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POLITICS: Young Hmong Americans Confront a Dark History

Ngoc Nguyen

SAN FRANCISCO, Jul 20 2007 (IPS) - The Hmong American community was catapulted into the national spotlight when, on Jun. 4, 11 California residents were arrested for plotting to overthrow the government of Laos.

Among them was 77-year-old Vang Pao, who led a CIA-backed “secret army” of his tribesmen in Laos to aid U.S. soldiers against communist Laotian and Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War.

Vang Pao and his 10 co-conspirators were charged with violating the so-called Neutrality Act by planning an invasion of a country at peace with the United States. Justice Department officials say the men conspired to obtain AK-47 assault rifles, ground-to-air and anti-tank missiles, mines, rockets and other explosives.

A judge has since ordered most of them released on bail, and a pre-trial status conference is scheduled for Jul. 25.

While Pao and his co-conspirators were imprisoned, thousands of Hmong Americans descended upon the courthouse at the state capitol, demanding the release of all the men.

Daniel Xiong, 21, was among the protestors. He worked to organise youth from his hometown of Stockton, California to attend the rallies and even worked with local police to help maintain security at the events. Xiong said the arrests of General Vang Pao and the other men have drawn negative attention to the community.

“One day I woke up and [went to work, and] the boss came up and said, ‘your people are terrorists,’ and I was like, ‘Not us’. I was sad that the name ‘terrorists’ was now attached to our community,” he said.

A 25-year-old Hmong American graduate student in New York City, whose parents attended the rallies in California, said the protests united the Hmong American community, across generations, for the first time, regardless of their support for Vang Pao. For some, the arrests reopened a chapter of history unknown to them and many second generation Hmong Americans.

The student, who declined to give her name, grew up outside of Fresno, California, home to a large Hmong American community. She said she was exposed to the history of her homeland while growing up – her parents were activists and both her grandfathers had fought on the side of the United States during the “secret wars.” For her, the arrests of Vang Pao and his co-conspirators opened old wounds from the war.

“My impression is the revival of betrayal of the U.S. toward the Hmong in Laos,” she said. “They did pull out their troops and left the Hmong community to fend for themselves. This led to the human rights abuses in Laos, and at one point, there was a publicly announced genocide after the war when the Laos government hunted down Hmong, that’s why so many of them fled.”

Escaping retribution at the hands of the Laotian government, many Hmong fled as refugees. Tens of thousands started new lives in neighbouring Thailand. An estimated 250,000 currently reside in the United States, with communities flourishing in California, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In the 1990s, 29,000 Hmong living in Thailand were repatriated back to Laos. Some Hmong Americans claim the Hmong face discrimination, persecution and violence in Laos, where the Hmong and Iu Mien (Yao) account for less than 10 percent of the population of roughly 6.5 million.

The ambassador of the Laotian People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) to the U.S., Phiane Pilakone, has denied ongoing human rights abuses of the Hmong in Laos. But T. Kumar, advocacy director for Asia with Amnesty International, said the Hmong are “in bad shape in terms of human rights abuses.”

He said there are about 2,000 Hmong hiding in the Laos jungles, still fighting a low-level war with the Laotian military, using Vietnam War-era weapons. According to Kumar, this group lives under impoverished and dangerous conditions, lacking food and medicine and frequently attacked by military.

“Amnesty International is concerned about two groups of Hmong living in Laos – one is the scores of people deported back to Laos from Thailand, including women and children, and the group of people still in the jungle, who are still fighting a lost cause,” he said. “We don’t have access to either group. No one has access – journalists or international monitors.”

For second generation Hmong Americans, the controversy has opened the door to dialogue on their history and the current situation for Lao Hmong.

Daniel Xiong said he recently learned the U.S. military left their Hmong allies behind after the end of the war, but that hasn’t changed his mind about joining the U.S. military himself. In response to others labeling his community as “terrorists”, Xiong said he wants to volunteer to go to Iraq.

“We [Hmong] don’t have a home country, but when we come to United States, it is our home country,” he said. “We will join the fight for our home country, because it is fighting for peace and for our country we left behind.”

Several years ago, the Hmong American community was split on another issue: normal trade relations between the United States and Laos. The two countries entered into a trade agreement in 2003, but it wasn’t official until 2005. Some Hmong Americans opposed normal trade relations, and felt the U.S. should pressure Laos to put an end to human rights abuses.

Others in the community see increased business ties as a path to peace.

Pastor Seng Fo Chao, president of the Iu Mien American National Coalition, was part of a delegation of Laotian Americans who traveled in December 2005 to Laos to forge greater business and personal ties with the country. The pastor also fought alongside the U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War, but his life has since taken a different turn.

Chao belongs to the Iu Mien ethnic group, whose people are spread throughout Laos, China, Thailand and Vietnam.

His group has voted to take a “neutral stance” on the Vang Pao arrests.

“Some of the Iu Mien (Yao) in Lao PDR were deceived and lured into the jungle and fought against the government soldiers of Lao PDR from 1975 to 1987,” he said. “Then the last group of Iu Mien laid down their arms and came out from the jungle to join the government of Lao PDR in 1987. Since then, the Iu Mien in Lao PDR has been at peace with the government of Lao PDR and the world.”

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