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Ethnic Minorities and Nation-building in Laos: The Hmong in the Lao State before 1975

School of Behavioural Sciences, Macquarie University, North Ryde, Australia.

Published in Peninsule, No.11/12, 1985/86, pp.215-232



I am grateful for the financial assistance from the American Social Science Research Council (Indochinese Studies Program), New York and for the collaboration with and support of Dr Timothy Dunnigan from the Department of Anthropology at University of Minnesota, USA. This paper is an attempt to reconstruct Hmong history in Laos from the perspective of the leaders, their involvement in Lao politics and their participation in the shaping of the Lao nation. It is based on data collected from a year of field interviews supplemented with written sources in Hmong, Lao, French and English. Some of the chronological events related here are already familiar with many readers, but others are hopefully new. As this is a very brief overview, it only touches on the essential and thus many other factors have been omitted.


At the beginning, they had only the words of the Chinese trader who twice returned from the South and talked of a vast expanse of land covered in virgin forests and stalked by wild animals. Few people lived on this southern land as it was inhabited by fierce tigers, wild elephants and rhinoceros. This indeed sounded like a land of golden opportunities, a land dreamed of by all Hmong and so many times mentioned in their legendary stories. On the traders' third trip to the South, the Hmong sent their own messengers with him, and again they came back with the same glowing account of this southern country known as "Niag Moos" or the Mother State.


Southwards the Hmong migrated, hoping there weren’t others going ahead of them. They were not sure whether the exhausted grassland they left behind was in Yunnan or Tonkin, because in these northern parts, the Chinese were the rulers, but they did not know who ruled in the Southern land into which they were now moving. The first group to arrive on this migration to Nong Het, in North-eastern Laos were the Green Hmong and were soon followed by two groups of White Hmong. The newcomers settled on mountain tops and began clearing their first swiddens out of the choicest virgin forests around their villages.


On a fine day in the middle of the dry season, the Lao farmers living in the lowlands nearest to the Hmong looked up to the highlands. They saw nothing but thick smoke burning out of the green jungles. This was indeed most unusual, for in all their lives these impenetrable forests had never given up so much grey and black smoke for weeks on end. Perhaps, the evil jungle spirits were angry and burning up the hills? As quickly as the Lao villagers could run, they reported the strange sighting to their local overlord who sent a few of his best men up the mountains for a closer inspection. Cutting their way through uncharted terrain, they reached where the smoke had come from. They discovered that patches upon patches of virgin forests had been cleared, left to dry and burned. Yet no one seemed to be in sight.


After much searching, they found what appeared to be a human settlement perched on a mountain ridge. This however, was no ordinary Lao village, for all the houses were built on a dirt floor instead of stilts. When the Lao approached the village, all the inhabitants took to the jungle with their children and possessions on their backs. These people must be savages, indeed. Why else would they flee at the sight of other human beings? And look at the spoons and bowls on the kitchen shelves: they were all carved from wood. These foreigners must be really primitive, for no Lao would use wooden kitchen utensils. The country had probably been invaded again, but this time not by the usual Vietnamese from the East who always came with armed troops.


The King of Xieng Khouang, in whose domain the events took place, was informed in haste. Instead of being concerned, the King merely said to the emissaries of Lord of Muong Kham who controlled the Nong Het area: "Return to your master, and tell him not be alarmed. These forest people are none other than my own subjects. If they prefer living in the highlands, let them be. We will pay them our own visit when the time is appropriate". The King soon sent one of his representatives to see the Hmong, and demanded that they paid taxes in return for permission to live in the hills of the northern State.


Not long after their discovery by the Lao, the Hmong settlers found that they were not living alone in the highlands. There were Khmu down on the lower slopes, an aboriginal race who were pushed up the hills by the incoming Lao many centuries before. At first, when the Hmong were still only a few families, they were tolerated, but once their numbers increased they were soon in conflict with the slope dwellers over land use. The Khmu claimed to possess much of the upland forests and did not want the Hmong to clear them for farming. Many Khmu had also become addicted to Hmong opium and were reduced to working for the Hmong or Lao in the lowlands. Resentment soon turned into hostility, and finally armed clashes (Larteguy and Yang, 1979:85). Using flintlocks, the Hmong had a stronger firepower over the Khmu's spears and arrows. They also had much longer war experiences from their centuries of resistance against invaders in China. These skirmishes were to play an important role in subsequent relationships between the two hill minorities. Many Khmu moved to Luang Prabang province and later joined the communist Pathet Lao (PL) against the many highland Hmong on the side of the Royal Lao Government (RLG). Those who remained in Xieng-Khouang came to identify with other groups as underdogs of the French colonial authorities and lowland Lao overlords, and tended to unite with the Hmong in their common political struggles.


By the time Laos became a French protectorate in 1893, the Hmong had settled in greater numbers in Laos and could be found not only in Xieng Kouang, but also in Sameua, Luang Prabang and Phong Saly provinces. The system of the Hmong paying tax to lowland Lao had been well established. Not only was tax paid in the form of two silver coins per household, but those Hmong chiefs who were given village or clan leadership by the Lao such as the Kiatong, the Xophia, the Photong also had to pay occasional tribute with the products of their hunting and gathering: elephant tusks, rhinoceros’ horns, deer meat, etc. - without counting a few kilograms of opium (Yang Dao, 1975:45). The French had only to maintain this tax system. Because the tax was now paid to the French through local Lao mandarins, the latter were deprived of their traditional source of incomes from the highlander and in turn, illegally levied on the tax.


Finding themselves now paying double tax without any consultation, the 3 Kiatong Hmong in the Nong Het area organised an ambush against tax collectors and their few accompanying guards in 1896 at Ban Khang Phanieng in Muong Kham, Xieng Khouang province (Yang Dao, op. cit.: 46). Following subsequent negotiations with the French, the first Hmong Tasseng (canton administrator) was established and given to the chief negotiator, Kiatong Muas Zoov Kaim. Another Tasseng was created near Xieng Khouang town with Zam Yaj Hawj assuming the title in 1940. Under the new arrangement, all Hmong leaders were to collect taxes from their own people and would have autonomy within the Hmong village administration, bypassing Lao officials at the Tasseng and Muong levels (Savina, 1924:238). This was to greatly affect later political events in Laos, for it gave the Hmong leadership a tendency to prefer dealing directly with Western allies (be it the French or Americans) instead of the Lao, primarily due to a distrust of Lao authorities and based on these early administrative conflicts.


The Pa Chay (Batchai) revolt against the French from 1918 to 1921 only served to strengthen the bond between the pro-French Hmong leaders and their colonial masters. Pa Chay Vue was an orphan brought up by his uncle and after his marriage and the birth of his first child, he claimed to be called on by God to teach the Hmong how to live in good health and harmony within their environment (Yaj Xooj Tsawb, 1984; 29-31). His mission did not extend to the declaration of war against the Black Thai in Northwest Vietnam where the rebellion first took place. Nevertheless, Pa Chay’s uncle urged him to lead the Hmong against oppressive lowland mandarins after he saw Pay Chay transform a cotton ball into an exploding grenade at a New Year gathering. At the time, the Hmong were regularly recruited to work as coolies for Black Thai officials, in addition to tax or tributes requisitioned from them. Eventually, the French in Tonkin were told that Pa Chay was stirring up the Hmong for an uprising. In January 1918, troops were dispatched to fire at Pa Chay's followers, thus starting the four-year conflict which spread into Laos where the Hmong leader took refuge after two years of cat-and-mouse war games with the French in Vietnam.


At its peak, the rebellion covered a territory of 40,000 square kilometres, spanning from Dien Bien Phu in Tonkin to Nam Ou in Luang Prabang, Laos, down south to Muong Cha north of Vientiane, and north-east to Sam Neua. Many Hmong took up arms in collaboration with Pa Chay either out of their own personal grievances against lowlanders or in the belief that they were part of a holy war foretold in many of their myths. In China, the Hmong had staged many such bloody uprisings through the centuries against Chinese domination, based on a belief in the coming of a mythical king (Tapp, 1982: 114-127). The Pa Chay war was originally brought on by discontent with Thai leaders, but it was soon turned against the French when they set its colonial soldiers on the trail of the Hmong rebels. As stated by Gunn (1986: 115), the largest military expedition ever organised in Laos "by that date was mounted to break Batchai's rebellion; four companies of tirailleurs were brought in from other parts of Indochina to restore order."


Following the pattern of conflicts between the Hmong and the Khmu established at the beginning of their settlement in Laos, it was the Khmu who, in the end killed Pa Chay in his hide-out in Muong Heup, Luang Prabang, on 17 November 1921 (Le Boulanger, 1969: 360). By this time, many Hmong had surrendered, owing to French military might and merciless suppression. Of those who co-operated with the rebels, the leaders were decapitated at Nong Het in front of hundreds of Hmong spectators forcibly assembled there by the French. Many of the old Hmong who told me this story in 1985 field interviews, still remember being compelled to watch French swords descending on the necks of Pa Chay prisoners, when they were only children clinging to the arms of their parents. Those who were not leaders of the revolt had to pay compensation to the French at fifty piastres "for every Lao or Vietnamese killed, not including compensation for the loss of houses, cattle and crops" (Gunn, op cit.: 120). Altogether, 375 kilograms of silver bars and coins were collected from the Hmong. Many who could not pay had to sell or pawn their children and possessions.


The French were not the only ones benefiting financially from the rebellion. Lo Blia Yao, who helped the French put down the revolt in Nong Het also gained incredible wealth acting as collector of the war compensation. The cattle given to him as Kiatong filled a valley which took three hours to walk through, and the money he amassed filled a metal trunk which not even two strong men could not lift. It is this wealth resulting from the Pa Chay war, that eventually brought an end to the control of Hmong leadership by Lo Blia Yao’s family in Nong Het. Lo Blia Yao's oldest son, Chong Tou was granted the office of Tasseng by the French, but neglected his duties and preferred gambling his father's money and cattle with local Chinese and Vietnamese traders. In the beginning, Kiatong Lo Blia Yao's son-in-law and secretary, Lyfoung, had sent three of his sons to study in Xieng Khouang town, followed by secondary studies in Hanoi and South Vietnam.


In 1939, the eldest of Lyfoung's educated sons, Touby, returned to Nong Het and was the only Hmong who could speak and think as a French person. The previous year, Chong Tou had just lost his Tasseng title to Lyfoung who died after a few months in office. The French soon engineered an election for a new Tasseng. Although one of Lo Blia Yao's sons, Fay Dang, did contest the election with Touby, the latter won (Lee, 1982 200-201). Fay Dang and his family unsuccessfully appealed many times to the local Lao administrator in Muong Kham and the French Commissar in Xieng Khouang. As a last resort, Fay Dang took the long journey to Luang Prabang to ask Prince Phetsarath, the Viceroy, to intervene so that political power in Nong Het could be kept within the Lo clan (Castle, 1979: 53). Phetsarath assured Fay Dang of this support, and was presented a treasured rhinoceros horn. However, the Viceroy was apparently too preoccupied with his Lao Issara (Free Lao) movement against French domination of Laos to have paid much attention to the grievances of a distant minor Hmong leader.


On 9 March 1945, Japanese troops occupied Laos and systematically attacked all French military and civilian strongholds. Many local resistance French officers took refuge with the Hmong who hid them in their mountain fortresses. Fay Dang sided with the Japanese and soon after, Touby was arrested for his past collaboration with the French. Touby escaped to hide with French officers in the forests near Phu Son, in Muong Kham, from where he directed Hmong militia units to carry out the French resistance. Vang Pao, the first Hmong to become a general in the Royal Lao Army (RLA), served in the guerrilla units, set up by French Para commandos, Bichelot and Gauthier, during their period of hiding from the Japanese. With the Japanese capitulation on 15, August 1945, Fay Dang found himself without support, while Touby still had his French Para commandos and his militia to protect him.


The French re-occupied Laos in September 1945 with the co-operation of French parachutists and local partisans (Thompson and Adloff, 1955: 99-201). However, Xieng Kouang town remained in the hands of the Lao Issara who took it over in November 1945. With Hmong militia under Touby and Lao forces under Tiao Saykhan, Xieng Khouang was taken back for the French on 26 January 1946 (Gunn, 1985: 248). Tiao Saykham was a member of the Xieng Khouang royal family, a was a class mate of Touby and hid with him during the Japanese occupation. With the Japanese gone, the French now found themselves confronting a new and much craftier enemy, the Vietminh, or anti-French Vietnamese guerrilla units under the control of Ho Chi Minh. The Vietminh had not only infiltrated North Vietnam, but also North-eastern Laos even before the Japanese surrender.


Touby's Hmong militia was able to repel some of the Vietminh attacks in the Nong Het areas. For this reason and for his pro-French stand, he was asked by General Salan, Commander-in-Chief of the French Expeditionary Forces in Indochina, to organise more Hmong to resist the Vietnamese advance. The French imposed a new opium tax on all Hmong to be collected by Touby. This opium would be used to finance a thousand "armed men in the field" and was to be dispensed of through the French mixed airborne Commando troop in South Vietnam (Gunn, op. cit. 244).


In return for his service to the French, Touby was appointed to the position of Chao Muong or County Governor for the Hmong of Xieng Khouang in September 1946 by King Sisavang Vong of Luang Prabang. This was the highest office a Hmong had reached at that time, and was largely the result of strong lobbying by Raynond, the Commissioner of the French Republic in Laos (Ibid.: 240 and 242). Tiao Saykham was made Provincial Governor or Chao Khoueng. A harmonious relationship between the Lao and Hmong ensued in the province, and Tiao Saykham continued to collaborate with Hmong leaders on the RLG side until the PL won the day in 1975.


Against this background, Fay Dang Lo and his supporters were driven into North Vietnam by Touby's militia. There, they are said to have made contact with the Vietminh for the first time (McCoy, 1972: 85). With political indoctrination, armed support and because of the oppressive opium tax Touby administered for the French, Fay Dang was able to recruit Hmong members for his Resistance League. Fay Dang probably made contact with Lao Issara leaders such as Nouhak and Kaysone during this time but might not have met Souphonouvong until the latter joined them from Thailand in Vietnam in 1949. By that stage, anti-French dissidents were already well trained by the Vietminh, and some had even become Communists (Deuve, 1984: 31). A people's congress in August 1950 resulted in the formation of the Neo Lao Issara or Free Lao Front and a resistance government in which Fay Dang became one of the two ministers without portfolio, representing ethnic minorities (the other being Sithon Kommadan, the Lao Theung leader).


Despite their modest beginnings, Fay Dang's Hmong and Sithon's Khmu were the grass roots movers in the progress of the Free Lao Front in Northern Laos. As mentioned by Deuve (op. cit.: 36), the Front initially operated in isolated ethnic enclaves and inaccessible frontiers untouched by the Royal Lao Government (RLG) in Vientiane. By 1956, the Front had gained enough popular support in the countryside and their name was changed to the Neo Lao Hak Sat (NLHS) or Patriotic Front. Fay Dang was made vice-president of the new organisation. When the NLHS and the RLG decided on a coalition government in 1958, one of Fay Dang's relatives, Lo Foung, was elected to the National Assembly while Touby represented the Hmong on the RLG side.


For a time, there was great hope that the two Hmong groups would live in peace with other previously antagonistic Lao groups. However, this was not to be the case. Two months after the elections, the Coalition Government under Souvanna Phouma collapsed, and a rightist government under Phoui Sananakone was established. By July 1959, most NLHS leaders in Vientiane had been arrested by the new government. Fay Dang, who was in Xieng Khouang, once again fled to Vietnam after the NLHS and the Neutralists took Xieng Khouang in 1961. He returned to live in Nong Het where he remained until 1975.


Although Fay Dang had been with the NLHS from the beginning and his Hmong followers had died in their thousands for the Pathet Lao (PL) cause, he did not receive a post in the Cabinet of the new Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR). He and Sithon were offered the ceremonial positions of vice-president in the People's Supreme Assembly, and were not even members of the new Lao People's Revolutionary Party Central Committee “where the real power lies” (Everingham, 1977: 27). In the last few years of his life, Fay Dang returned to life as a farmer in his native Nong Het under the watchful eyes of PL guards. Old and ailing, he died in 1986, but his death was not officially announced until three months later.


Touby, unlike his cousin and arch enemy Fay Dang, died a lonely death in a re-education camp in Sam Neua in 1978. It is said that he had to dig his own grave before being executed by PL soldiers for allegedly attempting to rouse camp internees to mutiny. Following his election to the National Assembly in 1958, he became Minister of Social Welfare in 1960 before joining the King's Council as an advisor on minority affairs, a post he held until the cease-fire between the NLHS and the RLG in 1973. In the Provisional Government of National Union, formed in April 1974, Touby was given the position of Deputy Minister of Post and Telecommunications, before being taken away to Sam Neua in 1975 to grow chillies and sharpen knives for detainees, in an attempt to cleanse their capitalist minds with manual labour.


Apart from Touby and Fay Dang, the other better known Hmong leader in Laos is probably General Vang Pao. From village militiaman under Touby, he joined the French military police, then in 1951, went on as the first Hmong (under much protest from the Lao) to study at the Military Officers College at Dong Hen in Southern Laos where the instructors were still French. After graduating, Vang Pao served for many years under Lao commanders in the Royal Lao Army in Xieng Khouang. By 1959, he had been promoted to the rank of major with soldiers of all ethnic backgrounds under his command. He was later made Commander of the Second Military Region in Northern Laos, and became a general in 1964.


In the view of some Western writers (McCoy, op. cit.: 268-81; and Deuve, op. cit. 255), Vang Pao was no more than a warmonger and opium broker for the CIA, the commander of a Hmong mercenary army carrying out its own "secret war" in Laos independently of the RLG. For many other, more informed people, however, he symbolised the hopes, not only of the Hmong but also other minorities in the region under his control; he set up schools for the highlanders, paid the teachers when money was not forthcoming from the government, and organised nursing education through the US Agency for International Development (Garret, 1974: 78-111). He built dormitories for minority students in Vientiane so that they could pursue higher education in the capital. More importantly, he ensured that hill minorities were represented in the provincial public service and National Assembly (with 3 Hmong and 1 Khmu members). One of the two radio stations with minority languages at the time operated from his headquarters in Long Cheng.


In many ways, the highland minorities had attained a new level of political participation and identity under Vang Pao. He arranged regular visits from leaders of the royal families of Luang Prabang and Champassak, as well as Buddhist monks and the Lao elite. He insisted that the Lao shared key positions in the civilian and military administration so that in all his endeavours he would be assisted by Lao army officers and troops, as well as minority and Lao public servants. Although nine out of the fourteen battalions under his command were made up of Special Forces paid for by the CIA, they were always considered part of the regular army and were special in that the RLG could not train and pay for their upkeep. It was only some people in the West who referred to the Hmong as "mercenaries" on the soil of their very own country. So much for helping their Western allies fight against Communism!


Along with many other Lao right-wing leaders, Vang Pao was forced to escape from Laos after 1975. He was one among four condemned to death in absentia by the new PDRL. Since his exile to the West, Vang Pao had organised with several Lao leaders, a resistance movement which included members of all minorities from Laos. He is by all accounts one of the most active in this new political activity designed, in his view, not only to regain Laos but also to structure Lao politics in such a way that all ethnic groups would have an equal part to play in a new regime, so that contributions to national building could be made by all at every level. Many Lao refugees, including those from the lowlands, have come to put their hopes and dreams in his efforts along with those of other resistance leaders.


To conclude this short exposition of Hmong political participation in Laos, let me say that I have not tried to put my account in an analytical framework, because our knowledge on the subject is still too rudimentary for synthesis or interpretation. I merely wish to share what emerged from my research, in the hope that a better appreciation can be made of the role that the Hmong played in recent Lao history. During the civil war from 1961 to 1974, it is estimated that close to 15,000 Hmong died in the battle fields serving the Royal Lao Government. On the PL side, it is difficult to know how many Hmong had perished, but its Hmong commanders such as Thao Tou Saychou and General Praseut paid with their own lives. The toll was heavy for the military; and the costs were even more hefty for Hmong civilians, especially on the RLG side where more than 150,000 Hmong have been uprooted from their own country and are now living as refugees in different parts of the world.

Considering that there was about 300,000 Hmong in Laos before 1975, the price paid in their contribution to the building of the Lao nation has been particularly high in comparison to other groups.




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