Friday, March 23, 2012

The Most Secret Place on Earth: the CIA's Covert War on Laos (video)

The following is an amazing must-see documentary by German documentary film-maker Marc Eberle. It was released in 2008, but I don't believe it got much attention, certainly not in the U.S. (According to one source, the film was "screened at ten international film festivals and in German cinemas early 2009 and was nominated for the Golden Panda at Sichuan intl. Film Festival, China, the History Makers’ Award, New York, the Banff World Television Award, Canada, and the North German Film Award." It's currently posted on YouTube. Hopefully it stays up there. (H/T Doug Valentine)

From a review of the film by Andrew Nette:
PHNOM PENH, Aug 22, 2008 (IPS) - It was known as the ‘secret war’, a covert operation waged by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) throughout the sixties and early seventies against communist guerrillas in Laos.

And the most secret location in this clandestine war was the former CIA air base of Long Chen, in central Laos, a place that remain off limits even today.

A new film, ‘The Most Secret Place on Earth’, to be released in cinemas across Europe later this year, explores this little known conflict.

The film, which previewed for the first time in Phnom Penh in mid-August, includes images of Long Chen shot by the first Western camera crew to enter the base since the communists took control of the country in 1975.

"I first got the idea to do the film when I visited the Plain of Jars in Laos in 2002," recalled Marc Eberle,36, the German director in an interview with IPS.

"You could still see the craters from the air bombing and unexploded ordnance was everywhere."

"Then I heard about Long Chen and the fact that no one had got there since the war and I thought, how do I visit and how do I make a film about it?"

Little is known about the Lao conflict despite the fact that it remains the largest and most expensive paramilitary operation ever run by the U.S.

It was completely run by the CIA using largely civilian pilots from the agency’s own airline, Air America, and mercenaries recruited from the Hmong, an ethnic tribe living in mountainous areas in central and northern Laos.

Despite being the centre of the covert operation and, at its peak, one of the world’s busiest airports with a population of 50,000 people, Long Chen’s location was never marked on any map.

"I found it bizarre that at one time this was the second biggest city in Laos and it was completely secret," Eberle says.

Long Chen remains off limits to foreigners and most Lao due to clashes with remnants of the CIA’s Hmong army. Until recently it formed part of a special administrative zone under the direct control of the Lao army.

Renewed interest in the Laos’ secret war was briefly rekindled in 2003 when two Western journalists made contact with members of the Hmong resistance, the first white people they had seen since the CIA abandoned them 27 years ago.

Although pictures from the encounter were printed in Time Asia and won a world press award, U.S. media failed to pick up the story and it died....

"Laos was the progenitor of the way America fights wars in the 21st century," [Eberle] says.

"Outsourcing the war to private companies, gathering public support by falsifying intelligence and documents, embedded journalism and automated warfare including the use of so-called ‘smart weapons’, all these methods were first tested in Laos."

The conflict began in the late fifties, as Washington sought to counter communist Pathet Lao forces and their North Vietnamese allies who had began building the Ho Chi Minh trail through the jungles running down the eastern border of Laos.

The operation was placed under CIA control to get around Laos’ supposed political neutrality and the conditions set by the Geneva Accords.

Vang Pao, then an officer in the Royal Lao Army, was recruited in 1960 to lead the Hmong troops drafted to fight the communists, which at the peak of the fighting numbered up to 30,000.

The largest of hundreds of airstrips built by the CIA throughout Laos, Long Chen was established soon after.

The Most Secret Place examines the conflict through the stories of players involved in the covert, diplomatic and military aspects of the conflict, including former diplomats, CIA officers and Air America pilots.

It also draws on critics such as Alfred McCoy, author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade and a reporter in Laos at the time, and Fred Branfman, an aid worker turned anti-war activist who worked to expose the conflict.

Ordinary Lao people at the receiving end of the world’s most technologically sophisticated military machine get a chance to tell their story....

This film’s analysis sets it apart from other books and documentaries on the subject, most of which justify the conflict, lauding the CIA operatives and their Air America pilots as heroes.

The reality, as Alfred McCoy says towards the end of the film, was very different. "We destroyed a whole civilisation, we wiped it off the map. We incinerated, atomised human remains in this air war and what happened in the end? We lost."

The covert nature of the conflict meant that U.S. forces were able to ignore virtually all the rules of engagement operating in Vietnam. Every building was a potential target and the civilian toll was huge.

The situation grew worse in 1970 when U.S. President Nixon authorised massive B-52 bombing strikes on Laos, which remained classified information until many years later.

American planes dropped an average of one planeload of bombs on targets in Laos every eight minutes, 24 hours a day for nine years, making it the most heavily bombed country on earth per capita in the history of warfare....
"Marc Eberle has previously directed award-winning documentaries for ARTE, Discovery Channel, NDR, WDR, SWR, BR, MDR and ZDF in Oman, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. He holds an MA in Film and TV from Royal Holloway, University of London." (Link)

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