A new mission in Laos for Vietnam vet

The San Francisco-based Jhai Foundation is promoting self-help development projects in Laotian villages.

For Lee Thorn, a visit to Udom Kati temple is to take a disturbing journey back in time. With its steep red roof and rich, gold-painted carvings, the temple occupies a tranquil corner of Phon Song, a village about two hours' drive north of the Laotian capital, Vientiane.

A picture of serenity from the outside, the paintings that cover the building's interior walls come as a surprise: Interspersed with traditional images taken from the life of the Buddha are lurid scenes of bloodshed, slaughter, and chaos.

"Look at this one," says Mr. Thorn, a 58-year-old US war veteran and peace activist. "There's brother killing brother, devastation after a flood or a bomb. Dead folks here, everybody in modern dress."

He pauses, taken aback by the brutal images before him. "It's saying: Here's war, it exists, and it's worse than anyone can imagine. It's evil."

It's this conviction – and a sense of deep revulsion at the role he played in inflicting pain on ordinary Laotians more than 30 years ago – that inspires Thorn's efforts to bring development and reconciliation to one of Asia's most impoverished nations.

At the height of the Vietnam conflict in 1966, Thorn was a naval serviceman, loading 1,000-pound bombs on fighter bombers based on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tongking. Many of the planes' missions targeted not just North Vietnam, but also its western neighbor Laos, where the US was trying to cut off supplies of men and munitions from reaching Viet Cong fighters threatening Saigon.

"I used to show the bomb assessment films to the pilots after they got back to the carrier," Thorn says. "It was incredible. After some missions, the countryside we'd bombed looked like the surface of the moon."

The people of Bhoun Than – a village not far from here – witnessed many such US attacks. In those days, the village was located in northeastern Xieng-Khouang province, one of the most heavily bombed parts of the country.

After sustaining many civilian losses, the villagers abandoned their homes and fled south.

More than three decades later, Thorn's San Francisco-based Jhai Foundation is supporting a variety of self-help initiatives in Bhoun Than. The foundation has also helped raise funds for a new school building. The village headman, Siangvi Poulenchit, sees the irony in America's reversal of role. "Before, the Americans destroyed so much of our country – our homes, our fields, everything," Mr. Poulenchit says. "It was very hard for us to uproot and come here. But now an American has come to help us, and these projects will help build understanding between the Laotian and US peoples."

Thorn's various projects have earned a more cautious welcome from the country's Communist authorities. His initiatives come at a time when official US assistance to the country is minimal because of Laos's patchy human-rights record, and the lobbying of anticommunist Laotian groups in the US.

Thorn says politics don't enter into what he's trying to do. "We work for poor people," he says, "just as we've done in Nicaragua and other places. We're not trying to create massive social change."

That approach seems to be paying dividends, too, in the rolling green expanses of the Bolaven Plateau, in the deep south where the Jhai Foundation also operates. This is the heart of Laos's coffee-growing belt, a legacy of the country's French colonial rulers. By reputation, Laotian Arabica coffee is among the best in the world, and Thorn wants to export it to the US.

Farmers like Noumala Thepboualy have taken up the challenge with enthusiasm. The possibility that beans from his small plantation could end up in gourmet coffee houses in the US fills him with pride.

"It's sad that [Laotian] coffee hasn't been introduced properly to the world until now," says Mr. Thepboualy, keeping one eye on the women working a dehusking machine in the yard in front of his stilted farmhouse. "We're very happy about what Jhai foundation is trying to do."

Meeting a group of coffee cultivators, including former servicemen, with whom he's now working, Thorn has a rhetorical question, accompanied by a grin: "So what do you guys like better – being soldiers or growing coffee?" Growing coffee, they say. The reason is simple, says Thorn. "We're buying the coffee at fair-trade prices, which is about five times what they were getting before. Also, the farmers know, just like I do, that it's better for America and Laos to do business than to continue acting as if nothing has changed."

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