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Two Tales from Laos: Iron Age Battlefields & Demons In The Night
The Plain of Jars, Hmong guerillas & Sudden Unexplained Death Syndrome
The story I want to tell is something of a rambling tale, one that connects the Taiping Rebellion with Freddy Kruger, an anti-communist jungle war with an ancient archaeological mystery. There’s no great moral at the end, just a loose gander around Laotian history. If there is a main character it is the Hmong people, if there is a main event it’s the American military campaign of the 60’s-70’s. The region around northern Vietnam, Laos and southwest China is still somewhat mysterious today, part of that rugged, ‘lawless’ region dubbed ‘Zomia’ by historian Willem von Schendel in 2002. Geographically and politically marginal, home to a mosaic of ethnic and tribal cultures, the uplands of the Indochina are still full of archaeological unknowns and turbulent, colourful histories. This meandering essay is the result of my own attempts to grapple with the formidable range of languages and peoples, especially in Laos, and also covers one of my favourite subjects - that interplay between society and biology we call a ‘culture syndrome’. I explored one of these in an earlier essay looking at the ‘berserker’ phenomenon around the world, and here we’ll look at another, the so-called ‘nocturnal death’ syndrome of the Hmong diaspora. We start our story in 1865.
Flags & Rebels, Wars & Rebellions
The Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864) was one of the largest and most devastating wars in human history. A colossal civil conflict fought between the Qing Dynasty and the Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, possibly resulting in over 20 million deaths. One outcome from the war was a multitude of small warbands based in the south known as ‘Flag Gangs’, often made up of ethnic Zhuang, who fled across the border into the Tonkin region in 1865. One of these, the Black Flag Army, became a major military force in the area, attacking local populations, plundering temples and harassing traders - including the Muslim ‘Haws’ and European vessels sailing on the Red River. The confusions between these incoming bandits and the legitimate Haw traders led to them all being collectively known as Haws. One reason for their lengthy campaigns was the backing of the Vietnamese of the Black Flags against the White Flag army, who had created a state of anarchy in Tonkin and defeated Vietnamese military attempts to bring them to heel. Hiring the Black Flags against the White succeeded for a time, but the door opened for the next wave of attacks from China, and in 1868 the Yellow Flag army crossed the border and brought the kingdom close to collapse.
With the French now eyeing opportunities to force open the river deltas and coastline to trade and influence, the Siamese under King Chulalongkorn also started sending troops north to quell the Flag Gang insurgency. The second of these expeditions was accompanied by a British surveyor James McCarthy. McCarthy had been sent from the Raj to the Siamese court to be the Superintendent of Surveys, and his legacy in the history of Thailand is formidable. His documentation of the 1884-1885 expedition was thorough and rigorous, ranging across the military and political disputes, nuances of geography and history, and he was the first to make the formal distinction between the peaceful Haw traders and the insurgents:
Who and what were these Haw that brought so much misery on large tracts of country, and established such a name for cruelty as to terrorize a whole population? They were, in a word, Chinese brigands. At one time, Chinese traders, known in Luang Prabang as Haw, came down from the north in great numbers to traffic with the inhabitants, and when the peaceful traders gave place to brigands of the same nationality, the name of Haw was naturally transferred to these. Since the appearance of these marauders, communications and trade had ceased, and the whole district had been thrown into confusion. (McCarthy 1900: 44)
McCarthy personally trained seven Siamese officers in the art of surveying, for he was acutely aware that, for Europeans, the entire northern frontier was a blank, and must contain many curiosities. The area that McCarthy focused on was the Luang Prabang mountain range and the Xiang Khouang Plateau - a paradise of limestone, rivers, caves, cliffs, waterfalls and crags, today located in north Laos. To properly map the Mekong River, one must explore the Nam Ngum tributary, which starts in these rugged hills. McCarthy and his team made their way onto the plateau, and there found the most curious expanse of artefacts:
As we approached our supposed rocks, we were astonished to find that they were gigantic stone jars; some were erect, some were on their sides, others broken. They were of the ordinary shape of water-jars. One that I measured along the broadest girth was 25 feet [7.6 m], the diameter of the mouth being 4½ feet [1.4 m], and it was six feet high [1.83 m]. Some of the people with me, who formerly lived in this beautiful country, say they were made by angels to drink liquors from (McCarthy 1888:126)
This was the first European documentation of the truly enigmatic phenomena known as The Plain of Jars. McCarthy was however, not the only European surveyer and explorer in the area. The French had also seen the chaos in Tonkin as an opportunity to extend their reach into the various river systems, and had selected the royal town of Luang Prabang as the best base for their operations. Luang Prabang had become an independent monarchy in 1707, but had become something of a vassal state to the different regional powers, including Siam. The 1860’s had seen a flurry of French mapping activity, focused on the Mekong. The French officer Francis Garnier saw Luang Prabang’s weakness as the perfect point of intervention, looking to place the kingdom under suzerainty to protect it from Siam. The Haw invasions from 1865 onwards closed off easy access, but in the 1880’s the new Consul-General in Bangkok - Dr Jules Harmand - appointed French naval surgeon Dr Paul Neis to travel back to Luang Prabang to offer French support. Neis, like McCarthy, documented his adventures, and included a striking anecdote of meeting a Xiang Khouang villager who had been disfigured by a marauding Haw bandit. The man had lost most of his lower face to a revolver, but the royal silversmith had fashioned a rudimentary silver jaw, which allowed him to continue smoking cigarettes.
The French succeeded in establishing a consulate in Luang Prabang, much to the annoyance of the Siamese. They wasted no time in appointing August Pavie and Pierre Cupet to start mapping and surveying northern Laos, focusing on overland and waterway routes that could link this isolated region with the coastline and wider French trade. The two also found the countryside devastated by the Haw wars, but also came across a field of stone jars.
Ultimately these tensions over the territory sparked a short-lived war between Siam and France, which resulted in Siam ceding Laos to France. French Indochina had expanded, and the Plain of Jars was now on the map.
The Plain of Jars
What exactly is the Plain of Jars I hear you ask? To date there are over 100 sites, found in Xiang Khouang and Luang Prabang, which collectively hold over 2,100 large stone jars or containers. Alongside these are around 200 stone disks. The jars are made from granite, sandstone, limestone and other rocks, between 1 and 3 metres tall, usually larger at the base and sometimes with a stone lid. Most jars are undecorated, but some have depictions of frogs, monkeys and tigers. The stone disks are burial markers, and the contents of the jars have included burnt bone, teeth, jewellery, pottery and metal objects. Of course what makes these so enigmatic is their mysterious origins and their function - what were they used for?
Local legend links them to a race of giants, who brewed alcohol in the jars. Viewed as something of a curiosity, the farmers of the region largely ignored them, and the Haws vandalised them. Serious scholarly work began with the colonial French government, who started documenting the archaeological and architectural legacies of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. In 1903 the first colonial administrator of the city of Vientiane, Pierre Morin, created the first map of the jars, but the real breakthrough came with French archaeologist Madeleine Colani, who arrived in Vietnam in 1899. Her extensive fieldwork and excavation in and around the jars resulted in the authoritative 1930 work The Megaliths of Upper Laos. She concluded that the jars were the product of the Laotian Iron Age and that they were linked to a nearby cave crematorium, whereby certain bodies were cremated and placed into the jars.
Work on the jars did not continue until the 1990’s. What happened in-between is central to any future investigations of the site, but first we need to take a detour and talk about the Hmong.
Who are the Hmong?
Chinese history often chronicles their interactions with ‘barbarian’ peoples. In their own parlance they split these into two categories - ‘raw’ and ‘cooked’ (sheng and shu). Late Imperial China struggled to pacify and control in particular five internal frontiers: Hainan, Yunnan, Sichuan, Taiwan and Hunan. One of the collective terms for these barbarians in Yunnan was the ‘Miao’, which applied broadly to non-Han peoples. Sinicized Miao, or ‘cooked’ Miao, were differentiated from the ‘raw’, who often lived in mountainous and marginal areas. One of these Hmong-Mien speaking peoples are known to us today as the Hmong, a label which, according to scholar Yang Dao, means ‘free men’.
The Taiping Rebellion saw a massive exodus of people across the barely definable Chinese border into Tonkin, many of which formed and joined the different Flag groups as we saw. The Miao-Hmong may have been migrating as early as 1750, but certainly by the 1860’s we have some documentary evidence for their settlement on the Xiang Khouang plateau.
The first concrete western record of a Hmong presence in the Indochinese Peninsula dates from 1860, when several thousand Hei Miao (or Black Miao, perhaps Hmu) 'soldiers' were seen entering North Vietnam from Yunnan. Some Annamites had memories of and told Bonifacy (1904) about violent clashes with early settlers in the upper Clear River valley. In Laos, inhabitants of Xiang Kouang province witnessed Chinese Muslims - belonging to the Black, Yellow, White and Red Flag armies - fighting their way through the mountain ranges in flight from Imperial Chinese troops in the north. These rebels were accompanied by (although not necessarily on friendly terms with) members of a number of different mountain tribes, including scores of Hmong. Of the latter, many chose to settle in this fertile area
- A Contribution to the Study of Hmong (Miao) Migrations and History. Culas & Micraud 1997
In keeping with their independent ethos, the Hmong found the plateau to be a perfect location to keep themselves free and unconcerned with the wider world, preferring slash-and-burn agriculture and raising animals to rice farming in the valleys. What they could not have anticipated though, was that Xiang Khouang would soon become one of south east Asia’s most valuable strategic locations, and when the titanic forces of national independence and then communism began to rumble through Indochina, the Hmong would find themselves picking sides and casting their lot with fate.
Pathet Lao, Secret Armies and Bombs
Trying to condense the complex history of rebellions, uprisings, wars and politics in Laos and Vietnam between 1865 and 1965 would be an exercise in futility, but nevertheless - Vietnam was a French protectorate until the Japanese invasion of WW2, which ultimately led to the August Revolution by Hồ Chí Minh’s Việt Minh coalition, and the formation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) in 1945. Laos similarly saw a communist organisation, the Pathet Lao, form during the 1940’s. The Pathet Lao joined the Việt Minh in attacking the French during the first Indochina War, and while the French handed power to the Kingdom of Laos in 1953, the conflict escalated into a civil war between royalists and communists. North Vietnam invaded Laos to establish the Ho Chi Minh Trail, funneling troops and supplies to the southern Vietnam theatre.
The 1953 invasion of Laos by North Vietnamese forces was aimed at capturing both Luang Prabang and the Plain of Jars, a pair of vital assets in putting pressure on the Laotian royalists. Over the next 20 years the Plain would see dozens of major and minor battles between the US-Laotian military and the various communist groups operating deep in the mountains. But the agonies of the Plain did not begin in earnest until the bombing campaigns. The United States had taken its usual position of not wanting to see either communists or European colonial powers rule Indochina, and had intervened to maintain Laos’ neutrality. With the aggression from North Vietnam and the Soviets lurking in the background, the US opted to use airpower to help the royalist forces, specifically targeting the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Plain of Jars. The exact figures for the amount of munitions dropped onto the Plain varies, but they are staggering. Robert Lawless writes:
The bombs the U.S.A. dropped on the Plain of Jars in Laos- a country somewhat smaller than the state of Wyoming-between 1968 and 1972 exceeded the tonnage of all the bombs dropped by the U.S.A. in World War II.
The scale of the contamination is mind-boggling. Laos was hit by an average of one B-52 bomb-load every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, between 1964 and 1973. US bombers dropped more ordnance on Laos in this period than was dropped during the whole of the second world war. Of the 260m "bombies" that rained down, particularly on Xieng Khouang province, 80m failed to explode, leaving a deadly legacy.
In descriptions of the ‘Secret War’ in Laos, it is regularly described as ‘the most bombed country on earth’, and a significant portion of those bombs landed on the Plain. We’ll come back to the legacy of unexploded ordnance at the end, but we can see from the scope of the campaign that the Plain was valued as a hugely important arena in the conflict.
So what of the Hmong and others who lived on the Plain? Prior to the war many Hmong had been pro-French, since the colonial power had treated them relatively equally and many Hmong had outwardly converted to Christianity. However, they were not a homogenous group and when the communist liberation movement picked up steam many Hmong decided to join them. The majority of the Hmong were pro royalist or neutralist, and thus pro USA, and when the US was scouting around to find ways to push the North Vietnamese out of Laos, they found a willing body of men.
The French had not left Laos without any defences. Even as the ink was drying on the 1953 handover treaty, French officers and advisors were busily training Hmong commandos out on the Plain of Jars, stockpiling weapons and preparing them for an invasion from the north. When it came the Hmong had several thousand trained men, but it was not enough, and life under communist rule was intolerable. What happened next is the stuff of novels.
On a fateful night in 1960, in the village of Tha Vieng, three colonels sat together in a darkened room, listening to a Hmong shaman chanting. He tied knotted cords around their wrists together, binding their souls, a deal had been made. The three colonels were Thai Colonel Khouphan, the Hmong Lt. Colonel Vang Pao, and an American intelligence officer and CIA agent they called Colonel Billy. Vang Pao was a wily and brave man, a veteran of guerilla warfare against the Japanese, the Việt Minh and was the only Hmong to reach the rank of General in the Lao Royal Army. Now he was back amongst his people, fighting the communists, and here was a CIA agent promising to deliver them weapons, food, medicine and equipment. The game was on.
Dubbed ‘Operation Momentum’, the CIA went on to train and equip around 30,000 Hmong soldiers, under the command of Vang Pao and organised by Colonel Billy (James William Lair). The Hmong became a formidable second army alongside the regular Laotian forces, harassing the communists, rescuing downed pilots and coordinating military maneuvers with the royalists. But it was ultimately futile. With the Americans pulling out of Vietnam, the Hmong and the Royal Army stood alone against the communists, and when the government capitulated and recalled Vang Pao, instructing him not to resist, the Hmong stood alone. They had given it their all - in desperation the Hmong were recruiting teenage boys, then children and women as fighters, maybe 10% of their entire population had been killed, and now the Pathet Lao were promising to exterminate them. The Hmong broke cover. A few thousand were airlifted to the USA, tens of thousands marched the brutal journey into Thailand and the rest disappeared into the hills, where they remain to this day, hunted by the communists.
The Road to Elm Street
Life for the diaspora Hmong was materially comfortable, but socially hard. Their frantic escape left them at the mercy of US authorities, and they were resettled all across the country in 53 cities, fracturing their close, clannish and communitarian ethos. Over time the Hmong would relocate nearer to one another, especially in Minnesota, Wisconsin and the San Joaquin Valley in California. On the 15th July 1977, they were struck by their next tragedy. South east Asian refugees, overwhelmingly Hmong, suddenly started dying in their sleep. By the time a Portland medical examiner reported this to the CDC in 1980, over 100 people, predominantly young male Hmong, had died without warning in their beds. Between 1981 and 1983 another 38 deaths were reported. All the victims were in fine physical health, they had gone to sleep normally and appeared to suffer from some kind of nocturnal episode, sometimes relatives heard groans, moans or irregular breathing, but the doctors had nothing to go on. Men who were hundreds of miles apart, healthy, and connected only by their shared ethnicity and culture. The name they gave it says it all: ‘Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome’, or SUNDS.
A clue came after extensive interviews with Hmong refugees and family members of the deceased - all the victims had suffered one or more nightmares in which they had foreseen their own death. These reports were largely ignored, but in 1991 the medical anthropologist Shelley R Adler proposed an unsettling hypothesis: the Hmong had frightened themselves to death. Traditional Hmong religion is both animistic and shamanic, and they believe that improper recognition and worship of their ancestral spirits will leave them vulnerable to attack by malevolent entities. As Adler wrote:
In the Hmong language, the Nightmare spirit is referred to as dab tsog (pronounced "da cho"). Dab is the Hmong word for spirit, and is often used in the sense of an evil spirit, as opposed to neeb ("neng"), which is a friendly or familiar spirit. Tsog is the specific name of the Nightmare spirit, and also appears in the phrase used to denote a Nightmare attack, tsog tsuam ("cho chua"). Tsuam, the Hmong word meaning "to crush, to press, or to smother" (Heimbach 1979:358) is used in conjunction with tsog to mean "An evil spirit is pressing down on me!" or to refer generally to a Nightmare attack (Johnson 1985).
Without access to a shaman to help them, which most new refugee families were, many Hmong started experiencing nightmarish attacks, similar to what we call ‘sleep paralysis’. Researchers now know that this phenomena is a universal experience, linked to REM sleep cycle. Most cultures have some version of this deep in their history:
The nightmare syndrome appears to be universal in its occurrence. There are innumerable instances of the nightmare throughout history and in a multitude of cultures. References exist to the Assyrian alu (Thompson 1971), ancient Greek ephialtes (= leap upon), and Roman incubus (= lie upon). Instances of the nightmare are present in many other areas, as evidenced, for example, by terms denoting the experience from the following languages and cultures: Eskimo augumangia; Filipino urum or ngarat (Simons and Hughes 1985:387); French cauchemar (from La. calcare = to trample upon, squeeze); German Alb (Ranke 1977), Alpdruck (= elf pressure), Nachtmahr (Ward 1981:343), or Trud (R6hrich 1973:30); Newfoundland "Old Hag" (Hufford 1976, 1982; Ness 1978), Polish zmora; Russian kikimora; Spanish pesadilla (Foster 1973:109). 9 The Nightmare is very well represented in the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Descriptions from the writings of ancient Greek physicians refer unmistakably to the nightmare: ... symptoms mentioned are the feelings of the sleeper that somebody is sitting on his chest or suddenly jumps upon it or that somebody climbs up and crushes him heavily with his weight. The sufferer feels incapacity to move, torpidity and inability to speak. Attempts to speak often result only in single, inarticulate sounds (Roscher 1979:19).
A chest-crushing evil, demonic presence, an Old Hag, a feeling of inescapable dread and terror, the sensation of being smothered, sat on, pinned down, hooves trampling across the body, a shadowy figure in the corner of the eye. Adler provides many examples from interviews, such as this one with a 33 year old Hmong refugee named Neng Her:
First, I was surprised, but right away, I got real scared. I was lying in bed. I was so tired, because I was working very hard then. I wanted to go to school, but I had no money. I kept waking up, because I was thinking so much about my problems. I heard a noise, but when I turned - tried - I could not move. My bedroom looked the same, but I could see - in the comer, a dark shape was coming to me. It came to the bed, over my feet, my legs. It was very heavy, like a heavy weight over my whole body, my legs, my chest. My chest was frozen - like I was drowning, I had no air. I tried to yell so someone sleeping very close to me will hear. I tried to move - using a force that I can - a strength that I can have. I thought, "What can I do about this?" After a long time, it went away - it just left. I got up and turned all the lights on. I was afraid to sleep again
Adler’s hypothesis was simple. The Nightmare is a universal experience, but within the belief system of the Hmong it took on a particular religious significance (no doubt combined with post-war PTSD), and without the intervention of a shaman the sufferers imbued it a lethality capable of frightening themselves into a heart attack. By the late 1970’s the deaths were becoming high-profile news, prompting coverage in the L.A Times and other news outlets. One of the many readers who became fascinated with these deaths was the film director Wes Craven, who was inspired to create the horror franchise Nightmare On Elm Street, wherein the evil spirit Freddy Krueger kills people in their dreams.
By the 1990’s the death rate had slowed down considerably and researchers now believe that a genetic condition called ‘Brugada Syndrome’ was largely responsible for the deaths. Found mostly in southeast Asian men from Thailand, Vietnam and Laos, the syndrome causes abnormal heart arrythmias and sudden cardiac arrest. However, questions still linger over why so many Hmong men died so soon after the war and why the death rate was so inconsistent.
Life amongst the Jars
We end our story where we began, back on the Plain of Jars. The legacy of the war, in particular the air bombing campaigns, has been particularly acute in Laos, a forgotten theatre. Millions of tons of unexploded ordnance, primarily cluster bombs, still blights Laos and the Xiang Khouang Plateau, whose residents have remade their lives surrounded by the threat of death and mutilation. There were 30,000 known wartime civilian deaths in Laos, and a further 20,000 casualties due to unexploded bombs after 1973 - between 1990-2008 around 300 people a year were being killed or maimed by the munitions. Disabilities in animistic and rural Buddhist cultures are sometimes seen as the victim’s fault, leaving several generations with numerous unmarried and shunned people, sporting missing limbs, eyes and disfigurements. Laos receives aid and support from many countries, faith groups, charities and organisations, primarily to help clear and manage the unexploded bombs. The Plain of Jars itself, a tourist attraction in the ruins, is open to the public, but visitors must keep to the marked paths and risk serious injury or death if they wander off. The villages around Xiang Khouang have learnt to live with the bombs, and turn the casings and scrap into fences, furniture, houses, boats, water troughs and melting them down for tools and cutlery.
For the first time since the 1930’s research can be conducted properly on the Jars, even with the limitations of the bombs. New papers are emerging and new Jar sites are being located. One independent researcher in particular, Lia Genovese, has discovered dozens of new sites and discovered a wealth of new information about the Plain. Hopefully we will be able to properly contextualise these truly strange megaliths and uncover the mysteries of the iron age culture which created them. Some landscapes in the world seem to attract the most unimaginable sorrows, and the rugged terrain of northern Laos now has the dubious honour of being the most bombed region on earth. The Hmong who live up here are still persecuted by the Laotian government. Some fighters have never put down their arms, continuing a struggle that began in the 1950’s. The Laotian military keeps up a low grade war of disappearances, torture, artillery shelling, helicopter attack and even chemical weapons in their effort to track down those who would resist. Much as it was a century earlier, conflict and death stalks the Plain, one of archaeology’s greatest enigmas.