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My trip to Laos: intersectionality, a stretching mind, and why action is still needed

From the desk of Justina Poskeviciute, the author of The Exploding Head Blog & Podcast.  




Although I don’t think I would have admitted it at the time, I think when you’re in your early 20s, any trip you take can be life-changing.


But I didn’t expect my trip to Laos to have such a big influence on the rest of my adult life. 


As a fresh political science graduate and a young adult stepping into the world of nonprofits, I couldn’t imagine the importance of the dots I’d start connecting there – and the continuous urgency to talk about them almost 15 years later.



Why Laos, why me?


After graduating from my university, I was working for a nonprofit in Northern Thailand and had decided to go to Laos using my expiring Thai visa as an excuse.


Admitting to myself that I only knew what the capital of Laos was and what geographical zone it was in, I was very excited for this opportunity to see a country that can so easily be forgotten when one thinks of Southeast Asia. “It’s between Thailand and Vietnam,” I would explain to my friends where I’d be going.


In addition to my visa run in Vientiane, to make my trip even more meaningful, I have agreed to film a short video for another NGO in Luang Prabang. And I simply couldn’t miss Vang Vieng and its dramatic scenery.


When I started doing my research before the trip, I remember my jaw dropping.


“How come I didn’t know? This is such a big deal.” I remember thinking to myself. Documentary after documentary, article after article, a feeling of deep shame creeped in.



I couldn’t believe that - especially as someone who had focused her degree on conflict - I had never heard about the secret bombing of Laos.


Nine years of non-stop bombing. All in secrecy.


A crime of such scale that I didn’t know about.


A crime of such scale that the world still needs to know about.


I realized on my trip, I had to see more.


In addition to seeing some of the most beautiful natural objects I’ve seen in my life in Vang Vieng, seeing monks graciously pass for the early morning offering in Luang Prabang, and biking intensely to a waterfall somewhere between these two places, I had decided to visit organizations that are doing their best to undo the past that has been so violently imposed on the people of Laos: demining organizations and any museum I could find on this topic.


And this is what I did.


Although the young me wasn’t able to find a pretext to talk to demining organizations and other NGOs directly (something I successfully discovered when I was doing my Master’s research later in life), I remember walking from my hostel to COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) Visitor Center in Vientiane, hoping it wasn’t a national holiday or one of the days when all the museums were closed in the country.




Fortunately, it was open. It was an incredible continuation of my self-education on this topic, as well as the first time I’ve learned about other organizations whose work I thought I would love to contribute to one day. One of them was Legacies of War. 


This trip was the beginning of an eye-opening process for me in two important respects. 


First, it showed me that kindness was not conditional. 


Having grown up in Eastern Europe, in a country that had been under a Soviet occupation for 50 years, I had always thought that, given the circumstances, people are always entitled to their grumpiness, passive-aggressiveness, or simply rudeness. And in a way, I still think that, even if I don’t subscribe to it myself (I understand it’s not the nicest way to describe cultural tendencies but it is precisely a lot of context that allows me to make such a claim).


Yet no matter how obvious it seems to me now, Laos was the first place with such a painful recent history and an inevitable share of collective trauma that had an incredible kind spirit shining through. The details of my trip inevitably fade away, but the feelings of kindness and generosity remain.I know it’s how many people who have ever had the chance to visit Laos feel.


Later in life, I would experience that kindness and openness of heart in places like Palestine, Bosnia, and Colombia, where conflict and oppression are either recent, ongoing, or a complete open wound.


Second, it was a more tangible introduction for me to the crimes of militarism and imperialism. Suddenly, it wasn’t just part of academics. My further learning and my maturing advocacy work weren’t based just on my books, no matter how valuable they continue to be.


One of the quotes I discovered around that same time was a very simple one: “A mind, stretched to a new idea, never goes back to its original dimension.”


My political and advocacy work didn’t follow some perfect straight line after my trip to Laos. But my mind has never come back to its original dimension afterwards.



Why talk about it today?


My trip was in 2011.


The bombing of Laos ended fifty years ago.


I didn’t realize at the time, yet looking at it now, it’s so incredibly clear how the history of Laos stands at the intersection of so many issues, and oppressive systems.


If we talk about imperialism, militarism, and neocolonialism, we need to talk about Laos.


If we talk about the brutal and criminal legacy of Henry Kissinger, we need to talk about Laos.


If we walk about war crimes and impunity, we need to talk about Laos.


If we talk about indigenous movements and rights to land, we need to talk about Laos.


If we talk about the need to ban cluster munitions, like the ones the US recently shipped to Ukraine, we need to talk about Laos. 


If we talk about brutal indiscriminate bombing of civilians, like the one we’re seeing being done by Israeli forces in Gaza, we need to talk about Laos. 


If we talk about human rights and children’s rights anywhere, we need to talk about Laos.


In this intersectionality, Laotian history is very much alive, and the historic injustices still need reckoning.

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