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August 12, 2009

Lao community celebrates freedom

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Khampoua Naovarangsy of Boston, adviser for the Center for Public Policy Analysis ( CPPA ) in Washington, D.C., stands in front of the steps of City Hall as his country's freedom flag waves in the background. SuN/ Amanda-Beth Potter

Lao community celebrates freedom

By Angel Roy,
Article Last Updated: 08/11/2008 10:23:35 AM EDT

LOWELL — Red flags with three white elephants hung from every tree surrounding City Hall, a representation of what the people of Laos have been fighting for: their freedom.

The flag is the symbol of Laos, the old kingdom, before the Communist takeover in 1975.

Lowell City Councilors recently accepted the Laos freedom flag as an official symbol of the Laotian community of Lowell.

“Communism has no place in a free society, communism is not for the people,” said Mayor Edward “Bud” Caulfield yesterday at Lao-American Heritage and Freedom Flag Day. This is the fourth year the Lao-American community has asked the state to adopt the freedom flag.

Courtesy photo/ Khampoua Naovarangsy.

“We don’t want that in this city, we want freedom,” City Councilor Rita Mercier agreed, arousing cheers from the group.

Members of the Laotian-American community in the traditional uniforms of former Lao army and police honor the country’s freedom flag as it is raised at City Hall yesterday.

“We can win!” yelled a man in the crowd pumping his fist into the air.

“The freedom flag represents independence, freedom of speech, freedom of election,” said Linkham Xaylitdeth of Lowell, vice president of the Lowell Lao American Community. Chanpheng Sounthala of Littleton left Laos in 1978 when he was 22. “Before the Communists took over, you could go anywhere in Laos, any city, without paperwork,” said Sounthala, a member of the Lao-American Community of Massachusetts. “It’s like needing paperwork from Lowell to go to Burlington or Concord.

“Kids grow up and finish school and can’t get a job. They don’t have a future,” Sounthala added “With our former government, this never would have happened. The next generation of our people are becoming prostitutes and drug dealers. It’s not good.”

Oudom Maniseng of Lowell was jailed when the communists took over for working for at an American company in Laos. After spending 4 1/2 years in prison, Maniseng escaped. Two large scars remain as a reminder of his prison break — he was shot in the forearm by communist soldiers with an AK-47. The bullet hit his bent arm passing through the forearm and into his bicep. After treatment, Maniseng was sent to a refugee camp in Thailand to live with 60,000 others under a hay roof.

“Because of the communists the economy is so bad,” Maniseng said. “They don’t have any factories. There is nothing in Laos.”

“Real People” read the shirt draped over the back of Christy Thanmachak, 23, of Fitchburg. On the shirt the American and Lao freedom flags are lined up side-by-side.

“We are real people joining together for our freedom,” Thanmachak said. “I have always wanted to go back to the mother country but I will wait until freedom is set and it is secure.”

“(The) only thing we came from Lao with is our flag,” said Khampoua Naovarangsy of Boston, an adviser for the Center for Public Policy Analysis ( CPPA ) in Washington, D.C. The flag is used as a passport to Thailand to get freedom from the United States. In order to get into Thailand, the Lao people must answer as to which government they support, the old kingdom or the Communist party. The old flag is banned in Laos and those not in support of the communist rule are killed or jailed.

“All of these people have been exiled from Laos, they are all refugees,” Sounthala said, gesturing to the crowd.

“Most people were afraid to come here today. They are afraid that the Communists (in Laos) would find out,” Sounthala said of the absent members of the Lao community. “At my Fourth of July picnic I felt like something was missing,” Naovarangsy said. “Then I remembered to bring out the freedom flag.”

“Everywhere we go we respect and recognize this flag,” Sounthala said. “We need to remind everyone that we still have a nation over there, too.

August 12, 2009

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