategic MR 11. After Col. Kham Hou rebuffed their overtures, Phourni's agents reportedly contacted Vang Pao in late September. They promised him financial support if he would lead a Meo coup against the neutralists, thus bringing MR It into the rightist orbit. According to Laotian army sources, Vang Pao radioed Savarmakhet on October 1 or 2, requesting money and arms from General Phourni. On October 5, an unmarked Air America transport from Savannakhet dropped thirty rightist paratroopers and several hundred rifles to Vang Pao's supporters on the Plain of Jars. Later that day Vang Pao called a meeting of local Meo leaders at the village of Lat Houang. Surrounded by the paratroopers, Vang Pao told a crowd of about three hundred to four hundred Meo that he supported General Phourni and promised guns for all those who joined him in the fight against the neutralists. (96)
When word of the incipient Meo revolt reached Vientiane, Prime Minister Souvanna Phourna sent his minister of justice, Meo leader Touby Lyfoung, up to the Plain of Jars to negotiate with Vang Pao. Instead of dissuading Vang Pao, however, Touby diplomatically bowed to superior force and joined him. Using his considerable talents as a negotiator, Touby met with Col. Kham Hou and urged him not to interfere with the Meo revolt. Unwilling to engage in unnecessary slaughter and somewhat sympathetic to the right wing, Col. Kham Hou agreed not to fight, (97) thus effectively conceding control of the Plain of Jars to the right wing.
Confused by the murky situation, Souvanna Phourna dispatched another emissary, General Amkha, the inspector general of the neutralist army, on October 7. But the moment General Amkha stepped off the plane, Vang Pao arrested him at gunpoint and had him flown to Savannakhet, aboard an unidentified transport, where he remained in prison for almost three years on General Phourni's orders. That same day Touby was "invited" to Savarmakhet and left on a later flight. When Col. Kham Hou resigned from command shortly thereafter, General Phoumi rewarded Vang Pao by appointing him commander of Xieng Khouang Province. (98)
In late November General Phourni's army began its drive for Vientiane, Laos's administrative capital. Advancing steadily up the Mekong River valley, rightist forces reached the outskirts of the city on December 14 and evicted Capt. Kong Le's paratroopers after three days of destructive street fighting. While Kong Le's Paratroopers beat a disciplined retreat up Route 13 toward the royal capital of Luang Prabang, General Phoumi was a bit lax in pursuit, convinced that Kong Le would eventually be crushed by the rightist garrisons guarding the royal capital.
About a hundred miles north of Vientiane there is a fork in the road: Route 13 continues its zigzag course northward to Luang Prabang, while Route 7 branches off in an easterly direction toward the Plain of Jars. Rather than advancing on Luang Prabang as expected, Kong Le entered the CIA-controlled Plain of Jars on December 31, 1960. While his troops captured Muong Soui and attacked the airfield at Phong Savan, Pathet Lao guerrillas launched coordinated diversionary attacks along the plain's northeastern rim. Rightist defenses crumbled, and Phourni's troops threw away their guns and ran. (99) As mortar fire came crashing in at the end of the runway, the last Air America C-47 took off from the Plain of Jars with Edgar Buell and a contingent of U.S. military advisers. (100)
Lt. Col. Vang Pao was one of the few commanders who did not panic at the Kong Le and Pathet Lao coordinated offensive. While Phourni's regular army troops ran for the Mekong, Vang Pao led several thousand Meo soldiers and refugees out of the plain on an orderly march to Padoung, a four-thousand-foot mountain, twelve miles due south. Vang Pao was appointed commander of Military Region II and established his headquarters at Padoung. (101)
With General Phourni once more in control of Vientiane and a joint Pathet Laoneutralist force occupying the strategic Plain of Jars, the center of CIA activity shifted from Savannakhet to Padoung. In January 1961 the CIA began sending Green Berets, CIA-financed Thai police commandos, and a handful of its own agents into MR 11 to build up an effective Meo guerrilla army under Vang Pao. William Young was one of the CIA operatives sent to Padoung in January, and because of his linguistic skills, he played a key role in the formation of the Secret Army. As he recollected ten years later, the basic CIA strategy was to keep the Pathet Lao bottled up on the plain by recruiting all of the eligible young Meo in the surrounding mountains as commandos.
To build up his army, Vang Pao's officers and the CIA operatives, including William Young, flew to scattered Meo villages in helicopters and light Heliocourier aircraft. Offering guns, rice, and money in exchange for recruits, they leapfrogged from village to village around the western and northern perimeter of the Plain of Jars. Under their supervision, dozens of crude landing strips for Air America were hacked out of the mountain forests, thus linking these scattered villages with CIA headquarters at Padoung. Within a few months Vang Pao's influence extended from Padoung north to Phou Fa and east as far as Bouam Long. (102) However, one local Meo leader in the Long Pot region west of the Plain of Jars says that the Meo recruiting officers who visited his village used threats as well as inducements to win a declaration of loyalty. "Vang Pao sent us guns," he recalled. "If we did not accept his guns he would call us Pathet Lao. We had no choice. Vang Pao's officers came to the village and warned that if we did not join him he would regard us as Pathet Lao and his soldiers would attack our village." (103)
Meo guerrilla operations on the plain itself had begun almost immediately; Meo sappers blew up bridges and supply dumps while snipers shot at neutralist and Pathet Lao soldiers. After four months of this kind of harassment, Capt. Kong Le decided to retaliate. (104) In early May 1961, Pathet Lao and neutralist troops assaulted the northern flank of Padoung mountain and began shelling the CIA base camp. After enduring an intense enemy mortar barrage for over two weeks, the CIA decided to abandon the base, and Vang Pao led his troops to a new headquarters at Pha Kbao, eight miles to the southwest. (105) Following close behind came Edgar Buell, leading some nine thousand Meo civilians. While Vang Pao's hardy troops made the transfer without incident, hundreds of civilians, mainly children and elderly, died in a forced march through the jungle. (106)
The only official report we have on Meo operations was written by Gen. Edward G. Lansdale of the CIA in July 1961 for foreign policy officials in the Kennedy administration. In it he discusses the Agency's clandestine warfare potential in Indochina. "Command control of Meo operations is exercised by the Chief CIA Vientiane with the advice of Chief MAAG Laos [U.S. army advisers]," reported Lansdale. Although there were only nine CIA operations officers and nine Green Berets in the field, "CIA control in the Meo operations has been reported as excellent." In addition, there were ninety-nine Thai police commandos working with the Meo under CIA control. So far nine thousand Meo had been "equipped for guerrilla operations," but Lansdale felt that at least four thousand more of these "splendid fighting men" could be recruited. However, there was one major problem:
"As Meo villages are over-run by Communist forces and as men leave foodraising duties to serve as guerillas, a problem is growing over the care and feeding of non-combat Meos. CIA has given some rice and clothing to relieve this problem. Consideration needs to be given to organized relief, a mission of an ICA ["humanitarian" foreign aid] nature, to the handling of Meo refugees and their rehabilitation." (107)
To solve this critical problem, the CIA turned to Edgar Buell, who set out on a fifty-eight-day trek around the perimeter of the plain to arrange for delivery of "refugee" supplies. (108)
In July 1962 the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Geneva Agreements on Laos, and thus theoretically terminated their military operations in that chaotic kingdom. Although American Green Berets and military advisers were withdrawn by October as specified, the CIA devised a number of clever deceptions to continue its clandestine activities. All of the CIA operatives moved to adjacent areas of Thailand, but returned almost every day by helicopter or plane to direct guerrilla operations. Civilian personnel (not covered by the Geneva Agreements) were recruited for clandestine work. In December 1962, for example, Buell trained Meo guerrillas in demolition techniques and directed the dynamiting of six bridges and twelve mountain passes along Route 7 near Ban Ban. (109) The U.S. Embassy declared that Air America flights to Meo villages, which carried munitions as well as refugee supplies, were "humanitarian" aid and as such were exempted from the Geneva Agreements. (110)
After a relatively quiet year in 1962, the CIA went on the offensive throughout northern Laos in 1963-1964. In the northwest, William Young, assisted by IVS volunteer Joseph Flipse, led Yao commandos in an attack on Pathet Lao villages east of Ban Houei Sai. One American who took part in the offensive recalls that Pathet Lao troops had been inactive since the Geneva Agreements were signed and feels that the CIA offensive shattered the cease-fire in the northwest. In the northeast the CIA took the war to the enemy by expanding Meo commando operations into Sam Neua Province, a Pathet Lao stronghold for nearly fifteen years. (111)
Anthony Poe became the new CIA man at Long Tieng, Vang Pao's headquarters since mid 1962, and organized the offensive into Sam Neua Province. Rather than attacking towns and villages in the valleys where the Pathet Lao were well entrenched, the CIA concentrated on the mountain ridges populated by Meo tribesmen. Using Air America's fleet of helicopters and light aircraft, Anthony Poe led hundreds of Meo guerrillas in a lightning advance that leaped from mountain to mountain into the heart of Sam Neua Province. As soon as a village was captured and Pathet Lao cadres eliminated, the inhabitants were put to work building a crude landing strip, usually five hundred to eight hundred feet long, to receive the airplanes that followed in the conqueror's wake carrying Edgar Buell's "refugee" supplies. These goods were distributed in an attempt to buy the hearts and minds of the Meo.
Within a matter of months a fifty-mile-long strip of territory-stretching from the northeastern rim of the Plain of Jars to Phou Pha Thi mountain, only fifteen miles from the North Vietnamese border-had been added to Vang Pao's domain. Over twenty new aircraft landing strips dotted the conquered corridor, linking Meo villages with CIA headquarters at Long Tieng. Most of these Meo villages were perched on steep mountain ridges overlooking valleys and towns controlled by the Pathet Lao. The Air America landing strip at Hong Non, for example, was only twelve miles from the limestone caverns near Sam Neua City where the Pathet Lao later housed their national headquarters, a munitions factory, and a cadre training school. (112)
As might be expected, the fighting on the Plain of Jars and the opening of these landing strips produced changes in northeastern Laos's opium traffic. For over sixty years the Plain of Jars had been the hub of the opium trade in northeastern Laos. When Kong Le captured the plain in December 1960, the Corsican charter airlines abandoned Phong Savan Airport for Vientiane's Wattay Airport. The old Corsican hangout at Phong Savan, the Snow Leopard Inn, was renamed "Friendship Hotel." It became headquarters for a dozen Russian technicians sent to service the aging Ilyushin transports ferrying supplies from Hanoi for the neutralists and Pathet Lao. (113)
No longer able to land on the Plain of Jars, the Corsican airlines began using Air America's mountain landing strips to pick up raw opium. (114) As Vang Pao circled around the Plain of Jars and advanced into Sam Neua Province, leaving a trail of landing strips behind him, the Corsicans were right behind in their Beechcrafts and Cessnas, paying Meo farmers and Chinese traders a top price for raw opium. Since Kong Le did not interfere with commercial activity on the plain, the Chinese caravans were still able to make their annual journey into areas controlled by Vang Pao. Now, instead of delivering their opium to trading centers on the plain, most traders brought it to Air America landing strips serviced by the Corsican charter airlines. (115) Chinese caravans continued to use the Plain of Jars as a base until mid 1964, when the Pathet Lao drove Kong Le off the plain and forced them into retirement.
When the Laotian government in the person of Ouane Rattikone jealously forced the Corsicans out of business in 1965, a serious economic crisis loomed in the Meo highlands. The war had in no way reduced Meo dependence on opium as a cash crop, and may have actually increased production. Although thousands of Meo men recruited for commando operations were forced to leave home for months at a time, the impact of this loss of manpower on opium production was minimal. Opium farming is women's work. While men clear the fields by slashing and burning the forest, the tedious work of weeding and harvesting is traditionally the responsibility of wives and daughters. Since most poppy fields last up to five or ten years, periodic absences of the men had little impact on poppy production. Furthermore, the CIA's regular rice drops removed any incentive to grow rice, and freed their considerable energies for full-time poppy cultivation. To make defense of the civilian population easier, many smaller refugee villages had been evacuated, and their populations concentrated in large refugee centers. Good agricultural land was at a premium in these areas, and most of the farmers devoted their labors to opium production simply because it required much less land than rice or other food crops. (116)
Meo villages on the southern and western edges of the plain were little affected by the transportation problem caused by the end of the Corsican flights. Following the demise of the Chinese merchant caravans in mid 1964, Vang Pao's commandos dispatched Meo military caravans from Long Tieng into these areas to buy up the opium harvest. Since there were daily flights from both Sam Thong and Long Tieng to Vientiane, it was relatively easy to get the opium to market. However, the distances and security problems involved in sending caravans into the northern perimeter of the plain and in the Sam Neua area were insuperable, and air transport became an absolute necessity. With the Corsicans gone, Air America was the only form of air transport available. (117) And according to Gen. Ouane Rattikone, then commander in chief of the Laotian army, and Gen. Thao Ma, then Laotian air force commander, Air America began flying Meo opium to markets in Long Tieng and Vientiane. (118)
Air logistics for the opium trade were further improved in 1967 when the CIA and USAID (United States Agency for International Development) gave Vang Pao financial assistance in forming his own private airline, Xieng Khouang Air Transport. The company's president, Mr. Lo Kham Thy, says the airline was formed in late 1967 when two C-47s were acquired from Air America and Continental Air Services. The company's schedule is limited to shuttle flights between Long Tieng and Vientiane that carry relief supplies and an occasional handful of passengers. Financial control is shared by Vang Pao, his brother, his cousin, and his father-in-law. (119) According to one former USAID employee, USAID supported the project because officials hoped it would make Long Tieng the commercial center of the northeast and thereby reinforce Vang Pao's political position. The USAID officials involved apparently realized that any commercial activity at Long Tieng would involve opium, but decided to support the project anyway. (120) Reliable Meo sources report that Xieng Khouang Air Transport is the airline used to carry opium and heroin between Long Tieng and Vientiane. (121)
Despite repeated dry season offensives by the Pathet Lao, the CIA's military position in the northeast remained strong, and Vang Pao's army consolidated and expanded upon gains it had made during the early years of the war. However, in January 1968 Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese forces mounted a general offensive that swept Vang Pao's mercenaries out of Sam Neua Province. The key to the Pathet Lao victory was the capture of the CIA's eagle-nest bastion, Phou Pha Thi, on March 11. The U.S. air force had built a radar guidance center on top of this 5,680-foot mountain in 1966 "to provide more accurate guidance for all-weather bombing operations" over North Vietnam. (122) Only seventeen miles from the North Vietnamese border, Pha Thi had become the eyes and ears of the U.S. bombing campaign over Hanoi and the Red River Delta. (123) (Interestingly, President Johnson announced a partial bombing halt over North Vietnam less than three weeks after the radar installation at Pha Thi was destroyed.) Vang Pao attempted to recapture the strategic base late in 1968, but after suffering heavy losses he abandoned it to the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao in January 1969. (124)
The loss of Sam Neua in 1968 signaled the first of the massive Meo migrations that eventually made much of northeastern Laos a depopulated free fire zone and drastically reduced hill tribe opium production. Before the CIA-initiated Meo guerrilla operations in 1960, MR 11 had a hill tribe population of about 250,000, most of them Meo opium farmers evenly scattered across the rugged highlands between the Vientiane Plain and the North Vietnamese border. (125) The steady expansion of Vang Pao's influence from 1961 to 1967 caused some local concentration of population as small Meo villages clustered together for selfdefense. However, Meo farmers were still within walking distance of their poppy fields, and opium production continued undiminished.
When Vang Pao began to lose control of Sam Neua in early 1968, the CIA decided to deny the population to the Pathet Lao by evacuating all the Meo tribesmen under his control. By 1967 U.S. air force bombing in northeastern Laos was already heavy, and Meo tribesmen were willing to leave their villages rather than face the daily horror of life under the bombs. Recalling Mao Tse-tung's axiom on guerrilla warfare, Edgar Buell declared, "If the people are the sea, then let's hurry the tide south. (126) Air America evacuated over nine thousand people from Sam Neua in less than two weeks. They were flown to Buell's headquarters at Sam Thong, five miles north of Long Tieng, housed temporarily, and then flown to refugee villages in an adjacent area west of the Plain of Jars. (127)
During the next three years repeated Pathet Lao winter-spring offensives continued to drive Vang Pao's Meo army further and further back, forcing tens of thousands of Meo villagers to become refugees. As the Pathet Lao's 1970 offensive gained momentum, the Meo living north and west of the plain fled south, and eventually more than 100,000 were relocated in a crescent-shaped forty-mile-wide strip of territory between Long Tieng and the Vientiane Plain. When the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese attacked Long Tieng during the 1971 dry season, the CIA was forced to evacuate some fifty thousand mercenary dependents from Long Tieng valley into the overcrowded Ban Son resettlement area south of Long Tieng. By mid 1971 USAID estimated that almost 150,000 hill tribe refugees, of which 60 percent were Meo, had been resettled in the Ban Son area. (128)
After three years of constant retreat, Vang Pao's Meo followers are at the end of the line. Once a prosperous people living in small villages surrounded by miles of fertile, uninhabited mountains, now almost a third of all the Meo in Laos, over ninety thousand of them, are now packed into a forty-mile-long dead end perched above the sweltering Vientiane Plain. The Meo are used to living on mountain ridges more than three thousand feet in elevation where the temperate climate is conducive to poppy cultivation, the air is free of malarial mosquitoes, and the water is pure. In the refugee villages, most of which are only twenty-five hundred feet in elevation, many Meo have been stricken with malaria, and lacking normal immunities, have become seriously ill. The low elevation and crowded conditions make opium cultivation almost impossible, and the Meo are totally dependent on Air America's rice drops. If the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao capture Long Tieng and advance on Vientiane, the Meo will probably be forced down onto the Vientiane Plain, where their extreme vulnerability to tropical disease might result in a major medical disaster.
The Ban Son resettlement area serves as a buffer zone, blocking any Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese enemy advance on Vientiane. If they choose to move on Vientiane they will have no choice but to fight their way through the resettlement area. Meo leaders are well aware of this, and have pleaded with USAID to either begin resettling the Meo on the Vientiane Plain on a gradual, controlled basis or shift the resettlement area to the east or west, out of the probable line of an enemy advance. (129)
Knowing that the Meo fight better when their families are threatened, USAID has refused to accept either alternative and seems intent on keeping them in the present area for a final, bloody stand against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao. Most of the Meo have no desire to continue fighting for Gen. Vang Pao. They bitterly resent his more flamboyant execsses-person ally executing his own soldiers, massive grafting from the military payroll, and his willingness to take excessive casualties -and regard him as a corrupt warlord who has grown rich on their suffering. (130) But since USAID decides where the rice is dropped, the Meo have no choice but to stand and fight.
Meo losses have already been enormous. The sudden, mass migrations forced by enemy offensives have frequently exceeded Air America's logistic capacity. Instead of being flown out, many Meo have had to endure long forced marches, which produce 10 percent fatalities under the best of conditions and 30 percent or more if the fleeing refugees become lost in the mountain forests. Most of the mercenary dependents have moved at least five times and some villages originally from Sam Neua Province have moved fifteen or sixteen times since 1968. (131) Vang Pao's military casualties have been just as serious: with only thirty thousand to forty thousand men under arms, his army suffered 3,272 men killed and 5,426 wounded from 1967 to 1971. Meo casualties have been so heavy that Vang Pao was forced to turn to other tribes for recruits, and by April 1971 Lao Theung, the second largest hill tribe in northern Laos, comprised 40 percent of his troops. (132) Many of the remaining Meo recruits are boy soldiers. In 1968 Edgar Buell told a New Yorker correspondent that:
"A short time ago we rounded up three hundred fresh recruits. Thirty per cent were fourteen years old or less, and ten of them were only ten years old. Another 30 per cent were fifteen or sixteen. The remaining 40 per cent were forty-five or over. Where were the ones in between? I'll tell you-they're all dead." (133)
Despite the drop in Meo opium production after 1968, General Vang Pao was able to continue his role in Laos's narcotics trade by opening a heroin laboratory at Long Tieng. According to reliable Laotian sources, his laboratory began operations in 1970.When a foreign Chinese master chemist arrived at Long Tieng to supervise production. It has been so profitable that in mid 1971 Chinese merchants in Vientiane reported that Vang Pao's agents were buying opium in Vientiane and flying it to Long Tieng for processing.(134)
Although American officials in Laos vigorously deny that either Vang Pao or Air America are in any way involved, overwhelming evidence to the contrary challenges these pious assertions. Perhaps the best way of understanding the importance of their role is to examine the dynamics of the opium trade in a single opium-growing district.