Volume 3 Number 10
Refugees Break Out
01 November 1990

For the second time in his life, former Laotian diplomat Tianethone Chantharasy is a political exile. He and his wife Viengxay tell John Bond and Peter Thwaites how they narrowly escaped death.

Some would say that Tianethone and Viengxay Chantharasy were lucky to escape 15 minutes before the soldiers came to arrest them in 1975. But they think that more than luck was involved.

At the time Chantharasy was Deputy Foreign Minister of Laos. After many years of civil war, the country had been ruled for the previous year by a coalition of communist and non-communist parties. But neighbouring Vietnam was urging the communist party, the Pathet Lao, to seize power.

Aware of the precarious situation, Chantharasy took a bold step. He invited to Laos a musical presentation, Song of Asia, with a cast of 85. Its theme was that Asia would continue to be known for `the blast of bombs and the cry of suffering' until its people learnt to live the truths at the heart of the continent's great religions. Through true stories, the musical illustrated that hate could be healed, enemies could become friends, greed could be transformed into care.

For some weeks Song of Asia was the talking-point of the capital, Vientiane, where it was seen by the whole Cabinet and thousands of students. When the cast left, the Chantharasys organized a series of public meetings. One of those who came to them was a Pathet Lao agent. Was it really true that love could cure injustice, he asked.

One day he rushed into their home to tell them that the Pathet Lao were planning arrests and that Chantharasy was one of their top priorities. They must leave immediately.

`It was a nerve-wracking situation,' says Chantharasy. `When your survival is at stake, you can become almost irrational. The only thing we could do was to turn to a discovery we had made years before - that in the silence of our hearts, a wisdom greater than our own can speak. We sat down and prayed for inspiration. We began to conquer the panic.' Instead of rushing for the border, they decided to see the Prime Minister.

`We saw the communist takeover as inevitable. Vietnamese tanks were already approaching the city. The Prime Minister accepted my resignation. Then we went round warning everyone we could find who was also in danger. Finally we saw my mother, who urged us to leave. We gathered our children and fled for the Mekong River, where a boat took us across to Thailand. Fifteen minutes after we left the house, the soldiers arrived.'

Love marriage
That year not only Laos, but also Cambodia and South Vietnam were taken over by communist forces. The Chantharasys have not been home since, and now live in Australia. He is Secretary-General of the United Lao National Liberation Front, which aims to be ready with a credible alternative government when the situation in Laos changes. This he sees less as a matter of political philosophy than of relationships. `If we are to build a society with real strength,' he says, `political liberation must be accompanied by trust between different groups.' With 400,000 in exile (about ten per cent of the population), his task takes him all over the world, particularly to the refugee camps in Thailand.

He was born in 1927, one of seven children. His father, who died when Tianethone was young, took time to sit with his children and teach them. `I had to be disciplined and listen.' From his mother he learnt spiritual strength. `She was not educated, but she was both courageous and tolerant.'

As a young man he joined the Issara (freedom) movement, working to free Laos from French colonial rule, and spent three years as a political refugee in Thailand between 1946 and 1949. During these years he decided to learn English, in the belief that Laos would need the language in her future relations with the world. On his return he studied at the Lycee in Vientiane, where he met Viengxay. They married in 1953, a year before Laos was granted full independence. By then he was working in the Ministry of the Economy; she was a teacher. They have seven children.

`Contrary to Lao tradition, Viengxay left her family and came to live with mine,' he says. `Her parents were well off and only had three other children to look after, so she gave her whole salary to my mother. These two ladies, my mother and my wife, have been a rock to me, stronger than I!'

By 1957, Chantharasy was rising steadily in government service and was immersed in the social whirl. He practised the rituals, of Buddhism - and stresses their importance - but did not take its teachings too seriously in his daily life.

Viengxay was deeply unhappy. She had married Tianethone for love, not, as was normal in Laos, because their parents had arranged it. So she felt she had to pretend to her parents that she was happy. Since the birth of the children she had felt more and more of a 'widow, eating alone, taking care of the children by myself'. When she tried to tell Tianethone, he retorted, `Do you want to be my second mother?' She would cry herself to sleep. `One night I opened all the doors and windows, hoping a thief would kill me and the children.

`I knew Tianethone did care about people,' she says. `He just didn't know how to love. In Asia mothers tend to spoil their sons. When they marry they still want to act like playboys. That hurts. I used to pray hard, "Please, Almighty, help him".'

Then Chantharasy went to a conference in America, expecting to discuss his country's problems. Instead he discovered that the conference, organized by Moral ReArmament, was concerned with the problems inside people.

Speakers told of measuring their lives against absolute moral standards of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love - criteria which for him corresponded closely to the Buddha's Five Precepts. There was an emphasis on listening in quiet for the Almighty's direction, which he associated with meditation.

The ideas had a familiar ring, but he had never before seen people gain such insights into their lives. So one evening he went to a quiet lake nearby, and opened his heart. `I saw the face of my wife in the darkness. I thought of something I had done behind her back, which had caused her great suffering. I rushed to my room and-wrote asking her forgiveness. An Asian man does not find it easy to apologize. It cost me my pride to post that letter.'

It was a small price to pay for the transformation of their marriage. `I had tears of joy,' says Viengxay. `I thought I was the happiest lady in the world.' She asked Tianethone's forgiveness for her bitterness and felt it begin to melt away. The children found that their parents stopped shouting at them. The family began to spend time together listening `in the silence of our hearts'.

In the 33 years since, the Chantharasys have turned again and again to the experience of listening and forgiveness. In 1958, he moved to the Foreign Ministry and went on to diplomatic postings in Washington, Canberra and, in the early Seventies, as Ambassador to New Delhi. It has helped them, too, through the shock of losing their country and making a new life in Australia.

`When we heard of our relatives being killed in Laos, we went through agony,' Tianethone recalls. `But we knew we could never move forward without overcoming our bitterness and resentment.' Viengxay adds, `According to the Buddha, if you don't suffer, you don't live. Suffering teaches you many things, and then you see you can help others who are suffering.'

Their daughter Rothay gives an example from her work at the counter in a government office. A customer's barb about Asians taking Australian jobs hurt her deeply. One day in her regular time of quiet, she realized that her bitterness was `blocking out people' and that she must let it go.

`One girl at work had not talked to her parents for nine years,' she continues. `Her mother was dying, but she would not go to the hospital. My problems had blinded me to hers. I went to her and said, "A mother is a mother, whatever she has done." "My mother never speaks to me, why should I speak to her?" she demanded. I told her my experience. She said nothing. But later, she said, "I am going to the hospital."

`The truths of Buddha are very simple,' says Chantharasy.
`If we had practised them better, Laos would not be in the serious situation it is. We need the reservoir of moral character and authority they give us. Laos is so small, between the giants of Vietnam and Thailand.

`But look at Poland, poised like us between powerful neighbours. Their faith has given them such spiritual strength. In our country attempts to suppress Buddhism have led to its growth. The pagodas are fuller than ever. That gives me hope.'

He finds encouragement in the talks taking place between the Cambodian factions. `A peace agreement there will have a powerful psychological impact in Laos,' he says. `And developments in Eastern Europe have helped me to see that it is possible to meet your enemy and embrace him. It is the domino effect in reverse! Many Lao people watch TV from Thailand, and know what is happening in Eastern Europe.'

The time is ripe, he maintains, for the Resistance to open a dialogue with the present regime. `The first step should be a general amnesty. Those outside the country should be able to return to help in reconstruction. We must urge the Lao people not to resort to revenge, in spite of the cruelties they have suffered. We must break the cycle of hate, otherwise there will be refugees, refugees, refugees.'

Chantharasy's mother died in 1984. He and Viengxay are convinced that one day they will be able to visit her stupa (tomb) in Laos. When this dream comes true, they will not see it as the end of a journey, only the next stage. `Even after Laos has recovered its independence the seeds of hatred will still be there,' says Chantharasy. `In 1975 I had a vision of young Laotians visiting Hanoi and Bangkok to build bridges of trust. That vision has still to be fulfilled.'


This is so interesting. I vaguely new these stories about my familly. but i had didnt any of the details. I found this page while looking up my last name on a search site. My grandfather was one of the chantharasy brothers named Oudone Chantharasy. He moved to france, he died about 12 years ago. is there anymore information that can be interesting for me?
Dylan Chantharasy, 30 March 2007

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