A firsthand account of the nightmarish reality endured by two Australian prisoners in a Laos communist gulag
Kay Danes’ Nightmare in Laos: The True Story of a Woman Imprisoned in a Communist Gulag is her harrowing personal account of being locked up for a crime she didn’t commit, in a country where human rights are pure fiction.
Danes and her husband Kerry, a former Australian SAS officer, established Lao Securicor Company in 1999, which provided protection to some 75 mainly-foreign companies operating in the small Southeast Asian country. All was going well, until the one fateful day that would change the course of the Australian family’s history.
On December 23, 2000, a contingent of the Lao secret police, headed by Colonel Bounmaly Vilayvong, turned up at the company’s office. Bounmaly wanted to “talk” with them about one of their clients, Gem Mining Laos. The Danes’ refusal to do so spurred him to use different tactics. Kerry was arrested, and a couple of days later Bounmaly came for Kay. Their three young children were handed over to the Australian embassy, while the couple were sent to Phontong prison in Vientiane.
It soon became clear that Kay’s initial disgust with the cramped, unhygenic living conditions – she shared a 3×4 meter cell with three other woman – would pale in comparison to the interrogations that would follow.
The Lao government wanted to seize Gem Mining’s lucrative assets and Bounmaly wanted the Danes to help implicate the company’s foreign owners. Their rebuke of his demands led to Kay being questioned for hours, physically abused and, on one occasion, having a gun put to her head and dry-fired. She was constantly told that they would kill her husband in front of her, a threat that she had every reason to believe they would follow through with. Kerry’s beatings were so harsh that afterward he would have to be dragged back to his cell as he was unable to walk. Despite all of this, they refused to sign any confessions.
Gem Mining’s owners came forward in support of the Danes, but with little effect, and the couple endured 10 months of imprisonment at Phontong until continuous pressure from the Australian government finally paid off and they were released and pardoned. Nightmare in Laos documents their time inside, and the impact it had on their family. Written in part to clear the Danes’ name, it is also the result of Kerry’s promise to her fellow inmates that she would share their story with the world.
It’s also a story of determination, companionship and the fight for dignity, in a system built on corruption and injustice. Many of the prison inmates who befriended Kay and Kerry were locked up in inhumane conditions for years on what they say were trumped up charges. Some were simply incarcerated because of their political views or ethnicity while others had no clue as to why they had been arrested in the first place.
One thing that comes across in Danes’ writing is how lucky she considers herself to be. In the face of all the hardships she and her family were subjected to, they had political representation from the Australian government. Virtually none of the other inmates had this. For example, the family of one French national, nicknamed “Joe Hay”, searched for him for eight years when he disappeared in Laos. It was only when Kerry brought his case to the attention of the French government that he was released.
Furthermore, although the couple was tortured during their interrogations, their treatment was less severe than that endured by many of the other inmates. In some cases, the beatings other prisoners received were much more intense, and in some cases fatal. Prisoners were locked in wooden stocks, punched, kicked, beaten with iron bars and steel-tire straps, forced to drink sewerage, had their genitals burnt, suffered broken jaws, were refused medical attention and more. Malnutrition and a lack of medicine led to disease and death too.
Since their release, conditions in the gaol have apparently improved, and some prisoners have been “found” by their country’s embassies and released, thanks to Danes’ efforts in publicizing the situation at Phontong and testifying to a US Congressional forum.
Danes account has brought serious human rights abuses to light. Unfortunately, however, the book is often repetitive and, in many places, clumsily written. The author has an annoying habit of stating the obvious and adding spurious anecdotes into the text. Cutting the length of the book would have given it more focus and allowed it to pack a weightier punch.
Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that Danes had the courage to use her personal experiences as a window into the nightmarish reality of prisoners in Laos. She also shows that grim determination does pay off. Her incessant badgering and refusal to be silent about the Lao government’s failure to pay more than lip service to the human rights declarations it signed has had a direct and positive effect on the inmates at Phontong.
As the Australian ambassador to Laos, Johnathan Thwaites, who played a key role in securing the Danes release said: “They took a lot more notice of what was happening to other prisoners than, in many cases, they did to what was happening to themselves. It was quite evident, as time went on, that the detention center was becoming a better place, largely through the efforts of Kay and Kerry.”
Greg Lowe is general manager of international media at B2S.