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Laos as it Really Was

By Bertil Lintner

War in Shangri-La: A Memoir of Civil War in Laos, by Mervyn Brown. The Radcliffe Press. $39.50

Mervyn Brown, deputy to the British ambassador in Laos in the 1960s, wants to correct the impression that a diplomat's life is an easy one. There is, as he says, a belief that diplomats live on champagne and cocktail parties and enjoy a life of leisure.

Well, this was certainly not the case in Laos 40 years ago, when communist guerrillas, backed by North Vietnam, China and the Soviet Union, were battling a Western-supported government in Vientiane. The superficially placid country may appear to be another Shangri-La, but Laos saw some very heavy fighting--and some of the most intensive aerial bombardments--during the Indochina war.

As a young diplomat on one of his first overseas postings, Brown got caught in the middle of this conflict. He even spent a month in 1962 as a prisoner of the communists, a dramatic event that briefly made headlines. Brown's first-hand experience makes the events come alive, including the power struggles and intrigues in Vientiane at the time. But War in Shangri-La is not a collection of personal memories. It is an excellent account of how the war was fought and lost in Laos. All the characters are there: King Savang Vatthana, the mundane statesman Souvanna Phouma, Souphanouvong ("the Red Prince") who sided with the communists, the neutralist "little captain" Kong Le, the CIA's shadowy operatives who manipulated events from behind the scenes, a French artist who made a modest living by painting Laotian landscapes, and the correspondent for Time magazine, Peter Simms, who was the model for John le Carré's The Honourable Schoolboy.

There is also the reclusive leader of the communists who eventually seized power in 1975, Kaysone Phomvihane, who hardly ever appeared in public because of fear of assassination. But, as Brown points out, Kaysone "seems to have relaxed a little in later years as his position became more secure: the last British ambassador, Bernard Dobbs, recalls a function at which he danced the lamvong with an attractive Swedish aid officer."

This book is a lively and comprehensive introduction to one of Asia's least-known countries.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, February 20, 2003

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