That Time I Got Arrested in Laos
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is your mama’s nightmare.
When the business end of an AK-47 is pointed at you, the invitation of a lift back to your hotel cannot be turned down. It was 10 a.m., and as I climbed onto the back of the military pickup, perching myself on the corner rim next to five stolid soldiers, we started to drive away from Vientiane — and away from my hotel.
My crime? Trying to visit a museum. Well, actually … I had arrived in Vientiane the previous day with no press pass to the Asean Summit, an annual conference that was unusually newsworthy given President Obama’s attendance. Having failed to get credentials, I headed toward the convention center just the same, in the hopes of reporting on the big event.
He listened as I lied about being a teacher in Cambodia, and a history-loving tourist.
The streets were blocked by police, but a begrudging officer waved me through. A 30-minute walk later, along an empty boulevard manned only by bad-humored, seated military guards, I arrived at the center. Unable to get in, I decided instead to visit the nearby Kaysone Phomvihane Museum, a Stalinesque testament to the supposedly modest leader of the communist Pathet Lao, which took power in 1975 and has ruled ever since under the guise of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party.
Guards circled me outside the museum, photographing my passport on a smartphone and telling me to leave. I took the hint and began walking back toward the city center. But after five minutes, the truck pulled up and the rifle-punctuated invitation was made. Concerned by the unknown — I had no idea where I was being taken — I arrived at a decrepit compound in the countryside an hour later, where I was led into a small shed, staffed mainly by half-asleep men in unbuttoned fatigues. The office had a sodden floor, a few computer monitors without towers and glossy pics of an old soccer team. These guys looked bored — the arrival of a foreigner clearly lifted their spirits, and that’s when my concern turned into frustration over the colossal waste of time.
What followed was an hour of questioning by a fit young officer named Ley, the only English speaker. He asked whether I was a journalist, my passport was photocopied at least two dozen times, and the contents of my bag were lazily rummaged through. I was able to conceal my dictaphone — a journalist’s smoking gun — and lie convincingly about the laptop being a friend’s (which is why I didn’t have the password). Another officer swiped through my iPhone photos, pausing at images of snowcapped French Alps and excitedly showing them to his colleagues. Meanwhile, Ley asked the same questions three times and proceeded to fill two double-sided sheets of legal paper with scribbles. He listened as I lied about being a teacher in Cambodia, and a history-loving tourist.
Following the hourlong interview were two hours of waiting as Ley made trips back and forth to his superior. On a bench outside, underneath rain-soaked eaves, I sat next to two young, chain-smoking Vietnamese men who had been arrested for being in an internet café after midnight. My detained comrades chuckled at my impatient pacing around the courtyard. “In Laos, things take time,” one said, before telling me he had spent 300,000 kip (almost $40) to speed up his process — an insinuation I should do the same. But my wallet was my only possession, apart from my hidden dictaphone, that hadn’t been probed, and I wasn’t about to reach for it now.
Besides, my wait was illuminating. The Lao People’s Armed Forces and police pride themselves on gender equality, as in most communist countries. But the only things I saw the two fatigues-clad women do was carry around washing pots while the men lounged on deck chairs, giggled over each other’s phones and photocopied my passport. Also, for all the pomp, a simple Google search could’ve revealed that I was a journalist. At no point did I feel genuinely concerned for my safety — what self-respecting communist interrogation ends in giggles? So, I’ve lost a bit of respect for Lao security. A rifle butt to my stomach would’ve had me thinking differently, of course, and I can only assume things would’ve been worse if they had discovered I was a journalist who entered the country under false pretenses.
But they let me go instead. After three hours, and another round of questions — the same as before — my garrulous tormentor even cracked a joke. “Another five minutes,” he said for the 13th time, before laughing at my wince and handing me my passport. But the questioning wasn’t quite over. “Would you like to make a donation?” he asked, explaining how it would go toward drinks and activities. “I can go now?” I said, more as a statement than question.
He nodded, and advised that for the remainder of my stay I avoid visiting museums or staying out too late: “Be in bed by 10:30.”