WOONSOCKET – Thousands of miles away, the Southeast Asian nation of Laos on Wednesday celebrated the 40th anniversary of the overthrow of its royalist government by an invasion force of communists from Vietnam – known as Lao National Day.
Closer to home, however, hundreds of thousands of proAmerican Laotians who fled for their lives after the 1975 takeover celebrated something else altogether.
And, in a first for City Hall, Mayor Lisa BaldelliHunt helped members of the city’s sizable Laotian community mark the occasion, Laotian Heritage and Freedom Day. About 60 gathered for the celebration, including many who settled here as refugees in the years after the communist takeover, helping give Woonsocket a higher concentration of Asian-Americans than any Rhode Islamd city except Providence.
But some, including a group of Army soldiers who fought alongside American forces during the Vietnam War, wearing military fatigues, came from as far away as Alabama, New York and Connecticut. Clad in their iconic saffron robes, two monks from the Buddhist temple in Smithfield known as Watlao Buddhovath, retired Bishop Louis E. Gelineau and Councilman Christopher Beauchamp were also among the honored guests.
The celebrants stood for the American and Laotian national anthems as they sounded from a laptop computer in the Second Floor Conference Room and listened reverently as BaldelliHunt read a proclamation to commemorate the occasion.
The Laotian-American version of the national flag, a red banner featuring the image of three white elephants, was hoisted alongside the American flag during the ceremony. Elephants are considered a symbol of national identity in Laos.
Baldelli-Hunt told the gathering she is thankful for the contributions the Laotian newcomers have made to the community and their enthusiasm for “the American way of life.”
“Indeed,” she said. “We are all family.”
Baldelli-Hunt said Laotian-Americans have made the city a more diverse, and stronger, community.
The inspiration for the event came from Vanmala Phongsavan, a prominent member of the city’s Laotian community and father of Vimala Phongsavanh, a former member of the School Committee and the assistant director of Common Cause. One of several speakers, Phongsavan choked back tears as he expressed gratitude for the safe haven and freedom he and others like him have found in the city.
Southeast Asians who resettled in America after the war have been able to rebuild prosperous new lives and raise children who are now adults working in all kinds of high-skill jobs.
“This is our land of opportunity,” said Phongsavan.
Khamfeung Thounsavath of Pawtucket was 10 years old when he fled Laos with his family. As the crowd began settling in the conference room, Thounsavath peered at the gathering and said, “Everyone in that room is a refugee.” Some spent years in refugee camps in Thailand before making their way abroad.
Later Thounsavath had a turn at the lectern and reminded everyone how they got here: with little more than their dignity and the clothes on their backs.
“Everything we knew, everything we had we left behind,” he said. “Look what you’ve made of yourselves. You came here with nothing. You should be proud.”
A surprise guest was Maj. General Sar Phouthasack of the U.S. Army Reserves in Alabama. No one in the crowd knew how he ended up attending the ceremony, but he explained the situation soon after he was given a chance to address the crowd. Pointing to one of the Buddhist priests who had been sitting quietly nearby throughout the ceremony, Phouthasack said the monk used to be a soldier in his communications battalion operating near the Laotian border, in Thailand, during the war.
The monk, Bounthanh Phasavath, is the abbot, or spiritual leader, of Watlao Buddhovath. When the communists overran Laos in 1975, Phasavath was captured by the invading army and spent nine years as a pris- oner of war before he made his way to the United States, the general explained as Phasavath sat quietly beside him.
Even after Phouthasack told the story, Phasavath declined the opportunity to talk about the experience. He just nodded his head when a visitor asked questions, saying nothing.
Dressed in his Army uniform, Phouthasack said one of his duties in Southeast Asia was fetching American pilots downed in the jungle in and around Vietnam. From 1962 to 1975, he was involved in 300 pilot rescues.
Firm numbers are hard to come by, but city officials believe as many as 3,500 Laotians are living in the city, according to Human Services Director Linda Plays, a key organizer of the Loatian Heritage and Freedom Day celebration. The U.S. Census Bureau says the total number of Asian-descended residents, including Laotians and those from other nations, is somewhat lower, about 2,000 individuals, or 5.4 percent of the total population.
Connie Lemonde, one of the few non-Asians who gathered for the event, still has a vivid memory of the days when they began arriving as war refugees. She was teaching a class for the newcomers at a local church in how to speak English.
“It started out with two people,” Lemonde recalled. “By the time the class ended we had over 70.”