HMONG IN LAOS
At the end of the Vietnam War in the early 1970s as many as a third of the Hmong population left Laos and fled across the Mekong River to Thailand. In Thailand, the Hmong were housed in a series of refugee camps. About 130,000 made their way to United States. Another 50,000 to 100,000 stayed in Thailand. About 400,000 remained in Laos.
Hmong recruited by the CIA to fight on behalf of a pro-American government during the Vietnam War were all but abandoned in Laos after their communist enemies won a long civil war and began single-party rule in Laos. Many managed to flee into Thailand and later resettled in the United States and elsewhere, but thousands stayed behind, some adjusting to the new regime and others staying in the jungle, where they faced continuing attacks by the government.
Roger Warner wrote in The Nation: “When Laos became a side-show of the bigger war in neighbouring Vietnam, the programme started falling apart. In 1975, when the US pulled out of Laos and Vietnam, over 10,000 Hmong were slaughtered by Laos' new communist regime. Many survivors fled the country and went to the US as refugees. [Source: Roger Warner, The Nation (Thailand), June 28, 2007 +++]
Tom A. Peter wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: “After fighting as U.S.-backed guerillas in Laos, members of the ethnic minority were all but abandoned when the country fell to communist forces in 1975. More than 300,000 Laotian refugees, mostly Hmong, fled into Thailand. About 145,000 members of Laotian ethnic groups resettled in the U.S., establishing large enclaves in Fresno, St. Paul, Minn., cities across Wisconsin and in small towns throughout Arkansas' Ozark mountains. Although many in the Hmong-American community are well assimilated, for those who survived the Vietnam-era there often remains a lingering bitterness. The US guaranteed asylum to those who helped them during the war. However, the Associated Press reports that thousands of Hmong suffered under the communist Laotian regime after the US pulled out. [Source: Tom A. Peter, Christian Science Monitor, June 6, 2007 >>>]
On the relation between Hmong who fled Laos for America and the Laotian government, Marc Kaufman wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “Although there are Hmong-Americans who do return regularly to Laos, relations between the Hmong-American community and Laos are strained. As it happens, Vang’s house in St. Paul was torched five months after his father had called for normal trade relations with the Laotian government and its president, Khamtai Siphandon, and negotiating an end to the 30-year-long jungle warfare. The U.S. State Department currently advocates normal trade relations with Laos. In September 2003, the two countries took an important step when they signed a trade agreement. It is awaiting Congressional approval. [Source: Marc Kaufman, Smithsonian magazine, September 2004]
Many of the Hmong in the United States are outspoken in their calls for the overthrow of the Laotian Communist government. The leader of the Hmong resistance movement against the Lao government was Gen. Vang Pao, once a close American ally. He lived in California for many years and died in January 2011. In the 2000s he was criticized by the American government for his support of the armed resistance movement against the Lao government and was charged in a U.S. court for his involvement in Lao coup plot.
Hmong Insurgencies in Northern Laos
The last, almost forgotten conflict of the Indochina war may still be continuing in northern Laos. Most of the fighters are ethnic Hmong, who are descendants of Hmong fighters enlisted by the CIA in America’s “secret war” in Laos at the time of the Vietnam War and were abandoned when that war came to an and continued fighting, The Laos government has refused to admit that a Hmong insurgency exists.
Several insurgencies operate or operated in northern jungles of northern Laos, some of them around the former Ho Chi Minh Trail. It is not often clear what they are fighting for. Some want more autonomy for the Hmong regions. Others just seem to be out to get revenge for the awful things the Communist regime did to them. The largest group, the Ethnic Liberation Organization of Laos (ELOL) may have several thousand fighter but probably has few hundred.
Most of the insurgent groups were small a little more than militias. Some remained loyal to the Lao National Liberation Front (LNFL) of Vang Pao, the leader of the CIA-funded Hmong army, even though he had been living in California and Minnesota since 1975. One diplomat told the Washington Post, "These groups don’t seem to get along very well. They don't like each other, and they often seem to work at cross purposes.”
In the 1970s and 80s, the Lao army with massive help from the Vietnamese military largely eliminated these groups but was unable to get rid of them completely. Some insurgents lived like wild men in the jungle with families because they were afraid if they emerged they would be imprisoned or killed by Laotian security forces. As of 2004, around 17,000 Hmong were still believed to be living in the jungles.
History of the Hmong Insurgencies in Northern Laos
The great majority of insurgents in Laos are Hmong, led by ex-soldiers from United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-supported units who fought against Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops in the 1960s. Hmong groups, most of them formerly associated with the RLG, draw recruits and support from Hmong refugee camps and operate from bases in Thailand with the cooperation of local Thai military officers. As relations between Thailand and Laos continued to improve in the 1990s, support for this insurgent activity declined. Resistance spokesmen claim that their principal source of funds for weapons and supplies comes from Laotian expatriate communities overseas, including the 180,000 Laotians in the United States. [Source: Library of Congress, 1994 *]
Even though the government lacks widespread public support, insurgency is less a measure of discontent than evidence of a serious ethnic problem. The LPDR, like the RLG that preceded it, has been dominated by lowland Lao. The two governments exemplify the traditional Lao disdain for upland peoples, in spite of Pathet Lao rhetoric in favor of ethnic equality. On the one hand, because many Hmong fought on the side of the "American imperialists," government leaders feel additionally suspicious of them. On the other hand, Hmong and other upland minorities who served with the United States-supported forces have been suspicious and uncomfortable under their former enemies. Thus, a core of insurgents, composed largely of ethnic minorities, continues to fight against the authorities. It will be extremely difficult-- perhaps impossible--for the government to pacify them, especially without help from Vietnamese military units, if the insurgents enjoy access to sanctuary in Thailand along the easily crossed 1,000 kilometer Mekong River border. *
In the early 1980s, Hmong insurgents claimed that the Lao People's Army (LPA) was using lethal chemical agents against them. The Hmong refugees in Thailand often referred to the chemical agents as "poisons from above;" foreign journalists used the term "yellow rain." The government vehemently denied these charges. The United States Department of State noted in 1992 that "considerable investigative efforts in recent years have revealed no evidence of chemical weapons use" in the post-1983 period. The LPDR again denied these charges. The United States Department of State noted in 1992 that "considerable investigative efforts in recent years have revealed no evidence of chemical weapons use."
Revival of Hmong Insurgencies in Northern Laos
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Hmong insurgents became active again in Xianghoang and Oudomxai northern Laos. A government spokesman said, “There is no security threat in Xiang Khouang province just a few isolated acts of banditry in which hardly anybody was killed.”
The fact that there was evidence of an insurgency despite the best efforts by the Lao government to hide it was given a proof that insurgency was fairly large spread. One diplomat told AFP, “The intensification of the attacks is beginning to create a siege mentality among the population...Despite the secrecy maintained by authorities here, the casualties being suffered the army can no longer be hidden from a population in which relatives are being killed....As well as troop loses, a large number of government officials in northern villages have been killed by rebels.”
The Hmong have little incentive to attack foreign, particularly Americans, because many Hmong now live in the United States and many of them were once fighters themselves and they continue to support insurgencies in Laos.
Attacks by Hmong Insurgencies in Northern Laos
The Hmong insurgents ambushed army convoys, burned houses and tried to defend families that were involuntarily being resettled in the lowlands.
Caryle A. Thayer, an Australian expert on Southeast Asia, told the New York Times, “Hmong armed groups have been giving the Lao Army hell. They’ve raided and grabbed weapons. They’ve ambushed columns and shot down a helicopter. The groups have received an influx of weapons smuggled into Laos from Thailand by Hmong émigrés from the United States.
The fighting was heaviest in Xiangkhouang Province. Five people were killed, including two children, 14 were wounded and buildings were wrecked in a night time raid in Muang Khoun, a former royal capital in Xiang Khuong, residents there said. One resident told AFP, “Around 30 of them came into town firing their guns in the air and shouting...We all just ran out and hid while they ransacked and burned our homes.”
Fighting the Hmong Insurgencies
In an effort to win the hearts and minds of Hmong insurgents and their sympathizers, the Laotian government quietly allowed them to enter civilian life and provided them with some assistance to start new lives in return for laying down their weapons.
In the early 2000s, Vietnamese security forces became active again on Laos, at least in a supporting role, after the increase in insurgency activity. Analysts estimated that there were between 500 and 1,000 Vietnamese soldiers fighting with the Lao Army.
The government denied that any Vietnamese forces were involved but suspicions about this claim were raised in 1998 when a plane carrying top Vietnamese officials crashed in Xiangkhiang, killing everyone on board.
Is the Hmong Insurgency in Laos Still Fighting
Little reliable information about fate of the Hmong insurgents emerged until late 2002, when two Western journalists working for Time magazine made contact with one of the Hmong groups and came out with startling photographs and stories of their desperate existence.
Roger Warner wrote in the The Nation in 2007: “We looked into claims that Hmong are still fighting against their old enemies in Laos. We found those reports true on a small scale. Scattered bands of ragged fighters subsist off wild plants, trying to evade the Laotian army and almost every day, the leaders of these Hmong bands talk on satellite phones with their Hmong-American relatives. [Source: Roger Warner, The Nation (Thailand), June 28, 2007]
“There is no doubt that some Hmong-Americans have been up to their eyeballs in supporting and guiding the Hmong resistance in Laos, but there are different ways of interpreting this fact. Some might say it is heroic and steadfast for old allies to continue the fight for years after the US forces went home. (After all, which of our Iraqi and Afghan allies will do that?) Others might say that the old Hmong-American leaders are like exiled White Russians in Paris after World War I, plotting and scheming to return to power and not doing a good job of it. [Ibid]
Human-rights workers have another angle: go to the Amnesty International Website, they say, search under "Hmong" and start reading about all the violence done against tribespeople by the Lao regime, which adds up to borderline genocide. You can frame the arguments any way you want, but for me, the more I learn about the Hmong resistance in Laos, the more I find it ambiguous and troubling. There's a cycle of violence in the boondocks of Laos, and all sides are keeping it going. I put the blame first and foremost on the Lao People's Democratic Republic, which is doing the actual killing; the Hmong-Americans rank a distant second. [Ibid]
Hmong Tribes Surrender after Years on the Run
In 2005, AP reported: Nearly 200 members of a Hmong hill tribe surrendered to authorities early today after decades on the run in Laotian jungles, a move that heralds a possible end to a tragic legacy of the Vietnam War. U.S. sympathizers traveling with the 170 women, children and old men said they were received warmly when they arrived around dawn in Laos The group emerged at the village of Chong Thuang, said Ed Szendrey, a pro-Hmong activist from the United States who met up with them in hopes of helping ensure their safety. [Source: AP, June 04, 2005]
If all proceeds peacefully, those who surrendered today are expected to be followed by several thousand others, from various Hmong bands in hiding around Laos, said Szendrey, who 's with the U.S.-based Fact Finding Commission. Szendrey said the initial official reception for those surrendering was warm and relaxed and that the police chief said the military had been told to stand down. “It looks like the government is prepared to handle it on the local level and not get the military involved," said Szendrey. “It looks like the Lao government is actually handling it pretty well."
U.S. Agents Thwart Planned Hmong-Backed Laos Coup Plot
In 2007, a Hmong-backed coup to overthrow the communist government in Laos was thwarted by U.S. agents before it could be launched. Tom A. Peter wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: “The failed coup was hatched in southern California and crushed there in a series of arrests by federal agents. According to charges filed in federal court, nine ethnic Hmong and one retired lieutenant colonel from the California National Guard planned to train a militia, equip them with $9.8 million worth of weapons, smuggle them into Laos through Thailand, attack key government installations, and seat themselves as the new ruling regime, reports the Associated Press. [Source: Tom A. Peter, Christian Science Monitor, June 6, 2007 >>>]
“Investigators say former General Vang Pao, a Hmong who lead the CIA-backed Royal Army of Laos during the 1960s and 70s, developed the plot along with retired Lieutenant Colonel Harrison Ulrich Jack, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran. The Associated Press reports the two men's plan was ill-fated. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was in on the plot almost from the beginning because the agency was tipped off by a Phoenix-area weapons dealer. The dealer told federal agents that Jack had approached him seeking to buy 500 AK-47 automatic weapons, according to a sworn affidavit by the agent. >>>
“On February 7, 2007, the agent said he secretly recorded his luncheon meeting with Jack, Vang Pao and 10 associates at a Thai restaurant a few blocks from the state Capitol in Sacramento. They then walked to a recreational vehicle parked nearby to examine machine guns, grenade launchers, antitank rockets, antipersonnel mines and other weapons. On Feb. 15, Jack called the agent to report that the plot was "in motion," the affidavit says. Federal agents moved in to arrest the conspirators as they allegedly prepared to receive their first weapons shipment. >>>
“The Times reports that Mr. Jack and Mr.Vang attempted to recruit former US special forces soldiers and Navy SEALs to fight in their militia. Additionally, the Los Angeles Times reports that they planned to securetraining for Hmong-Americans through the California Highway Patrol. An affidavit filed by an undercover agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives alleges that the group planned to use CHP training to develop a cadre of officers to help with the military operations and provide security in the new regime. According to the affidavit, Jack told the agent the group wanted as many operatives as possible to attend the CHP Academy, a rigorous 27-week course. After the coup, "the newly trained Hmong CHP officers would abandon the CHP and move to Laos to take positions of trust in the law enforcement departments" of the new Laotian government that would be headed by Gen. Pao, according to the ATF agent, whose name was redacted from the affidavit. >>>
Pao's lawyer says his client was "wrongly accused," and many Hmong community members as well as his family have offered him their support. Reuters reports that Pao's lawyer has gone so far as to call him a "hero." "General Vang Pao stands wrongly accused of the criminal charges against him," his court-appointed attorney, John Balazs, told reporters. "Since immigrating to the United States in 1975, General Vang Pao has been a tireless advocate for democracy, human rights and the Hmong people. (He) has worked actively to pursue peaceful solutions to the problems in Laos and has disavowed violence." "People of my father's generation have hoped one day that they could go back to a free Laos and farm the plot of land they left 30 years ago," said Minnesota state Rep. Cy Thao of St. Paul. "Vang Pao is sort of their last hope. You hear them talk about it, but you don't ever think it will come to this point." >>>
The Laotian government has urged US officials to issue the most extreme punishment possible for ten men charged with conspiring to overthrow the nation's communist regime, reports the "This is the great news that Laos has waited for for so long," said the foreign ministry spokesman Yong Changthalansy. "We hope the United States will prosecute them strictly under the Patriot Act and punish the violators of the law severely." >>>
Operation Popcorn: the Hmong-Backed Laos Coup Plan
Juliet Williams of Associated Press wrote: “A group plotting to overthrow the communist government of Laos had a detailed 90-day plan to oust and possibly assassinate top leaders, according to a new court document. The 18-page document titled, "Operation Popcorn: A Comprehensive Plan of Action," outlines a $28 million budget to pay local mercenaries to carry out the plot, then shut down all access into or out of the country. It said martial law would be established in the capital before Laos was transitioned to democracy. [Source: Juliet Williams, Associated Press, June 16, 2007 <=>]
“The document, obtained by The Associated Press, was filed this week after the arrest of an 11th suspect in the case, 48-year-old Dang Vang, who is listed as the author of the plan. Prosecutors say the leaders planned to purchase nearly $10 million of weapons, including AK-47 rifles and Stinger missiles. The Popcorn - standing for Political Opposition Party's Coup Operation to Rescue the Nation - plan details the cost to acquire dozens of sophisticated weapons, as well as payments for security forces, coup leaders, political and military consultants, and even mundane things such as office supplies and printing. <=>
“It details a three-part plan to depose the government through a network of underground sympathizers who would "neutralize trusted government leaders." Those who could not be neutralized would face "in-house arrests or assassination." It estimates about 1,000 security personnel would be needed to establish martial law and patrol the capital city, Vientian. Next, the group would take over all government buildings and communication systems, transportation and media. Airports and bus stations would be closed, and access to all major routes, including the Mekong River, would be closed.” <=>
At the heart of the coup plot was Vang Pao, former general in the Royal Army of Laos who led CIA-backed counterinsurgents during the Vietnam War. He was 77 in 2007. Tom A. Peter wrote in the Christian Science Monitor: “Pao is known in California and Minnesota — Hmong hubs in the US — as a prominent community leader who has helped countless immigrants since his arrival in 1975. He has also proved a powerful lobbyist for Hmong causes. The Merced Sun-Star reports that Pao had developed a number of strong ties inside the US government. "The contributions that Gen. Vang Pao has made to the Hmong and Laotian people of California have been invaluable," Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, declared in a House statement on May 8, 1996.” [Source: Tom A. Peter, Christian Science Monitor, June 6, 2007 >>>]
Roger Warner wrote in The Nation: “Vang Pao rose to become a major-general in Laos, thanks to his CIA mentor, a soft-spoken Texan named Bill Lair. Starting in 1961, the Hmong and the CIA operative created a tribal guerrilla army that fought successfully against Lao and North Vietnamese communists - for a while...Today there are about 200,000 Hmong-Americans; and although Vang Pao, now 77, is no longer their undisputed leader he is still their most famous name. [Source: Roger Warner, The Nation (Thailand), June 28, 2007 +++]
Vang Pao emigrated to the United States in 1975 and settled in the Los Angeles area. The acknowledged patriarch of his exiled countrymen, he has been credited by thousands of Hmong refugees with helping them build new lives in the United States. He died of pneumonia in Fresno. January 2011. Many Hmong were angered by the fact that Vang was denied a burial with honorsd at Arlington National Cemetary +++
Vang Pao and Other Hmong Charged Over Laos Coup Plot
Nardine Saad wrote in the Los Angeles Times:“In 2007, Vang Pao, 10 other Hmong expatriates and a former U.S. Army officer were accused of plotting to violently overthrow the Laotian government. Prosecutors alleged that the men were intent on overthrowing the Laotian Communist government by force in a plan called Operation Popcorn. Prosecutors said the men were seeking to raise $10 million to acquire powerful weapons—including antitank missiles and grenade launchers— and recruit special-operations mercenaries to help destroy government buildings in the capital city, Vientiane.[Source: Nardine Saad, Los Angeles Times, January 11, 2011]
Roger Warner wrote in The Nation: “On June 4, about 200 law-enforcement agents in California launched what initially appeared to be a spectacular raid, arresting nine in an alleged plot to overthrow the government of Laos. Eight of those arrested originally came from Laos. But almost everyone I've talked to who is deeply knowledgeable about Laos is dismayed by the indictments and accompanying press releases coming out of the US Attorney's office in Sacramento. The feds boast about stopping a massive attack on the Lao government, as though the Hmong are capable of that. The Hmong resistance in Laos is too scattered and beaten-down for that, and the Hmong-Americans are simply too disorganised. [Source: Roger Warner, The Nation (Thailand), June 28, 2007 +++]
“The government's case is typical of the post-9/11 John Ashcroft-Alberto Gonzales at the Justice Department. You've seen the pattern before: at first, big, ringing announcements of a clear victory over evil are made. Later it turns out the charges have been exaggerated or distorted. Months or years later the cases are dismissed or the charges are greatly reduced. And that is probably what is going to happen with Vang Pao and the Sacramento Nine. +++
“The government's case against the Hmong suffers from two weaknesses. The first is that the feds' undercover operative, who works for the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, was the co-creator of the so-called plot. A former Navy Seal, he offered a stupendous array of weapons, including Stinger missiles, and American-trained mercenaries. He brainstormed extensively with the only non-Hmong defendant, a retired Army colonel named Harrison Jack, who stood to benefit financially if the deal went through. The Hmong-Americans didn't hatch the idea for this plot, or at least nothing this ambitious. They just made the mistake of liking the sound of it when the others proposed it. +++
“The second weakness in the feds' case is that it does not take into account the cultural reality of the Hmong. Though many younger Hmong-Americans are US college graduates today, the elders of Vang Pao's generation still don't speak fluent English. They don't know how to "read" the intentions or sincerity of mainstream Americans and they don't fully understand US government rules. Whether they have been smart to support and guide the resistance in Laos or not, the Hmong-Americans are going to claim the right of ethnic self-defence against their old enemies. Who else would help the Hmong in Laos? The US government abandoned the Hmong in 1975 and has shown no interest in supporting them since then. Rumour has it that the Hmong-Americans who were recently arrested hoped the undercover agent worked for the American government - and he did, just not for the right agency. +++
This case is already causing collateral damage abroad. Laos and its neighbour, Thailand, have cited Vang Pao's arrest as a so-called terrorist to end a tradition of sanctuary for Hmong refugees in Thailand. About a thousand legitimate war refugees are at risk of being forcibly repatriated, including women who have been raped and tortured by Laotian forces and others who have seen family members killed. The first 160 were repatriated soon after Vang Pao's arrest. Nobody has heard from them since. They will not get trials, or visits from neutral international monitors. +++
Charges Dropped Against Vang Pao in Laos Coup Plot
In January 2011, Nardine Saad wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Federal prosecutors in Sacramento dropped charges against 11 Hmong expatriates and a former U.S. Army officer accused of plotting to violently overthrow the Laotian government, ending a 3 1/2-year legal saga that attracted international attention. The decision was announced a week after the death of Gen. Vang Pao, 81, a revered Hmong leader who was a key U.S. ally during the Vietnam War. Pao was initially accused of being the ringleader of a coup attempt, but charges against him were dropped in 2009.[Source: Nardine Saad, Los Angeles Times, January 11, 2011 +^+]
“The prosecution was dealt a serious setback when a judge dismissed the main charge, that the defendants violated the Neutrality Act, which prohibits people in the U.S. from attempting to overthrow nations at peace with the U.S. Defense attorneys called the charge "the crux of the case." "Based on the totality of the circumstances in the case, the government believes, as a discretionary matter, that continued prosecution of defendants is no longer warranted," prosecutors stated in court documents. +^+
“The dismissal was celebrated among members of the Hmong community, who were somberly awaiting Pao's funeral and routinely rallied for the defendants at court proceedings. "This was the only cloud that hung over the community in terms of us being in the U.S.," said Fresno City Councilman Blong Xiong, the first Hmong elected to public office in California, which has the largest Hmong population in the U.S. "We're definitely happy that we could move forward from this and move on to the general's funeral service." +^+
“Defense attorneys accused the government of basing the case on the lies and omissions of an undercover agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. "This is the government's way of creating and making a terrorist case," said federal public defender Daniel J. Broderick, who represented Harrison Ulrich Jack, a Vietnam veteran, West Point Graduate and former lieutenant colonel with the California National Guard. "The government went way over the top." +^+
“Broderick said the agent approached his client "out of the blue" and told him he could provide weapons to the Hmong people in the mountains of Laos to defend themselves against an order for their genocide by the Laotian government. Jack, the only defendant who was not Hmong, was told by the agent "that it was not about taking over the country or hurting somebody. It was just to allow the Hmong people to protect themselves," Broderick said. Mark J. Reichel, lead counsel for Lo Cha Thao, called the government's behavior "an embarrassment." He said that a "rogue ATF agent" spoke to his client on hundreds of occasions and led him to believe he was a CIA agent, in essence entrapping him. +^+
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Laos-Guide-999.com, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated May 2014