The Hmong - Cold War ally, modern-day nuisance

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Niccolo and Donkey
Cold War ally, modern-day nuisance

Asia Times Online

Brian MacCartan

January 10, 2011

Bangkok - Vang Pao, the most potent symbol and important player in the US Central Intelligence Agency's "secret war" in Laos, died of natural causes in California on January 6 at the age of 81. While the general never formally served in the US military, his advocates in the ethnic Hmong community believe he should be buried at Arlington National Cemetery alongside other American war heroes.

His controversial past, including alleged involvement in narcotics trafficking and an indictment for his alleged role in plotting to topple the Lao government from US soil, will likely weigh against US President Barack Obama granting him a special waiver for burial at Arlington. As Washington's post-Cold War strategic objectives shift in the region, Vang Pao's is a historical chapter the US and its regional allies will be keen to see closed.

Communist influence in Southeast Asia was a growing concern for the US in the late 1950s and Washington sought a commander who was capable of engaging the communists in Laos without the need to commit American soldiers. In December 1959, Bill Lair, a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) adviser based in Thailand, was introduced to Vang Pao, then a Royal Lao Army battalion commander. Blair later arranged to provide weapons and training for the Vang Pao-commanded Hmong contingent.

As the fighting in Laos grew the role of Vang Pao's fighters expanded to not only keeping the forces of the Pathet Lao and North Vietnam at bay, but also observing and interdicting the Ho Chi Ming Trail, rescuing downed American airmen and protecting navigation sites for the US's strategic bombing of North Vietnam.

Much of the fighting took place in Laos' remote northeast, especially around the strategic Plain of Jars region. US bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail and in support of the Hmong over time made Laos the most heavily bombed country in the world. The legacy of unexploded ordnance left behind by US bombing is still felt today through civilian injuries and deaths, including among agrarians tilling contaminated fields.

Vang Pao's forces would eventually grow to almost 40,000 fighters and provided a backbone of resistance against the communist forces. His losses, however, were enormous. Initially a guerrilla force, his soldiers were later used as a conventional force, a role for which they were unsuited. They suffered accordingly and by the late 1960s the Hmong were forced to recruit boys as young as 13 to replenish their numbers.

Blair also arranged for the Hmong to be trained by members of Thailand's Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit (PARU). His relations with the Thai military were reinforced through continued PARU training and the recruitment of thousands of Thai "mercenaries" to support the war effort. Thai support for the US and Hmong efforts was seen in Bangkok as necessary to prevent a communist takeover of Laos, which would have threatened Thailand's royal government and emboldened its own communist insurgency.

Vang Pao was not only a military commander, but also oversaw aid and development programs to his fighters and their families. Much of this was provided by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Through these programs, agricultural training was provided and schools and clinics set up.

Vang Pao's military career, however, was not without controversy. He oversaw US-funded aid programs for his fighters and their families, including agricultural training. Accusations were raised during and after the war about opium trafficking by Vang Pao and his officers, allegedly to pay for his army and enrich themselves. The accusations extended in some cases of US involvement, including the use of the CIA's Air America aircraft to transport opium.

These widely reported allegations have been disputed by some Hmong and their supporters, including former CIA paramilitary officers who worked alongside of them. However, a plan by Madison, Wisconsin to name a public park after Vang Pao was dropped in 2002 when allegations were raised over his ordering the executions of enemy prisoners of war, followers and political rivals.

Vang Pao's forces were ultimately unable to defeat the Pathet Lao communists who eventually took over the country in 1975. Vang Pao, his family and senior Hmong leaders were evacuated by the Americans, but at least 50,000 Hmong fighters and their families were left behind.

The Hmong exile community and human rights groups say what followed was a series of revenge attacks against Hmong who supported Vang Pao during the war. Tens of thousands of Hmong fled the country for Thailand. The US did not officially acknowledge the secret war until 1997, when a monument was erected in Arlington National Cemetery to honor the Hmong and other veterans of the struggle.

Vang Pao was initially resettled in Montana, but eventually moved to Orange County, California. He is credited with helping to broker the resettlement of tens of thousands of Hmong from refugee camps in Thailand to the US. In the US, he formed several nonprofit agencies, including the Lao Family Community, to provide social services, teach English and other basic life skills to ease Hmongs' transition to life in the US. He also set up a council to mediate in disputes between 18 different Hmong clans and personally mediated problems in Hmong communities across the US. Over 200,000 Hmong now live in the US.

Dwindled resistance
From exile, Vang Pao also organized the United Lao National Liberation Front (ULNF), or Neo Hom, in an attempt to attract attention to human rights violations against Hmong in Laos and garner support for a continued Hmong resistance. That resistance has since dwindled to between several hundred to a thousand bedraggled fighters and their families in the northeastern and central mountain regions in Laos. They have kept fighting partly for survival, but also at the behest of Hmong groups in the US who encourage them while living comfortably in exile.

Some of these groups are associated with Vang Pao while others are not. Critics within the Hmong community note with irony that these "jungle Hmong" are provided satellite phones to report their situation to supporters in the US, but are themselves severely malnourished and dressed in rags while fighting a Cold War-era struggle they cannot hope to win.

In 2001, Vang Pao seemed to moderate his position when he publicly advocated for the first time normalization of US-Lao official relations. Observers believed the gesture aimed to alleviate sustained human rights abuses against his former supporters. In 2003, he surprised his supporters again by saying it was time to find ways to negotiate peacefully with the communist Lao government.

Vang Pao's image was tarnished on several occasions by accusations that he and other Hmong leaders had profited personally through fundraising activities within the Hmong community. Based largely on the empty promise of one day returning to Laos, Hmong community members are often requested to contribute funds for the small jungle resistance. It's unclear how much of these funds, if any, went to Vang Pao, but certainly some of his close associates benefited.

Despite these controversies, Vang Pao remained throughout his life a respected leader in the Hmong community. His influence, however, had waned substantially in recent years. Appeals to nostalgia for the Lao motherland held less appeal with a generation of Hmong born and raised in the US; today they make up the majority of the US-based Hmong community.

Among the factionalized Hmong exile community, Vang Pao's group worked hard to establish itself as the voice of the Hmong people. However, this voice lost resonance asthe Vietnam War generation faded and the soldiers, spies, diplomats and journalists who knew Vang Pao and worked with him during the war retired or passed away.

Indeed, Vang Pao and the Hmong have in recent years been viewed in Washington seen as an embarrassing impediment to improving US-Lao relations. Its clear from recent policy shifts that the US would prefer to bury the past and forge better relations with Vientiane to counterbalance China's growing influence in the region, including in Laos.

That became publicly apparent with the June 2007 federal indictment of Vang Pao, nine Hmong and a former American army officer for their alleged roles in a plot to overthrow the government of Laos in violation of the US's Federal Neutrality Act. A sting operation purportedly discovered that Vang Pao and associates were attempting to purchase weapons, including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, to smuggle through Thailand to Hmong insurgents in Laos.

Vang Pao's arrest sparked protests in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina. Supporters and friends who worked with him in Laos emphasized his past service to the US. Others noted the spurious nature of the accusations and claimed that the sting operation represented an illegal entrapment.

The charges were leveled despite the US government's willingness for decades to look the other way concerning Hmong fund raising for Laos-based insurgents. The charges against Vang Pao were dropped in September 2009 after significant pressure by Hmong and influential American supporters. However, two other Hmong were arrested at the same time and all 12 of the others face life imprisonment if convicted.

With his open identification with the CIA's secret war and Thailand's intense participation in that effort, Vang Pao remained a problematic figure for both sides. Bangkok quietly supported Hmong resistance groups in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but later withdrew support and banned Vang Pao from visiting Thailand due to his continued influence over refugee populations and the potent symbolism he provided to Hmong insurgents.

Thailand and Laos would now rather concentrate on bilateral trade and investment. In December 2009, Thailand forcibly repatriated thousands of Hmong refugees from the Ban Huay Nam Khao refugee camp. Established in 2005 for Hmong claiming to flee from government persecution as former Vang Pao and CIA fighters, the camp was seen as a historical embarrassment to both counties and an impediment to forging closer ties.

In late December 2009, Vang Pao announced he was ready to return to Laos to negotiate directly with the Lao government. The government's response was that he had been condemned to death and if he returned the sentence would be carried out. Vang Pao announced soon after that he would not make the trip. Detractors say his announcement was a publicity stunt aimed at galvanizing his personality cult and that he never intended to re-enter Laos.

Upon the announcement of his death, the Lao government told Agence France-Presse that "He was an ordinary person, so we do not have any reaction." Vientiane has long aimed to solve its Hmong-related problems internally and claims to have made substantial progress. Officials frequently point out that the majority of Hmong live peacefully in Laos and that a large number of Hmong fought on the communist side during the war. They also note the numerous Hmong in government positions, including Pany Yathotou, a politburo member and vice-president of the National Assembly, as proof of successful integration.

Vang Pao's passing may be a time for mourning for the Hmong community in the US, but in Washington, Bangkok and Vientiane there will likely be quiet sighs of relief. Vang Pao epitomized and sustained the hostilities of the Cold War that many in the region are keen to bury in order to move ahead with trade-promoting economic integration. But Vang Pao's memory will live on in Hmong communities in the US and among the small pocket of fighters still perpetuating his struggle in mountainous hinterlands in Laos.

Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached at .