More than thirty-five years after the end of America’s War in Indochina, America’s greatest allies are hunted like animals.
I was recently approached by a Hmong representative, asking me to get the word out to the world. There are over 300 Hmong families hiding in the jungle of Laos, hunted by the Lao and Vietnamese armies. For more than 35 years, they have been constantly on the move, unable to plant rice or to raise their families with any reasonable degree of peace or safety. They have very little food or weapons, no medicine and no outside support.
The Hmong from the jungle need a place to call home.
Of the hundreds of Hmong who have surrendered to the Lao government forces over the last decade, none were ever seen or heard from again. The recent policy of the Thai government has been to remove Hmong from the refugee camps in Thailand and send them back to Laos.
Almost none of the Hmong refugees returned to Laos were ever heard from again.
These people are not just the soldiers of General Vang Pao’s Hmong army who fought for the CIA in the Secret War in Laos. Now, they are the children and grandchildren, born long after the conflict, but born into a continuing state of war.
If they remain in the jungle, the Hmong will die of starvation, slow disease, and eventual execution by the Laos military. If they surrender, they fear they will be killed. If they flee to Thailand, they know they will be sent back.
Where can the Hmong go? How can they find a place to call home?
To understand the Hmong, and where this problem came from, we have to go back to before the 1950’s, when the French were battling to preserve their colonies in Indochina.
During the Second World War, the French Indochina colonies of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos were occupied by the Japanese. Various resistance armies developed, fighting against the Japanese. In Vietnam, the leader of the resistance forces was Ho Chi Minh, who was supported by the American OSS (the predecessor of the CIA).
When the war ended and the French came back to reclaim their colonies, they met a lot of hostility from their former colonial subjects, who felt that France had betrayed them. The resistance forces shifted from fighting the Japanese to fighting the French. This fighting would eventually become the First Indochina War. The primary battlefield was in Vietnam, where the French fought a losing war against Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh forces.
In Laos, the French GCMA, special operations command, recruited Vang Pao, a Hmong leader, as a Lieutenant in the French army.
“The French took the Hmong to northern Laos to fight for the French army,” the Hmong representative explained to me. He was at once telling me the story of his people and that of his own family. His father and his uncles had been high ranking officers in the Hmong army. “That was general Vang Pao and people like my father. Vang Pao was a Lieutenant at that point. He was in the French army, not the Laos army. He commanded only Hmong troops.”
Vang Pao would later become a general, and work directly with US-backed Air America and the Ravens.
“Two thousand Hmong were actually taken to Vietnam to fight in the battle of Dien Bien Phu.”
Dien Bien Phu was a supposedly impregnable mountain stronghold where the French suffered their final defeat in their war to keep the Vietnam colony. In the French Foreign Legion as well as in the regular French military, it is considered a great badge of honor to have fought at this historic battle.
And the Hmomg were there.
After the fall of France, Communist regimes struggled to take control of Vietnam and Laos. Vang Pao joined the Royal Laos Army, fighting the communists, and eventually became the first Hmong to achieve the rank of general.
“The Hmong were pro French,” explained the Hmong representative. “They didn’t like the communists. They lived in their mountains, and they didn’t like anyone to ask them what they did. They didn’t want anyone telling them what to do. The French left them alone, but the communists wanted to control them.”
A civil war in Laos was fought between the Royals on one side and the communists on the other, with the tribal people caught in the middle. The Americans had their eye on the war in Laos, fearing the Domino Effect, whereby if one country fell to communism, communism would spread across Southeast Asia. President Kennedy actually identified Laos as the key to stopping Communism. While US military advisers were being sent to Vietnam, US agents were exploring options in Laos.
“In 1960, the American colonel Colby came to see Vang Pao.” Originally, the Americans met with another Hmong leader, Touby Ly Fong. “But People told them to see Vang Pao because Touby Ly Fong, but was pro French. And that was not good for the Americans. Before he left Laos colonel Sasi gave 2,000 weapons to Vang Pao and Touby Ly Fong. He told them they would need these weapons someday. After Colby went to see him, Vang Pao said, ‘go make the weapons ready.’”
“When the Americans came back, in 1961 they asked Vang Pao to fight the communists.”
During the more than a decade of US involvement in the war in Laos, the Hmong served alongside Air America and the Ravens, the US clandestine forces. To this day, veterans will tell you that the Hmong were some of the toughest allies the US has ever had.
The royal government of Laos fell, and the communists claimed victory in 1975. Vang Pao was resettled to the US at that time. According to the Hmong representative, “The Americans gave the Hmong a choice of going to the refugee camps in Thailand or to stay in the fort.”
“Vang Pao left orders with the colonel, who stayed behind, to keep fighting. But he told the colonel to move the battlefront closer to the Thai border. This way, it would be easier to send weapons and support to Hmong rebels to keep up the fight. They remained there and kept fighting until 1976 and 1977. After 1975, a lot of Hmong wanted to go to America. They knew if they went to the Thai camps they could go to America. But the communists were hunting them. The Communists wanted to capture the Hmong soldiers and send them to reeducation camps. So the Hmong ran back to the jungle and kept fighting.”
“For more than thirty years, there have been small groups of Hmong living in the jungle, still fighting for democracy. The first group to surrender was in 2000 when the first journalist brought out the story about the Hmong living in the jungle. Nearly all of the Hmong in the refugee camps in Thailand are from 1975-1977.”
“Before the year 2000 I sent satellite phones to the ones still in the jungle, and we got information from them. They were waiting all of those years for Vang Pao and for the Americans to come save them. They had no news from the outside world. They stayed, and fought and waited, as General Vang Pao had told them to.”
After the 2000 journalist report about the Hmong in the jungle, the Laos and Vietnamese forces tightened up their control on America’s former allies.
Today, “The Hmong still in the jungle have to move constantly. They can’t grow rice. They can’t do anything. They move every four or five days. The rainy season is a little safer, because no one can get in or out (of the inhospitable jungle area). Occasionally, maybe they can stay somewhere for a month. But always, they are moving. The area is about 1,000 KM or more. So they move constantly.”
“A journalist broke the story about 196 Hmong who surrendered. And no one has been able to find them since. They are presumed dead.”
Up until today, there are still Hmong in refugee camps in Thailand, who have been there since 1975. The last official Hmong camp was only closed in 2009, although a few Hmong remain in Thailand, in refugee camps with Burmese refugees. According to a representative of the aid organization, Medecins Sans Frontieres, “Hundreds have been forcibly returned by the Thai authorities, and face almost certain persecution.”
According to a recent film documentary on the Hmong still living in the jungle, of all of the Hmong who either surrendered to the Laos authorities or were forcibly repatriated by Thailand, only 63 have been verified as still living.
“Yes, I am sure they killed them in the jungle somewhere, and we don’t know. The Communists don’t want the Hmong to get out.”
“The Thais sent a lot of Hmong back and as far as I know, no one has been able to contact them.”
“This is the diplomacy between Laos and Thailand. A lot of Hmong from the cities or even Hmong from Thailand went to live in the refugee camp. They said, ‘we are from the jungle.’ I think there were 2000 families from the jungle and 2000 from the city and from Thailand, because they wanted to go to the United States. So many Hmong went to America and they have money.”
Today, there are around 300,000 Hmong people living in the United States.
“They can help their family. The Hmong in the mountains are poor. But if you are in USA and have $100 dollars you can buy a buffalo for your father or grandmother living here.”
“These Hmong caused a lot of problems for the Thai and Laos government. If they had sent all of the Hmong to America, maybe 20,000 more Hmong would show up claiming to be from the jungle.”
In Laos, the situation of the Hmong is even more precarious. “Officially the war still exists between the Hmong and the communists,” said the representative.
According to a number of journalistic reports, the Laos government denies the existence of the Hmong in the jungle.
“There are 300 families still in the jungle, but they are not one group. They are separated.”
We are not just talking about old men, old soldiers. These are families; sons and in some cases grandchildren born after the war. Born in a jungle camp, born into a conflict and growing up in a state of a war which the rest of the world thinks has been over for nearly forty years.
I asked the representative if the death of Vang Pao in January, 2011 had changed anything for the Hmong living in the jungles of Laos.
“Now, General Vang Pao is dead. Most of the colonels are dead. But the Hmong in the jungle, they wait. Some are willing to surrender, but they cannot surrender to the communists. They are afraid. So, they want to come to Thailand, but if you look at Mekong now, it is heavily fortified to prevent the Hmong from sneaking into Thailand.”
They can’t stay in the jungle. They can’t surrender. And they can’t go to Thailand. And so, 300 Hmong families; men, women, and children, starve, suffer, and wait for someone to rescue them.