The Biology of Forced Displacement

“Seeking asylum is not illegal under international law and people have a right to be treated humanely and with dignity.”  – UNHCR

We crossed the Mekong to get to Thailand at night, so no one would see us. We had always lived in the mountains (of northern Laos), so we did not know how to swim. When we came to the river, we used anything to help us float – bamboo, bicycle tubes. But at night, it is easy to get lost. Someone in our group said: ‘Remember, if you get lost when you’re going down the river (with the current), don’t panic. Thailand is on your right.’ ”

 

 

Every refugee has a story. The one above was told to me by a Hmong man I met in French Guiana in 2001. I went to learn about the experiences of the people there and how they had adjusted to being resettled half a world away, from Southeast Asia to a French ‘overseas department’ in Amazonia. They were actually doing quite well at the time, living as independent farmers who had been given land by the government years earlier.

Hmong men in French Guiana going hunting by bike.

Hmong men in French Guiana going hunting by bike.

They also retained a good degree of cultural continuity. While most are fluent in French, the majority of the 2,000+ Hmong in the country lived in rural, semi-isolated, ethnically homogenous villages. This gave them a buffer of sorts, allowing them to acculturate on their own terms. As they often put it, they were “free to be their own boss,” free to be Hmong, and most said they were happy with life in French Guiana. This combination of traits – economically self-sufficient, culturally distinct, mostly content, living in a rural overseas department – is not the typical refugee story. In fact, because of that relative uniqueness, the French Guiana Hmong have drawn attention from media outlets such as the BBC and the NY Times.

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Civilians, Refugees, and the 2nd Indochina War in Laos

In Houa Phanh and Xieng Khouang provinces, the war (in Laos) has reached into every home and forced every individual, down to the very youngest, to make the agonizing choice of flight or death.” (Yang 1993: 104)

Those who suffered the most from the escalating conflict were populations living in the east of the country: overwhelmingly highland minorities, Lao Thoeng and particularly Lao Sung (Mien as well as Hmong), but also upland Tai, the Phuan of Xiang Khouang and the Phu-Tai of east central Laos.” (Stuart-Fox, 1997: 139)

Military Region II (northeastern Laos) bore the brunt of the war for almost fifteen years. Nearly 80% of the refugee population in Laos originated in MR II, including the refugees on the Vientiane Plaine. Almost the entire population of Houa Phan (Sam Neua) and Xieng Khouang Provinces were gradually forced south into the Long Tieng, Ban Xon, Muang Cha crescent.” (USAID, 1976: 210)

 

Displaced Hmong in Laos, probably in the early 1970s. Source: Roger Warner. 1998.

Displaced Hmong in Laos, probably in the early 1970s. Source: Roger Warner. 1998.

 

A consistent feature of war is the harming of civilian lives. The extent of harm is not always easy to ascertain, but is sometimes quantified in the number of “excess deaths” that occur during a war. For example, Hagopian et al (2013) surveyed two thousand randomly selected households throughout Iraq, interviewing residents about their family members before and during the US-led invasion and occupation. They estimated that from March 2003-2011 approximately 405,000 deaths occurred as a result of the war, mostly from violence.

However, such studies always have limitations – recall bias, survivor bias (the dead cannot be interviewed), and logistics in surveying high violence areas – meaning that mortality estimates will never be perfect, and Hagopian et al. gave a range around their figure (a 95% uncertainty interval of 48,000 to 751,000 excess deaths). Whatever the exact number, which we will probably never know, we can still be confident that mortality rates increased during the war years.  

The same challenges apply to all wars, including one that I have been interested in for a while – the Second Indochina War in LaosThe Australian historian Martin Stuart-Fox wrote that: “loss of life can only be guessed at, but 200,000 dead and twice that number of wounded would be a conservative estimate” (1997: 144). Mortality estimates for Laos are further complicated by the fact that it was one the least developed countries in Asia at the time of the war, likely with unreliable census data and other record keeping (though, for those who are interested, see the 1961 Joel Halpern “Laos Project Papers” from UCLA, which contain demographic and health statistics).

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Infant Mortality Rates, War & Laos

I finished my dissertation on how the war in Laos was correlated to the physical growth of Hmong refugees in 2004. The general idea was that early stressors, particularly prenatally and in infancy, can have long-term impacts on growth and health. The model I was working with came largely from David Barker’s (and others’) ‘fetal origins hypothesis,’ based on evidence that low birth-weight infants tended to grow up to have higher rates of things like type 2 diabates, coronary heart disease, hypertension, etc. A classmate in graduate school, Stephanie Rutledge, introduced me to Barker’s work and told me that I’d find it really enlightening. I did. Sadly, Barker passed away earlier this year, but his work helped spawn a new direction in research. 

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How War Gets Under Our Skin

beinghuman.org front page

I wrote this piece on BeingHuman.org about how war (and the world in general) gets under our skin. It looks at the Hmong example, as well as examples from a few other wars around the world (the Dutch Hunger Winter, the Biafran famine, and the Khmer Rouge period), and how these experiences get into our bodies. 

 

http://www.beinghuman.org/article/how-world-gets-under-our-skin

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Unbending rigor is the mate of death,
And wielding softness the company of life:
Unbending soldiers get no victories;
The stiffest tree is readiest for the axe.

Tao Te Ching: 76

 

Early in life, our bodies are like unmolded clay, ready to be shaped by our experiences. For some of us, that matching process can create problems. If circumstances change, we could end up poorly adapted to our adult environment. A child born into harsh conditions, though, may have to take that risk in order to make it to adulthood at all.

Hmong Conference in Wisconsin

I’ve not posted anything on this blog in a while, as I’ve been tied up with teaching, writing, grading, and committee work, on top of balancing that with a home life.

Yesterday, I arrived in Madison, Wisconsin for a small conference on Hmong studies. There are interesting people here, Hmong and non-Hmong scholars alike, from all different fields: sociology, anthropology, history, social work, Asian American studies, education, human development, psychology, etc.

Though the conference officially begins today, most people arrived yesterday and began the conversation. The hope is that we can assist each other with our current work and make connections for potential future research. I’m optimistic that will be the case.

By the way, my first impression is that Madison looks like a very pleasant place. The campus is also very attractive.

Conference Schedule

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I’m prepping for the the coming academic year, and going on tour for academic conferences (this must be how Bono feels). I’ve been to Montreal many times, and always enjoyed the beauty of that city. Madison and Portland are new, and I’m looking forward to seeing them for the first time.

• October 22-23, 2011: Hmong Diaspora Studies Institute (Madison, Wisconsin)

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Reconciliation, Biology, and the Second Indochina War

Of all the things I’ve written on this site, this remains one of the most meaningful to me. (June 25, 2015)

The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.” …………………………………………………………………………– Mohandas K. Gandhi

On my desk sits a spoon I bought in a restaurant in northern Laos. It’s lightweight, bigger than a tablespoon, and full of tiny dents that some unknown metalsmith hammered into it. The owner was bemused that in addition to the bowl of pho noodle soup, I also wanted to buy one of her utensils. But I had my reasons.

Earlier on my trip, my guide1 informed me that people in the town of Phonsavanh half-jokingly called these ‘B-52 spoons,’ as they were made of metal recovered from bombs dropped decades ago by U.S. planes during  ‘the Secret War. To me, the spoon was more than a quirky souvenir. Instead, it represented an attempt by Laotians to take the physical remnants of a tragic period in history and forge them into something more positive, in effect turning swords into plowshares (or bombs into spoons). Continue reading