This is part of a series on racism, imperialism, colonialism and white supremacy and its history and impact on the Lao community.
In the Lao tradition white elephants and white parasols signified supreme power of royal families. These days, Laos doesn’t typically come up in conversations on modern white supremacy despite our occupation by the French during the Indochina era (1887-1954).
Might our history consciously and subconsciously affect our approach to social justice and civic engagement? Many may feel our opinions and experience are unimportant. Few ask how we will either resist or support the rise of white supremacy, especially the 230,000 of us in the US. Considering there are at least 917 hate groups in the US in 2017 according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, with many operating in states with some of the highest concentrations of Laotian refugees, this should be an issue.
Laos has an interesting connection with one of the leaders of white supremacy. In 1971, a young David Duke came to Vientiane in the summer to help his father’s development efforts in Laos. It was somewhat a disaster. For Americans, David Duke is a well-known”white supremacist and white nationalist, former politician, antisemitic conspiracy theorist, Holocaust denier, convicted felon, and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.” The older Duke was concerned about his son dressing up in Nazi uniforms at college, and hoped time in Laos would help his son become a better person. David Duke found work briefly teaching Laotian military officers, and he made friends with his older housekeeper, a woman named Mythyng. During Duke’s later runs for office he claimed his service in Laos as an example of his patriotic commitment to anti-communism, even though it was eventually uncovered that he had greatly exaggerated his role there. Some say Duke’s experience in Laos is a footnote and we shouldn’t read too much into his experience there. They suggest we shouldn’t wonder what might have changed if Lao culture could have convinced him white supremacy wasn’t a winning idea.
At the moment, many Lao in the US reject the idea that white supremacy could hold any appeal to us, even as we see images at rallies like Charlottesville of Asians marching with the Ku Klux Klan. When Lao youth are arrested for attempting to assist white supremacists in a mass shooting, we dismiss it as a mental health issue. In 2015 a young Lao American name Lindsay Kanittha Souvannarath sought to participate in a Columbine-level mass shooting. Few seriously questioned why she felt solidarity with white supremacists. Many just blamed her parents, convinced that support of Aryan Nation, KKK, the Nazis and Neo-Nazis goes directly against our personal and collective interests.
Lao Americans rarely discuss the normalization of Nazi imagery in Asia. Pictures of Hitler are used for marketing purposes on knock-off statues of Ronald McDonald and Colonel Sanders, and a Catholic school in Thailand had students and staff dress in Nazi uniforms as part of a sporting event. Indonesia recently sparked international outrage with a life-size display of Adolf Hitler. The common justification is that these communities lack an understanding of history and we shouldn’t read it as an endorsement of Nazi social beliefs. Many forget the Japanese government was very comfortable allying with Hitler in World War 2.
There are many reasons Lao in the US might not want to rock the boat, even after forty years. Some feel our presence is a privilege extended by the majority. Considering how few Americans in the US wanted Southeast Asian refugees in the 1970s, some caution against being to vocal about our journeys or concerns, even those involving white supremacy.
In 2014, Addicting Info presented a quiz demonstrating how ideas in the modern American Nazi Party’s platform can be presented so people can support them as conservative ideas. Today, Lao American political perspectives on the Southeast Asian wars are very diverse, but remember that in the 1980s, many who came to America were strongly anti-communist, voting conservative under the belief that conservatives would support efforts to remove communist governments in Southeast Asia one day, including Laos.
Looking at the Nazi platform, consider how many Lao might answer motherhood should be the prime role of women to “strengthen the family unit.” Many might “support the establishment of a new system of education, which would oversee the “moral development” of children,” and believe “the economy and the government should be debt-free.” Many might support the idea of being “energy sufficient,” and support the right of citizens to keep and bear arms. Some Lao might accept doing away with the separation of church and state (or wat and state) and want the US government involved in the “spiritual upbringing” of children. Over the decades, we certainly saw times where Lao were encouraged to stand against different immigrants or minorities to win social approval.
The pressing question before us is not necessarily “what will Lao do to create or reinforce white supremacy,” but what would we do to stop it? How often will Lao Americans just stand aside, rather than defend our principles or the safety of others? How much is too much, before our community stands up and decisively rejects the construction of a monstrous society? It’s not a question to be answered in a day, but it is a question to be asked.
-Bryan Thao Worra, firstname.lastname@example.org