Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Passing of the Great Wartime Hmong Leader in Laos

ON FEBRUARY 4th, thousands of people are expected to gather to pay their respects to Vang Pao. A Hmong funeral ordinarily lasts four days. Owing to his stature, Vang Pao’s will last six days. His son says the affair will be “fit for a king”. It should perhaps be fit for the aspirations of many of his countrymen as well. For as goes “VP” or “the general”, as his followers called him, so too goes the Hmongs’ hope for a comprehensive peace in Laos

Exactly a year ago Vang Pao launched what proved to be his last campaign as the champion of persecuted Hmong communities in the central highlands of Laos. He surprised many of his followers when he announced plans to return from his American exile to the Thai-Laotian border, to broker a peace deal with his old enemy. Laos’ foreign minister was unwelcoming. “If he comes to Laos soon,” he said, Vang Pao “must submit to the death sentence”. The trip was cancelled, and now the dreamer himself has died.

His official sentence of death was issued in 1975, the year Vang Pao fled Laos to take refuge in America. After realising that the communist forces allied with Vietnam’s were active in Laos, the CIA had funded, armed and trained the Hmong guerrillas to disrupt supply lines and rescue fallen pilots. When American forces withdrew from Vietnam in defeat, the CIA left too. Some Hmong leaders were taken quickly to America; thousands more fled to Thailand, hoping to join them later; and the rest remained.

While Vang Pao remained an admired leader among the exiles, he did not escape controversy. Interviews with CIA agents and former UN staff had made it clear that he was involved in trafficking heroin during the “secret war”. During his American decades, expatriated Hmong complained that donations they made to help their brethren left in Thailand and Laos were embezzled along the way, or even extracted by force. In 2007, Vang Pao was charged with breaching America’s neutrality by conspiring to buy weapons to be used in the overthrow the Laotian government. Some of his Hmong critics will be glad to look forward to a new generation to replace him—someone who might be able to work with the Laotian government, say.

Throughout his life abroad however, Vang Pao had remained a beacon of hope for Hmong refugees living in South-East Asia. Carrying a rusty CIA-issued M75 rifle through the jungle in Laos, Cha Her, a Hmong guerrilla only last year said that “We still have hope Vang Pao can make a plan to rescue us.” This ageing fighter had remained in Laos since the Americans left Vietnam, not guessing how strong the communist forces would become. The emerging Laotian communist government went on a campaign to “destroy all Hmong resistance”. Villages were bombed and deserted by farmers fleeing to Thailand. Those who stayed were pushed deeper into the bush.

When Vang Pao announced in 2010 that would return to seek peace with the Laotian government, he said he wanted mainly to save those who were “surviving in the jungle of Laos for all these years”. As refugees who made it to Thailand filled out resettlement forms and slowly joined their exiled leaders in America, those who stayed behind have been left to languish. As it faces an increasingly strong Laotian army, food shortage and disease, the once formidable resistance is slowly dying.
Sitting around a temporary camp, malnourished, swollen bellies protruding through their torn clothes, families spoke of whole lives lived on the run. Most predict they will die in the jungle. But they said they still dreamed Vang Pao would save them. Now that he has gone, they can muster no such hope.
(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)

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