Death of a king


Visitors walk barefoot in the old royal palace at Luang Prabang, and sit in quiet contemplation in the grounds where once King Sisavang Vatthana and his wife, the Queen, may have sat.

But now there is nothing more than memories of the royal couple. And the secret government files that show how, a quarter of a century ago, they were bundled away by the Pathet Lao and eventually killed.

The horror of those terrible events – part of a nationwide programme of imprisonments, "re-education" and killings while, over the border in Cambodia, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were undertaking even worse atrocities – is getting a strange reprise as Laos draws in increasing numbers of foreign visitors.

For not only do visitors want to know what happened, but the very focus of their interest in Luang Prabang rests at times on the physical reminders.

And the shock at learning of the couple's end is deepened by the fact that much of the drama was played out in the religious centre of the country, a sleepy sprawl of buildings that are graced by more than 30 wats.

Though exactly what did happen is shrouded in secrecy: there are no easy answers to be found in Luang Prabang: and questions cannot penetrate the taboo of speaking of that turbulent time.

According to the official version, when King Sasavang Vong – the picture above shows his statue in the palace grounds – died in 1959, Crown Prince Sisavang Vatthana was next in line but the revolution prevented him from being crowned.

Others say he was crowned and that the Communists merely found it convenient not to recognise him.

It is hardly surprising that the Communists did not want a king, both ideologically (thought pragmatism won over ideology in respect of Buddhism) and politically – a position even more pointed at this time when royal family members, exiled in France, are accusing the government of human rights abuses and asking the United Nations to investigate.

Over the years from the end of the Second World War, the royal family had become a rallying point for anti-Communist forces.

When the Communists won in 1975, Sisavang Vatthana stayed at the palace as a "special adviser" to the government.

But then, in 1977, the moment came when the communist government settled old scores with the arrest of the royal couple.

In the years that followed, when scores of thousands were arrested and when vast numbers fled the country, no public record was kept of the royal couple's fate.

But there are two stories about their disappearance and death that are widely told:

One is that they were taken to the north-east of the country, difficult and wild without the supports of life found in Luang Prabang, and imprisoned in a cave until they died of illness and hunger.

The other is that they were sent to a "re-education" camp, along with many others from the cream of Lao society, for the brutal indoctrination that was common in those years. There, some say, they died of malnutrition and the lack of medical care.

Either or neither may be true: there are no witnesses brought forward to say what happened to just two more victims as the country bled so copiously.

The official explanation, once available at the royal palace museum, says that they returned to Luang Prabang, retired into private life and gave the palace to the people of Laos.

Today, every guide book makes its guess; foreign newspapers rake the mystery over, and at least one in-depth book has been written.

And the reminders are multiplying by the month as the government embraces the modern capitalist world and tourism becomes a major industry – in fact, more than a major industry: it is one of the major hopes of the future for Laos, one of the world’s poorest nations.

Now, in the world heritage town of Luang Prabang, the King and Queen are openly remembered.

Villa Santi, owned by the royal family and once called Villa de la Princesse, is one of the most popular upmarket hotels in the town. Guests in its quiet luxury, with its Lao antiques and elegant public rooms, can enjoy dishes once exclusively prepared in the royal kitchen. They dine and reside in the knowledge that, despite the building being confiscated by the state for some years, the property is now back in the hands of surviving royals.

A mile further along Thanon Xieng Thong, the old royal palace now does good trade as a museum – a thriving tourist attraction that was built by the colonial French a century ago and used by the royal family until the Communists came for them.

Its staff carefully ensure visitors remove their shoes and hand into safe keeping any camera equipment before leaving them to pace the route past open bed chambers and through living rooms and reception areas elegant with the royal possessions.

At the entrance of the grounds, a new temple has been built for the King's most treasured possession – the Phra Bang, the most important Buddhist image in Laos.

According to Associated Press writer Denis D Gray in an article published around the world, the museum is at the centre of an effort to bring the past to life again.

Young dancers are recreating entertainment once enjoyed by the King and Queen; researchers at the museum are asking the King's courtiers, including his secretary and chauffeur, to describe life at the Lao court before that generation dies out (a real risk in a country where average life expectancy is in the early 50s); and craftspeople whose work was used by the royal family are now selling their products to foreign visitors.

New life, in a new era, seems to be rising from the death of the King and Queen

Luang Prabang

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