I have recently finished a fellowship with Georgetown University teaching at the National University of Laos. During my stay, I ran into an old acquaintance we’ve seemed to have forgotten, communism. This year’s college freshmen have never known a Soviet Union. For them, there has never been a Cold War, a Wall or Radio Free Europe outside of their textbooks. If you call someone a communist these days, it’s considered gauche. You have overstepped the bounds of rhetorical etiquette and entered the netherworld of Birchesque conspiracy.
I would agree that most people couldn’t tell the difference between a communist and one of my neighbor’s Suffolk ewes. It is easy to forget until you see it up close. I have to see the real deal. These are Trotsky-prancing, Lenin-loving, little-red-book-waving communists. You cannot take two steps in Laos without stumbling across a sickle and hammer. True, they aren’t the true believers I encountered in Vietnam.
No, Lao communists resemble the curly tailed Napoleon and Squealer from “Animal Farm.” They are moral degenerates who have no real principles beyond their own self-enrichment. Actually, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the general populace who could tell you anything about communism. It must be whatever the party says it is because from the party all things come. It becomes fairly apparent after a short time in Laos that the less you know the better. Anyone who puts their faith in anything but the party is tolerated in public but hounded incessantly. Don’t hold your breath waiting for anything like an Arab spring on the banks of the Mekong. It ain’t happening.
I taught at the National University of Laos, which was one in name only. The National University is totally dysfunctional where any actual education was the result of the efforts of a few students and teachers. My testing and evaluation of students showed no real difference in proficiency between first-year students and students in their final year of study. Absenteeism among teachers is so rampant that daily one can see classes full of students wondering if a teacher would show up that day. Many of the teachers are barely able to follow the books they are using or teach phrases that have no meaning. Jobs are not assigned on the basis of ability but on the basis of party loyalty. The university’s sole purpose is to perpetuate the party’s control of the populace and to act as a conduit for foreign aid.
I worked under the direction of the American Embassy in Vientiane, which was a lackadaisical troop slovenly carrying out their duties of riding around (with drivers of course) handing out checks and smiling for photo ops. Does the aid do any good? Certainly, it keeps the economy from falling flat on its face with a thriving market in SUVs and keeps four-star hotels full of aid “specialists” you wouldn’t hire for the local 7-Eleven.
On the surface, young people in Laos are not much different from young people anywhere in the world. But spend any time with them and you find they have lost the ability to think critically. They wander in and out of class with no real understanding of what is happening, waiting to be told what to do. There is little reason to actually try to achieve anything since the system does not operate on merit. The concept of academic integrity is totally foreign to them, as integrity itself has faded from Lao culture.
I am not sure how we make decisions about who we drop bombs on and who we drop checks on, or why people being shot in the streets of Tripoli is more outrageous than when they are shot in the streets of Yangon. Our foreign policy is way above my pay grade. In the end, if we fail in our duty to our neighbor it will not be the government that we answer to.
But if we still believe in democracy, it starts with making our voices heard. Please check for yourself how our money is being spent overseas on programs not related to our national security.