Lost Cause (IV)

The Loei Lock Up

Trouble brewed during the week and vented itself on weekends. The most likely reason for this is that it was a time when the outside influences of aid workers and general staff were at a minimum in the camp, and the refugees were left to their own resources. So that most Mondays were spent putting out fires literally and figuratively. Lee Bang’s time in the Thai lock up in Loei was no exception.

Arriving in the camp on the very next Monday after Yang Chung Yi had been jailed, I was welcomed by much the same hullabaloo that greeted me a week earlier minus of course Lee Bang. Lee Bang’s father-in-law was a senior officer in the Hmong Resistance and this placed him in direct conflict with Lee Bang. Not because Lee Bang didn’t sympathize with the cause, but because he was young, and ambitious and had higher aspirations for himself and his family than mud floors soaked in the blood of his children.

The majority of the Hmong had the right under US law to immigrate to the States as refugees. A privilege granted them for fighting alongside the CIA in the Secret War in Laos. This window of opportunity was closing however, and families were being torn apart by its allure. Lee Bang’s father-in-law had gotten wind of Lee Bang’s decision to apply to go to the States and had kidnapped Lee Bang’s wife and daughter, escaped from the camp, and gone into hiding. Lee Bang had followed them through the night and been arrested in Loei the provincial capital about a hundred and twenty kilometers south of Ban Vinai.

One thing Angus Lane, the UN Field Officer in charge of the camp, had taught me was that there was no procedures book. We make it up as we go along. There are no precedents for the majority of refugee work. That was certainly the situation I found myself in with Lee Bang. Gus’ advice, “See if you can’t bribe the local police down there in Loei.”

Before taking Gus’ advice, I went to see Lee Bang’s father. I had met him previously and he was a well-respected, dignified man, and Hmong shaman. Like many men his age he spoke French, and smoked a good deal of opium. He invited me into his house and begged me for an hour in French, none of which I understood, to help free his son. Toward the end of our conversation he produced a large wad of US dollars and pushed the money into my hand. Tears of frustration in his eyes bought on by years of impotency, he implored me in the only English spoken for an hour, “You bring back my son, no?”

Whilst I had every intention of trying to help out, I realized Lee Bang’s father was proffering far too much money here, but what could I do. If I refused the money he would have thought I was refusing to help, and I couldn’t explain that I probably didn’t need that much money to get him released so I pocketed the loot and promised I would do my best to bring Lee Bang home.

After leaving Lee Bang’s father’s hut, I took the local bus back to Chiang Khan to pick up my motorcycle and hide the money. Simply having that much money around the house created complications of its own, and if COERR knew what I was up to my days would surely have been numbered. After four hours on the road, I arrived in Loei in the early evening. It wasn’t long before I found the police station and was confronted with the prospect of having to bride the local police chief. Fortunately, I had had some experience of bribing Thai police in Bangkok over numerous traffic infringements. Not that I had done much of the bribing, that I had left up to Meiling. There is, however, etiquette to paying a bribe, especially in a case like this. It is not just a simple matter of handing over the cash with an all-knowing smile. That can be done of course, but it is just as likely to be accepted and then result in a bitter recrimination.

Most important is to ensure you are addressing the right person. So after explaining to the policeman on the desk who I was, and flashing my camp ID, I was allowed in to see Lee Bang. Surprisingly, Lee Bang was in good spirits and very happy to see a friendly face. We spent a fairly good humored, conspiratorial half hour together discussing who was the right person to approach, and how much money I should offer and what Lee Bang thought his prospects were if I couldn’t get him out. Shortly, the guy on the desk came around and told me my time was up. I mentioned the police chief by name and if I could talk with him. This guy quite obligingly called him directly and explained that there was some falang here to discuss the refugee case.

The police chief was in his office on the second floor and loafed down the stairs offering me the most casual of wei’s. Not a bad sign, considering what I was about to propose. The art of the wei, the Thai greeting of placing your two hands together in a prayer like position and offering a slight bow of the head, has as many subtleties to it as a western handshake. I asked him if we could go somewhere to talk and he invited me back upstairs to his office and ordered some tea for us to drink.

Once in his office I thanked him for catching Lee Bang, explained that we worked in the same program, and that his father had asked me to come down and see how he was getting on. The police chief started in on the problems these refugees were creating in the local community, not the least of which was the killings the previous weekend. I agreed that it must be difficult for him, and be placing him under some strain, however I assured him that Lee Bang’s case had nothing to do with the robbery and that his father-in-law had run off with Lee Bang’s wife and daughter. He agreed that was likely the case and asked what he could do for me.

I suggested that he could release Lee Bang into my custody, and that Lee Bang’s father was willing to pay for the time he had spent in the jail, and for the trouble he had caused the police chief. We were very grateful to the police chief for catching Lee Bang before he got into serious trouble, and it would be only a small matter of returning him to the camp. I told him I was sorry I had to ask for this favor and that Lee Bang had placed him in such a position.

His response: no dice. He said he wished he could have helped, and if I had have came a day earlier, I would have been able to take Lee Bang home; however, he had already sent off the appropriate paper work to the camp authorities and that, it would be impossible for him to release Lee Bang today. We politely rounded it up with me asking if I could buy a few things like writing paper for Lee Bang so that he could send a message to his father. He said this would be fine.

Back at the cells, I asked Lee Bang if he needed money and told him I had prepared about 10,000 Bhart. He said that was too much money, and would place him in danger in the cells from the police. We decided on 3, 000 Bhart in small denominations. The next trick was how to pass him the money. The request for writing materials turned out to be the perfect cover as everything passed into the cells had to be checked by the on duty officer. I bought Lee Bang some food, a pen and a notebook. Into the fold of the notebook, I placed 100 and 500 Bhart notes as well as a few wound up in side the pen. It had to have been the oldest trick in the book, and I don’t know whether the on duty officer was playing along in expectation of a later pay off or was simply thick, but he grabbed that book by its spine holding the notes in place and gave it a cursory shake before handing it back to me to give to Lee Bang.

Lee Bang made a note out to his father, and I left having achieved little, but still glad Lee Bang was OK and judging by the tone of the local police likely safe. Returning to the camp the next day, I visited Lee Bang’s father and gave him an update. I wasn’t able to return him the money as I still thought he would have taken this as a sign that I had given up on helping. I had no way of knowing really though, if he didn’t think I’d simply made off with the family fortune. At lunch, Gus introduced me to the UN lawyer, which was an eminently sensible idea, and one I wished he’d had yesterday.

The lawyer as it turned out was already working on the case. Coincidently, over the next week there was a large exodus of refugees across the boarder into Thailand, and an emergency holding camp had to be erected in Pak Chom, a border town not far from Ban Vinai. To help Lee Bang avoid local prosecution in the district court, the Loei police chief was prepared to go along with the rouse that Lee Bang was part of this exodus and we had him moved to the holding camp. This placed Lee Bang’s father at ease, and from there it was only a couple of weeks before Lee Bang was back in action at the school. Lee Bang’s wife and daughter were another story altogether, they were, however, reunited as I met them all again eighteen months after I left Ban Vinai in a processing camp preparing to immigrate to America. The only hold up was getting Lee Bang’s father to kick his habit.

Lost Cause (IV)

Digby

Taipei, Taiwan

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Artist's Description

For 2 years I worked on the Thai/Lao and Thai/Cambodian borders in the Khmer and Lao Hill Tribe refugee camps. This is the story of my own meager contribution and its ignoble ending. Original place names are used, but no person’s real name is used.

Artwork Comments

  • deliriousgirl
  • Digby
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