No Road Home for Lost Laotians in Cambodia

kset village, Svay Rieng prov-  ­ince – Sin Son rolls a fat tobacco leaf cigarette then sips from a small glass of Chinese tea as he pre­pares to tell the story of Cam­bo­dia’s lost Laotians.

“I don’t know the history well. But I heard stories from the old people,” says the craggy 63-year-old as he takes a deep draught of tobacco smoke.

“I know from my grandparents we have been here for five generations. Our history is linked with a Laotian king of that time,” he says.

Sin Son is one of the few people who can recount the centuries-old history of the Laotians who came to Cambodia and whose descendants today inhabit a chain of villages straddling the remote southern border with Vietnam.

There are no written accounts of their journey from Laos, but village memory recounts a story of warring kings, a beautiful prin­cess and the ancient practice of taking prisoners as slaves.

“Cambodians joke and call us the ‘Lao Khok’ [lost Laotians],” Sin Son said. “It’s just for fun. But, that’s what we’re called.”

Legends and stories vary, including those from some Cam­bodians who believe the pre­sence of the Laotians only dates back to the post-World War II nationalist struggles to free In­dochina of French colonialism.

Laotians, Vietnamese, Cambo­dian and hill tribe minorities worked as porters transporting weapons and supplies from the north to southern Vietnam to arm insurgents against the French colonial administration.

Faced with the treacherous and long journey back to Laos, many stayed in the border regions where the supply trails entered Vietnam from Cambodia.

Sin Son agrees that their ancestors were soldiers, but part of a much more ancient army.

According to Sin Son, a Laotian king marched warriors south to battle the Champa Kingdom that ruled central Vietnam until the 15th century.

Routed by the Chams, the Laotians retreated, leaving hundreds of soldiers stranded far from home. Culturally similar to the Khmers, the Lao soldiers blended into Cambodian society and were later joined by Laotian buffalo merchants who traded in the Mekong Delta region.

According to Claire Escoffier, who conducted research on the ethnic-Lao community in 1996, legend tells of the Khmer King Chey Chetta II who organized a military expedition to re-conquer the Attapu region of southern Laos in 1621.

Returning victoriously, Chey Chetta II had among his spoils of war a Laotian princess—or, more commonly—some prisoners, Escoffier said. Legend states the “princess” was installed by Chey Chetta II in Svay Rieng where the ethnic Lao communities are situated today.

The legend of the lost Laotians has endured not only in Cambodia, but also in Laos. According to villagers here, a cultural troupe from Vientiane visited the area in the mid-1980s and recounted the story of this diaspora.

“The Lao officials said we were former warriors who had lost in battle and were left here in Cambodia. They asked us if we wanted to go back to our homeland,” Sin Son said.

But with generations cut off from Laos, even the invitation to return home was difficult to communicate. The villagers required a translator to speak with the Vientiane delegation whose dialect of the Lao language they could not understand.

“We told [the Lao officials] we live here now and we feel Khmer,” Sin Son said. “We are all mixed. We are almost all half-bloods now.”

The majority of the 14 ethnic-Lao villages in Svay Rieng—each comprising of between 100 and 200 families—speak far less Lao than a generation ago, said Thong Sok, 62. Older people speak Lao with varying degrees of fluency, but with each new generation, less and less of the language is passed on, he said.

After hundreds of years, the last remnants of the Lao language are now the only distinction setting their villages apart.

Known locally as “Lio Dak Tronaut,” their communities were compared to “trapped fish, enclosed in a wicker cage that keeps them from escaping to rejoin their fellows,” Escoffier said.

But in Cambodia’s recently troubled past, the ethnic Lao communities benefited belatedly from the loss of an exclusive identity. During the 1975-1979 Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia’s ethnic-Vietnamese, Chinese and Cham minorities were targeted by the ultra-Maoist movement.

But ethnic Laotians in Svay Rieng were spared by the Pol Pot regime on the condition they only spoke Khmer, villagers said.

But what the Khmer Rouge spared, time will destroy, Sin Son said.

“Some of the children ask me where we come from, and why they are Lao. I don’t know what to tell them, I just tell them they are stuck,” said Sin Son, as he drained his glass of tea.

But it is possible that young people won’t ask those questions in the future, as inter-marriage with Khmers will eventually erode what’s left of their unique ethnic identity, Sin Son said.

“It’s a regret, but that’s the way it will be,” he said.


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