March 24, 2013

Investigative Journalism - Day One

Impacts of Vietnam in Vientiane:

We awake after a 36 hour travel day in air-conditioned boutique-hotel comfort, a  short tree-lined walk from the Mekong Delta in this blossoming capital city. Our traveling troupe of educators and learners are in good health and high spirits. Arriving under cover of darkness in a foreign land is always mysterious: what new discoveries will daylight bring?

We are in Vientiane only for as long as it took us to travel here: by necessity, the learning curve -- our absorption and appreciation of the unknown --- will be rapid.

Built in the late 1880s as the French imperial center of Laos, Vientiane never enjoyed an infrastructure commitment the colonial authorities invested in the Indochina sister-nations next door, Vietnam and Cambodia.  Laos, perennially poor and bullied by outsiders, lacks exploitable-material resources, save its strategic significance in geopolitical power games over time. During the Eisenhower and Kennedy  administrations, it served as a stage for US-funded anti-communist covert operations, assassin training's  insurgency militia-fights-- failures, all. The Johnson and Nixon Executive actions elevated the violence against neutral Laos with a secret air war campaign which dropped over 260 million tons of bombs on ostensibly autonomous peasants over the course of 9 years (1963-1972). An estimated 80 million of those cluster bombs never exploded, littering 1/3 of the country and untold future generations following theVietnam War, with a plague of Unexploded Ordnance terrorizing their land. At least one Laotian person per day is maimed or killed by UXO each year. The explosion victims are often children. It costs $5,000 US dollars to clear one hectare of land. In a country where the average worker is lucky to make $100.00 per month, the cost of land clearance is literally a life's fortune.

We come to Laos today --- a dynamic history teacher, an accomplished video instructor, an award-winning journalist and 13 intrepid California teenagers --- to tell these stories. It's time to bring those living in the shadows of the Vietnam War to a more hopeful light.

This place was the unlikely host of an international convention accommodating 48 heads of state in 2012. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton graced Vientiane in July, visiting one cluster bomb victim, our blind, handless friend, Ponsavanh. Why the recent interest in landlocked little Laos? Its adjacency to the growing ASEAN nations--- and shared border with China, suggest the forces of geopolitics are again at work. The momentum of urban renewal is evident on the landscape, betraying less-than-secret economic ambitions. Miles of new concrete ribbon --- smooth modern streets, sidewalks, pathways and spacious look-out points--- line the river bank in anticipation of now- non-existent crowds. Appointed with manicured lawns, ornamental flowers, children's playgrounds, national tribute statues, courtyards and empty park benches, the muddy Mekong river front project tells a tale of transition. Safety barricades sporting futuristic images of the Vientiane "reborn" wall the dusty construction projects proceeding atop precarious scaffolding. The exterior wallpaper is meant as a PR statement reflecting a larger project plan. Passersby are expected to reconcile the developing-country noise and low-tech industry as building blocks of progression towards a chrome-and-high rise fantasy. "Shanghai!" the pictures tell us, is what Vientiane wants to be when it grows up.

Our students join us for breakfast on the breezy top floor of this teak-wood adorned  family-operated hotel. Laotian grace is evident in their kind hospitality: palms pressed together at heart-center, the patriarch bows a humble welcome "Sabaidee!" "Hello and welcome!" French windows surround us, yawning wide in the breezy morning light. Echoes of sunrise prayers emanate skyward from the ancient Buddhist monestaries below. Construction noise from the Mekong bank projects a mere two blocks away cannot be heard above the resonant spiritual chants. Each morning, they sing of timelessness: the only constant is change.

Shaking-off the ravages of long-distance air travel is easier for those under the age of 40; how lucky that energetic optimism is contagious! The students' enthusiasm for their Investigative Journalism Adventure takes shape in a brief informational seminar led by Emmy-award winner Jeff Macintyre. "Here's how it's done in the professional world," they learn, and one can see entirely new worlds of possibilities opening up in the stories they will tell.

The emerging concepts of their video projects are inspiring:

How does UXO impact the rural culture of childhood and family traditions?
How have villages harvested bomb remnants and repurposed their iron into useable tools?
What can the young survivors of Hiroshima inform us about the way forward for the child victims in Laos?
What are the challenges and obligations of UXO clean-up?
How has the Buddhist tradition of forgiveness served to silence individual outcry against UXO?

These broad-minded youth are here, dedicating their spring breaks and leisure,  their passion for a better world and talent for critical thinking to a significant effort. Theirs is the creative endeavor of making the incomprehensible understood, the abstractions of a long-forgotten (or altogether unknown) war real in the minds of today's global citizens. It's so much more than putting a human face on tragedy. It's discerning the best course of "what now?" a sympathetic audience might take. Call your congressperson? Donate money to UXO removal? Sponsor a victim's family? Hold a silent protest demonstration in your local community? Invest in prosthetics technology? Raise funds, increase awareness, get organized.... Their calls to action remain unknown, and entirely theirs to make and edit along the way.

In the meantime, Vientiane now absorbs construction project workers as it once did peasant war refugees. Foreign "interests" in Laos' precarious geographical significance appear to be the catalyst for both the historical and modern human migrations.

What if foreign investors bankrolling this urban growth were bound by national policy to donate 10% to UXO removal? It's estimated that China is investing 450 billion dollars in Laos over the next 5 years. The humanitarian implications of a "land clearance tariff" as the price of admission are staggering.

If there is anyone to make the argument for bold measures, it's these students. Watching them rise to the occasion is inspiring to those of us born in the Vietnam-era generation, still wishing humanity might have transcended its lessons by now.

Alethea Paradis

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