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Editor’s Note: Journalist and photographer Anthony C. LoBaido, working along with U.S. Special Forces personnel such as Maj. Carl Bernard, the first Green Beret on the ground to train the Hmong during the secret war in Laos, has worked for more than a decade to document the plight of America’s Hmong allies in Southeast Asia. In this update, LoBaido pieces together the mystery surrounding the Hmong’s latest repatriation from Thailand to Laos.
Hmong in the United States celebrating New Year
HUAY NAM KHAO, Thailand – The Hmong of Laos, popularized most recently in Clint Eastwood’s film “Gran Torino,” once again are making headlines with the forced deportation of thousands from Thailand.
It was Dec. 28 when the Royal Government of Thailand deported more than 4,000 Hmong against their wishes amid a media blackout, with cell phone conduits shut down. An estimated 5,000 Thai soldiers “supervised.”
Among the 4,500 Hmong sent back to Laos were 158 recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as meeting the official definition of a refugee. The Netherlands, the U.S., Australia and Canada had offered to accept the refugees.
The Hmong had been held in a camp in Huay Nam Khao in Phetchabun province and inside the Immigration Detention Center in Nong Khai province. Many prayed and wept as they left their temporary homes in Thailand via a convoy of more than 100 buses and trucks. The Thai-Lao Friendship Bridge at the border and points beyond were their de facto final destination.
The expulsion of the Hmong has drawn a firestorm of world condemnation against the Thai government, which insists most of the 4,500 sent back were
merely economic refugees. The U.S. and U.N., among others, disagree.
Thailand, a vital American and Western ally dating back to the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia during World War II, long has been known for its hospitality. Surrounded by the Pathet Lao, Burmese junta, Khmer Rouge and facing an Islamic insurgency in its own southern region, Thailand has stood as a pillar of sanity amid a sea of extremism. Yet after playing host to uncountable thousands of refugees over the past decades, Thailand’s patience with the Hmong seems to have finally run out.
Who are the Hmong?
The Hmong have lived a tragic tale for much of the past 200-plus years. Their odyssey reached its apex under Operation White Star, led by U.S. Maj. Carl Bernard among others, when they fought alongside U.S. Special Forces during the Vietnam War in a secret front waged in Laos.
The CIA directed, financed and trained the Hmong during the 1960s and 1970s as the Hmong gave up their peaceful way of life, their families and their farms to rescue downed American pilots and take out Soviet and mainland Chinese supply lines loaded with weaponry that would kill U.S. troops.
Sadly, like other Western and American allies such as the Afrikaners, Kampas of Tibet, Montagnards of Vietnam, Nicaraguan Contras, UNITA in Angola and the Karen of Burma, the Hmong were betrayed and left behind to die when America lost the war and fled Saigon in the infamous 1975 evacuation.
Since that time, the Hmong have languished in Thai refugee camps – with occasional resettlement efforts in countries such as the U.S., France or even French Guyana in South America offering a glimmer of hope for the Hmong remnant.
According to Lao officials, the Hmong who have been returned to Laos have been sent back to their original homes or placed in new villages. Laos is still a communist country that maintains close ties with countries such as North Korea. In fact, Laos and North Korea have an agreement to send back North Koreans fleeing the Hermit Kingdom and repatriate them to Pyongyang.
Lao officials claim that none of the 158 Hmong classified as refugees have asked to be resettled to a third country upon their return to Laos. This is viewed as strange, according to many credible sources who have interviewed them, since they didn’t want to be returned to Laos in the first place.
Many Hmong watchers around the world are concerned about the recent repatriation, including the American ambassador to Thailand, Radio Free Asia and Amnesty International.
The persecution of the Hmong was brought to the mind of the general public decades ago through the writings of authors such as Jane Hamilton-Merritt and Dr. Charles Weldon; who documented Hmong women being thrown off cliffs in Laos and having the heads of babies bashed against trees.
Persecution and support
Why is the potential return of the Hmong to Laos seen as a concern to friends of the Hmong all around the world? Perhaps because the Hmong are still seen by the Communist Pathet Lao government as U.S. allies who opposed their rule so long ago and might well do so again.
For example, under the titular leadership of Gen. Vang Pao, Hmong factions in the U.S. have sought to carry on with their “secret war” in Laos. In fact, not long ago, several Hmong were brought up on terrorism charges in the U.S. for just that reason. They are a group of bitter-enders known as the “Jungle Hmong.”
Author and former CIA agent Roger Warner, who worked with the Hmong, says the U.S. case will have deadly consequences.
“The real tragedy is that, whatever happens or doesn’t happen with this misguided federal court case, some innocent tribal people are being killed,” he said. “Why? In part because the U.S. government’s labeling the Hmong ‘terrorists’ has given a couple of Southeast Asian governments all the excuse they ever wanted to treat the Hmong as badly or worse than we’ve treated anyone in Abu Ghraib.”
Will the returning Hmong be persecuted in Laos? That is the question of the hour. Amnesty International has cited “enforced disappearances, torture and arbitrary detention” of Hmong who were repatriated to Laos from other countries such as Thailand.
In a rare show of bipartisan solidarity, America’s top lawmakers are attempting to stand up for the Hmong. Nine U.S. senators have written to Thai Prime Ministar Abhisit Vejjajiva to argue against the deportation of the 4,500 Hmong.
Dated Dec. 17, the letter stated, “While we recognize that the Kingdom of Thailand is burdened by the large number of refugees it hosts on its territory, we encourage you not to take steps to repatriate any individuals to Laos at this time. We believe the lack of transparency in the screening and repatriation process only exacerbates these difficulties and heightens international concerns regarding these populations.”
The letter was signed by Republicans Lisa Murkowski and Richard Lugar, along with Democrats such as Al Franken of Minnesota, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Barbara Boxer of California, who hail from states with large Hmong immigrant populations.
The Lao government, a party to several important U.N. human rights conventions, has loudly protested claims that the returning Hmong will be persecuted. The government points to reports by international organizations that the Hmong who returned to Laos in 2008 and 2009 have not been abused. Laos has joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, a formerly U.S.-led, anti-communist alliance that now boasts its own Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights.
Between Jan. 7-9, several U.S. congressmen traveled to Laos and visited with the newly repatriated Hmong at Phalak village outside of the Laotian capital of Vientiene. Eni Faleomavaega, the head of the Subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and Global Environment of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, offered testimony at a press conference that the Hmong at Phalak village were not being persecuted.
However, that testimony has not pacified many observers concerned about the status of the recently repatriated Hmong.
Benjamin Zawacki and Brittis Edman of Amnesty International contended Thailand’s Dec. 28 deportation of the Hmong “violated [Thailand’s] obligations under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, which provides that state parties must not send people to countries where they risk torture. The government also claimed, after holding them [the Hmong] for three years in arbitrary detention in constant fear of forcible return, that the Hmong agreed to return to Laos voluntarily. In fact, the Thai authorities told them that they would be resettled to third countries only if they first agreed to go back to Laos.”
Zawaki and Edman, writing in the Jan. 9 edition of the Bangkok Post, also stated “Amnesty International visited the refugees in Nong Khai – including around 90 children – and can attest to their strong fear of the Lao authorities and their desire to resettle somewhere safe. The Hmong in both Nong Khai and Phetchabun also expressed their resistance to returning to Laos through hunger strikes, protests and acts of civil disobediences.”
Eric G. John, the U.S. ambassador to Thailand, wrote a half page op-ed piece in the Jan. 13 edition of the Bangkok Post in which he stated, “All the refugees we interviewed in Nong Khai told us on December 28th, that they did not wish to return to Laos, clearly indicating that the return was involuntary. The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program was available to consider referrals of individuals from this community. This was clearly articulated repeatedly by U.S. officials. Both the UNHCR and the Royal Thai Government had, indeed, determined that many among this population were in need of protection. And the United States, along with many other countries, stood ready to provide third-country resettlement as an option, but this course was not allowed.”
Desperately seeking the Hmong
The U.N. refugee agency officially stated Jan. 29 that it has “no access” to the thousands of ethnic Hmong expelled from Thailand to Laos. The U.S. report was gathered and disseminated just as Radio Free Asia sensationally reported the Lao government had set up a new secret prison inside Borlikhamsay Province, Laos, for the recently returning Hmong and that some of those Hmong were being held inside the prison.
The Radio Free Asia report in turn led Bouasieng Champaphanh, a brigadier general and the head of the Lao-Thai border security subcommittee, to issue a statement to the Vientiane Times which simply said, “There is no secret jail.”
The general also has invited international diplomats to visit the Hmong in Borlikhamsay Province in “two months” because of the preparations needed as the “roads are in bad condition, and there is no appropriate place for helicopters to land at the moment.”
Additionally, the Deputy Prime Minister of Laos, Somsavat Lengsavat, has gone on record claiming his government will give all returning Hmong families nine rai of farming land upon their repatriation to Laos. A rai is 1,600 square meters, and there are 2.25 rai in one acre.
For now, the Hmong must await the most recent “final verdict” in their never-ending, complex saga. Pushing matters to a head, 16 watchdog groups including Amnesty International, sent a letter Feb. 2 to Choummaly Sayasone, the president of Laos and expressed “serious concerns for the safety and protection” of the Hmong that had just been repatriated from Thailand. They asked for all 158 UNHCR-qualified Hmong to be immediately sent to third countries.
The letter read in part, “Given the difficulties faced by some prior Hmong returnees, we urge you to immediately allow unhindered and continuous access by UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to all returnees.”
Addressing the need for Americans to keep a watchful eye on the most recent deportation of the Hmong, Robert Charette, a full-blooded American Indian and ex-U.S. Army Special Forces operator, said, “I would say our obligations sort of dictate it. The Hmong are a resilient and incredibly stout-hearted people; they will be waiting on patriotic Americans. Meanwhile, commit them to the Lord.”
Fran Keck and his wife Shirley of Hmong International Ministries in Atlanta, Ga., have been traveling throughout Northern Thailand over the past few weeks visiting the Hmong people. In an interview with WND, Fran Keck lamented, “People have been killing Hmong for thousands of years. In 1800, the Chinese killed 500,000. No matter what happens now, someone will continue to kill them in the future.”