After years of French colonial rule, Laos was finally granted autonomy on 19 July 1949 before achieving independence in 1953. Yet its celebrations would be short-lived. Barely a fortnight afterwards a bitter civil war broke out which would divide the country for over two decades.
As the conflict rapidly became a high-stakes Cold War proxy war, the revolutionary communist group, Pathet Lao, and the Royal Lao Government both received extensive support from the rival superpowers. Yet as the Vietnam War become increasingly unpopular in the United States, the CIA’s activities in Laos became known as the ‘Secret War’.
After Communism emerged victorious in 1975, a memorial was erected in the city of Vieng Xai, a Pathet Lao stronghold during the war. The patriotic group statue blends various sculptural traditions and iconographies to riveting effect.
Its bright gold finish mirrors much of the Buddhist statuary of Indochina, yet the message of peace is here subverted. The group contains the traditional Communist pairing of a female peasant and male worker, complete with the obligatory hammer and sickle. Yet here they are joined by a third figure of a soldier. While the peasant woman holds the popular Socialist Realist symbol of sheaves of corn, a shotgun is strapped to her back. The central figure brandishes a machine gun, while the grenades on the soldier’s belt increase the sense of menace.
The soldier also stands with his foot propped on a bomb marked ‘USA’. This is a reminder of nine long years of US aerial bombardment, the heaviest bombing campaign in history, which scarred the country. Earlier this year the United States assigned $12 million towards the clearing of unexploded bombs in Laos, a not-so-secret legacy of the country’s sad history.