Russian Tanks and the Looting of Laos’ Wartime Heritage
A T-76 Russian tank still points skywards
The Plain of Jars in north-eastern Laos was a vital piece of real estate during the Vietnam War.
A 500 square-mile area of flat land, containing many vital roads and airfields, and so well defended by commanding heights, the Plain of Jars also controlled supply routes from North Vietnam into Laos, which were important for the movement of supplies, men and weapons to be used in the “Secret War” in that country.
During the conflict, the Plain of Jars was much fought over by both sides. On one side was the Royal Lao Army and Hmong tribesmen, supplied by the CIA and the US, and supported by Air America and the US Air Force, and on the other was the North Vietnamese Army, Viet Cong and the Pathet Lao, predominantly supported by and supplied by China and Russia.
When I was recently in Phonsavan, we drove out to look at a couple of Russian tanks which had been blown off the road by US aircraft during the Vietnam War, which now lie rusting near the Plain of Jars. They’both Russian-made PT-76 tanks, but one has been comprehensively looted for scrap and, fortunately, the other has yet to be.
What are Russian tanks doing in Laos?
Both China and Russia contributed significant amounts of war weapons, vehicles and material to North Vietnam, from bullets to planes and tanks, as well as fleets of trucks for use on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But when I looked at these tanks, rusting away by the side of the road, I wondered, why, when China was only next door, did the Vietnamese bother importing Russian tanks from across four thousands of miles of sea?
Perhaps part of the answer is that PT-76 tanks were very reliable and versatile, so they were welcome assets during the conflict. But back during the Vietnam War, China was increasingly caught up in the Cultural Revolution, so perhaps murdering each other became more important than supplying weapons of war to their next-door neighbours, Laos, at which point Russia may have stepped up the supply of tanks. That, or China couldn’t afford to keep supplying them in volume when the country was going broke.
Looking at the second tank, almost stripped clean, reminded me that many of Laos’ War significant war remains are still being stolen or looted for selling to scrap metal dealers.
I was told on my last visit that ‘Lao military’ had ordered the removal of tons of rusting (and defused) bombs and weapons from Unexploded Ordnance centres in Laos, ostensibly to put in a new museum in Vientiane. I knew this was bullshit, having seen what the scrap consisted of from many former visits, and how much of it was the same kind of ordnance (really, how many thousands of rusting bombs and mortar rounds do you need for a museum?)
I suspect this was just another scam to sell yet more of Laos’ important historical heritage to Vietnamese scrap dealers. But look on the bright side – at least Vietnam’s getting its weapons and equipment back…
See the trailer for our new film, M.I.A. A Greater Evil. Set in the jungles of Laos and Vietnam, the film deals with the possible fate of US servicemen left behind after the US pulled out of the Vietnam War.
For POWs left behind in Laos, see also:
© Peter Alan Lloyd
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