top of page

Minority Policies and the Hmong in Laos after 1975

Published in Stuart-Fox, M. ed. Contemporary Laos: Studies in the Politics and Society of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic

St. Lucia: Queensland University Press, 1982), pp. 199 - 219

The Hmong have been and continue to be a contentious force in Lao polities, though little information has been available about them since the establishment of the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Occasional news reports and accounts of life under the new regime given by refugees and government officials are equally contradictory. Hmong have sought refuge in different lands; others seem to encounter no great difficulties in remaining in their own country. This paper will focus attention on the contribution of members of this minority group to the success of the revolutionary struggle and what has happened to them since 1975. It will highlight both their history and the prospects facing them under the new social order.

The Hmong in Laos

The Hmong in Laos

The Hmong first migrated to Laos from China and North Vietnam in the early years of the nineteenth century. Yang Dao places the earliest arrivals between 1810 and 1820 [1]. By 1850, they are said to have established themselves in many scattered settlements [2]. In 1883, a French expedition up the Mekong River into Yunnan estimated that the Hmong had moved to Luang Prabang province less than ten years before [3]. This last reference must have been to the later and larger waves of refugees from China as a result of more than two decades of uprisings against the Chinese, culminating in the Hmong's suppression "with truly barbaric cruelty" by Chinese troops [4]. This defeat led to massive population movements southwards. In Laos, the Hmong settled in the highlands of Houa Phan and Xieng Khouang, gradually spreading westward to Luang Prabang, Nam Tha and Sayaboury. In the early 1970s, in all these provinces the Hmong totalled some 293 000 persons [5]. For reasons, which will be given later, the Hmong of Xieng Khuang have played the most significant role in Lao politics beyond the village level. This is true in particular of the Hmong in Nong Het, adjacent to the border of Laos and Vietnam. After their peaceful settlement in the area and towards the latter half of last century, a few of their leaders were elected as "kiatong", to administer members of their own clan [6]. Thus, there were kiatong for the Lo, Lee, Yang, Vang and Moua clans, with minor leaders acting as "phutong" or heads of smaller groups.


As the French extended their rule over Laos, heavy taxes were imposed on the local population. Several Hmong refused to pay these taxes and in 1896, this led to an armed clash near Ban Ban in Muong Kham, Xieng Khouang. This was probably the first instance of open resistance on the part of the Hmong since their initial settlement in Laos.


In the years that followed, the French began to increasingly intervene in local Hmong affairs, either by nominating Hmong leaders as kiatong or by encouraging more interaction with other population groups. A mutual trust gradually developed between the two sides. Among the leaders during the period before the Second World War were Lyfoung and Lobliayao, the latter a kiatong in the Nong Het region and the former his son-in-law and secretary. Being more progressive and mindful of his junior status, Lyfoung sent a son of each of his three wives to school in the lowlands. They were Toulia, Touby and Tougeu, probably the first Hmong in Laos to receive formal education and later to be given positions of influence in the country's administrative system.


The kiatong system was replaced by the Tasseng or canton administration in 1921, although the kiatong leaders were allowed to carry on with some of their old functions. For the strategic Nong Het area, the Tasseng was administered by Song Tou, Lobliayao's eldest son [7]. In the mid-1930s, the French stationed a military offic in Nong Het, with soldiers of Lao and Vietnamese nationalities, to oversee the Hmong. In 1938, the French became dissatisfied with Song Tou and began looking for a new Hmong leader to replace him. Lyfoung, with his previous experience in local administration, offered himself for the position. The French accepted and dismissed Song Tou. Seeing the loss of such a prestigious post as a slight to the Lo clan, Lobliayao's widow and her second son, Faydang, appealed unsuccessfully to the Chao Muong (district administrator) of Muong Kham and the French commissar in Xieng Khouang. The following year, Lyfoung died and elections were held for the position of Tasseng chief between Faydang and Touby, one of Lyfoung's sons, who had just completed his secondary studies. Most Hmong voted for Touby because he was the more educated and because Faydang's father had alienated many Hmong in the past through his authoritarian leadership.


There the matter rested until 1941, when the Japanese occupied Indochina. This new element in the situation was immediately seized upon by Faydang and the Lo clan as a means of opposing Touby's followers and their French backers in the continuing bitter struggle between the two Hmong factions. Faydang's men served the Japanese as guides and informers. Similarly, Faydang made early contact with the Vietminh, with whom his guerrillas joined forces to attack Touby's pro-French partisans.


In March 1945, the Japanese reneged on their agreements with the French Vichy government, arrested many French officials in Indochina and declared an end to colonial rule in Laos. Heavily outnumbered by Japanese soldiers, several French officers sought refuge in isolated Hmong settlements or made their escape to China via Nong Het [9]. Touby's subordinates invariably offered them sanctuary and guides, thus attracting reprisals from the Japanese and the Vietminh. When Prince Phetsarath formed the Lao Issara front and declared Laos to be an independent monarchy, free from French control, most Hmong unwittingly found themselves on the side of the enemy [10].


With the return of the French, [11] Touby began to organise new Tassengs for Hmong settlements and to direct anti-Vietminh guerrilla warfare. He also was responsible for the strengthening of village militia units in and around the Nong Het area, in an attempt to contain military attacks from Vietminh-supported local resistance groups. Soon he was promoted to the position of Chao Muong for the Hmong in Xieng Khouang, and his Tasseng title passed on to one of his older half-brothers. This further committed him and his followers to an anti-Pathet Lao stance and renewed Faydang's determination to do equally well on the other side.


Private Feuds and Public Effects

Despite claims to the contrary [12], it is doubtful whether Faydang had any contacts with the Lao Issara before 1947, when Prince Souphanouvong returned from Thailand to recruit supporters for the "Free Lao" movement. Faydang used his contacts with the Vietminh to align his so-called Hmong Resistance League with Souphanouvong's cause. This action arose less out of any nationalistic fervour than from old grievances against Touby and the need to oppose him in public by joining those who worked against the French, Touby's allies. As Barney reported, whatever "Touby's men do, Faydang's men must do the opposite [13] This seems to have been the essence of their power struggle.


After several armed clashes between the two groups, Touby's followers mustered enough men to drive their enemy into Muong Sen, inside North Vietnam. The Hmong in Laos were left in relative peace until 1953, when the Vietminh, in a major military drive, captured parts of two north-eastern Lao provinces for the Neo Lao Issara, the new Lao Freedom Front established by Prince Souphanouvong and other Lao leftists in 1950. Faydang established himself at Nong Het, which remained from then on, a Pathet Lao stronghold.


For the next twenty years from the Geneva Agreements of 1954 until the third coalition government of 1974, the Hmong factions maintained their respective alliances - Faydang with the Pathet Lao; Touby with the Royal Lao Government. In the 1958 general elections to form the first Lao coalition government, both rightists and Pathet Lao participated. Touby and his brother Toulia Lyfoung were elected deputies to the National Assembly, [14] while Lo Fong Pablia, a member of Faydang's group, represented the PL Hmong. In 1960, Touby was the first Hmong to gain cabinet rank as Minister for Social Welfare.


After Kong Le's neutralist coup d’état of August 1960, Touby and his followers joined the rightist opposition led by General Phoumi Nosavan. When neutralist forces were driven from Vientiane and retreated towards the Plain of Jars, a Hmong major named Vang Pao was one of the few Royal Lao Army officers to attempt to block their retreat. But the neutralist forces proved too strong for his handful of soldiers. Vang Pao, a few of officials and their followers withdrew to Padong, on the northern side of the Phu Bia massif. There they were contacted in early 1961 by American and Thai military advisers, to set up a defence line against neutralist and Pathet Lao forces in Xieng Khouang.


In the following years, the PL Hmong worked hard to recruit Hmong and Lao Theung soldiers into the PL army. Faydang moved his base from Nong Het to Xieng Khouang town, where he worked with his Hmong military commander, Foung Tongsee Yang, otherwise known by his Lao name as General Paseut. His forces were joined from time to time by defectors from the RLA and by conscripts or volunteers from tribal minorities in Thailand, thereby swelling further their ranks.


While Faydang became Vice-President of the Neo Lao Hak Sat, superseding the Neo Lao Issara Front in 1956, Vang Pao was made Major-General in 1964 by Prince Souvanna Phouma and given the command of the Second Military Region in north-eastern Laos. After the fall from power of Phoumi Nosavan in an unsuccessful coup against Souvanna in 1963, Touby joined the King's Council, and thereafter spent more of his time in Vientiane, away from major Hmong settlements and refugee centres. His influence was soon eclipsed by Vang Pao, whose position was greatly strengthened by the direct aid he received from the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This financial and material assistance enabled him to impress the people with generous gifts to supporters and to students or families in needy circumstances [15]. CIA largesse also provided the necessary resources to maintain a special army of more than 10 000 men, consisting mostly of Hmong, who joined because of the salaries offered and the lack of employment opportunities in other fields. Thus, it was not unusual for these irregulars to be called mercenaries in some Western press reports. Trained in Thailand by American and Thai military personnel, they were more effective in combat than most RLA forces, since they could operate in independent small units. However, heavy casualties gradually reduced the number of Hmong and by 1971, more Lao Theung and Thai were being enlisted. Nevertheless, the Hmong on the RLG side came to be identified with this "secret army" and the CIA and hence were accused of having imperialist intentions and other unpatriotic designs. This was despite the fact that a far greater number of them were soldiers in the RLA regular forces and tens of thousands were not even involved in the war, except as refugees [16].

By 1973, the Hmong formed 32 percent of the 370 000 refugees on government support in Laos, and 70 per cent of the 155 474 in Xieng Khouang province - the biggest ethnic group affected by the war [17]. About 12 000 are believed to have died fighting against the Pathet Lao from 1962 to 1975 [18]. This heavy toll was partly the result of military draft introduced by the RLG in its offensives against PL and North Vietnamese forces. Losses sustained by civilians were incalculable in terms of human life, property, land, and household possessions - so much so that a nativistic cult developed in a number of villages among the Hmong on the non-Communist side. An American refugee relief worker in Xieng Khouang estimated that 20 per cent of Hmong civilians died in the early 1960's as a result of sickness or enemy attacks during their flight to refugee camps [19]. The USAID relief program could do little more than fend off starvation and hardly met the simple diet the Hmong had before they were displaced.

The Elusive Union


When the Provisional Government of National Union was formed in early 1974, Touby Lyfoung held the position of Deputy Minister for Post and Telecommunications. Two Hmong were made members of the National Political Consultative Council, to assist the PGNU with its immediate tasks of achieving political integration in the country. The PL side was represented by Lo Foung. Dr Yang Dao, the first Hmong to have obtained a doctorate degree from France, was appointed on account of his personal "qualifications", as a neutral acceptable to both sides. Lo Foung was Vice-Chairman of the Culture and Education Committee, and Yang Dao, Vice-Chairman of the Economy and Finance Committee of the Council.


Over the next year, a series of developments took place that weakened the political position of the Hmong who had supported the RLG. When the King dismissed the National Assembly in July 1974, the Hmong on Vang Pao's side lost the representation of their three elected members. Also, as a member of the government, Touby seemed increasingly to accept the compromising mood of the Prime Minister. Thus, he came to be no longer trusted by many anti-Communist Hmong in Long Cheng and elsewhere.


At the end of 1974, the irregular troops attached to Vang Pao's command were disbanded or merged with the RLA forces. Political and military pressures from the Pathet Lao already had resulted in a decline in morale among right-wing leaders and among the Hmong refugees. In March 1975, armed clashes broke out between PL soldiers and Vang Pao's troops guarding the ceasefire zone along the road linking Vientiane and Luang Prabang. The 1973 ceasefire specified that all military activities by either side were strictly prohibited. However, by April, PL units were advancing towards Vientiane. Vang Pao retaliated with aerial bombardment which immediately brought accusations from the Pathet Lao that the Hmong were violating the ceasefire, in an attempt to prolong the war and to create a Hmong state of their own.


Angered by these accusations, Vang Pao met Souvanna Phouma in Vientiane on 6 May, to explain that his troops were only defending their positions in the face of advancing Pathet Lao and Vietnamese forces. The Prime Minister advised Vang Pao to retreat and not to fight. Knowing he could not retreat any further, Vang Pao resigned from his position by ripping off his General's stars and throwing them on Souvanna Phouma's desk, before going back to Long Cheng. Souvanna Phouma was said to have told the French Ambassador in Laos that the Hmong had served his purpose wee, but it was a pity that peace in the country had to be achieved at the expense of their extinction [20].


During this period, Yang Dao was on an official tour of socialist countries, as a member of the NPCC. In East Berlin and in Moscow, high-level officials told him in no uncertain terms that it was because of "these damned Meo" and their resistance against the Pathet Lao that the Lao revolution had taken thirty years [21]. Returning to Laos, he learned of the advance of PL troops towards Long Cheng, and immediately went to see Vang Pao on 11 May, to dissuade the latter from any attempt to resist the Pathet Lao. Yang Dao believed that any resistance would mean the end of the Hmong, for even royalist and neutralist forces were not supporting them. Furthermore, Vang Pao's foreign supporters had all withdrawn their aid, leaving him and his troops without necessary supplies.


Realising the futility of any further involvement in Laos, Vang Pao left for Thailand on 14 May, after an emotional appeal to his people to surrender themselves to the new authorities. A few days earlier, five members of the PGNU cabinet on the Vientiane side had been forced to resign and had fled to Thailand, where they were joined later by two key right-wing generals, Kouprasit Abhay and Thonglith Chokhengboun. The Provisional Government of National Union, forerunner to the much-awaited true Government of National Union, thus crumbled a little more than a year after its formation, owing to PL political manipulation of the masses and the demoralisation of ring-wing politicians.


Socialist Order


After the rightist Defence Minister, Sisouk na Champassak fled to Thailand, his post was assumed by his PL Deputy, General Khamouane Boupha. Khamouane gradually dissolved the mixed police guarding Luang Prabang and Vientiane, thus opening the way for PL troops to enter areas under the control of the Vientiane side. RLA troops were disarmed and local administrative committees set up to replace the old system of village headmen, Tassengs, district and provincial governors. Indoctrination or "re-education" sessions were conducted for public servants at all levels and for civilians who traditionally had not taken the side of the Pathet Lao. These compulsory "seminars" and the arbitrary arrests of influential people soon caused thousands of refugees to flee to Thailand, in addition to members of the business community and minority groups.


For three days before his departure, Vang Pao had arranged with the CIA to have a few thousand Hmong flown to Thailand, along with his own family and relatives. These flights were stopped after he left Laos. As one informant said, "There was complete demoralisation among those left behind. In the first few weeks, everything was so quiet that we felt empty, leaderless. No more planes flying overhead, only people hoping and waiting, with no one to turn to for direction." Despite this, many Hmong quickly organised their own long march towards Thailand, to join their "generous general". The rich went by motor vehicle, while forty thousand more went on foot, with their children and valuables on their backs. PL troops by then were stationed all along the route to Vientiane, alongside neutralist forces.


When the first column of Hmong refugees reached the bridge at Hin Heup, south of Ban Son, on 29 May 1975, those ahead suddenly were fired upon by PL guards. More than 20 men, women and children were killed instantly, and close to a hundred others were wounded [22]. The shooting was believed to have been caused by a Hmong man with a child on his back refusing to obey a guard when asked to stop.  Other guards then also fired on the crowd.  For a long time, many Hmong refugees falsely claimed that the shooting was the work of Lyteck Lynhiavu, a well-known senior Hmong public servant in the RLG Ministry of Interior who was instrumental in starting the Hmong settlement at K52 [23].  The claim has become a myth in the Hmong diaspora, even though no one had ever seen him involved in person. In reality, on the morning of the shooting, Lyteck was having breakfast with Touby Lyfoung at K52 and only learned about it on the radio that afternoon. A Hmong student from Dongdok Teachers College who was returning from Ban Son after a vain search for his mother there, was in the guards’ office to have his travelling paper stamped.  Soon after the shooting, he saw a young soldier rushing in from the bridge with his gun in hand and saying to other people in the office: “I am all shaken up from firing at these people…. it’s my first time to kill anybody” [24].  The shooting was obviously an unplanned act carried out by Lao soldiers on their own at Hin Heup bridge checkpoint.


After the shooting, hundreds of Hmong who joined the march, returned to Ban Son. Having their way to escape to freedom in Thailand blocked, many went back to their villages to plan their next move.  Although most of Vang Pao's soldiers had discarded their uniforms and weapons by this time, a few Hmong officers in the RLA still held on to their positions, awaiting more instructions. On 14 May 1975, Colonel Kham Ai, PL commander assigned to the second Military Region, arrived in Long Cheng. A fortnight later, he called all former right-wing military personnel to his headquarters and disarmed them, because they "no longer had any war to fight and must now participate fully in national reconstruction activities" [25]. In June, they were taken to "re-education" centres on the Plain of Jars and later to Nong Het, where hard labour was the order of the day. Anyone above the rank of lieutenant was considered a major war criminal, and manual work was deemed an excellent means of atoning for one's sins and cleansing one's mind of capitalist ideas. The Hmong officers were told that "seminars" could last thirty days or thirty years, depending on the participant's level of co-operation with Vang Pao and the number of crimes he had committed against the Patriotic Forces and their Vietnamese "brothers".


Each officer had to list the dates of armed attacks in which he had taken part, the number of PL or Vietnamese soldiers "murdered" on each occasion, the cattle and livestock killed or stolen, and property damages suffered by civilians. If the PL officer-in-charge was not satisfied with the officers' "confessions", he would reduce their food ration to 300 grams of rice a day per person and one can of meat for each ten people. As one survivor recounts, after "six months of seminar we became mere skeletons without strength" [26]. The officers soon realised that their so-called re-education was not political indoctrination but imprisonment. Some managed to escape, to join resistance groups in Phou Bia or their families in other countries, but the majority either died from physical exertion and malnutrition, or continue to be imprisoned in fear for their lives and for the safety of their families.


Not only were military officers dispatched to "seminars" but also high-ranking public servants and senior leaders of traditional right-wing leanings. Before the end of 1975, Touby and one of his sons (Tou Long) were sent to one of the many re-education centres in Sam Neua, together with thousands of other Hmong and Lao of similar backgrounds. It is rumoured that Touby died of malaria some time in 1978, after spending three years doing hard labour as part of his political redemption. In reality, he was shot by a Khmu young guard while having his bath one morning. A similar sad fate befell Lyteck after an unsuccessful attempt to escape from his seminar centre. Apart from Touby and his son, other Hmong forced to attend "seminars" included four RLA colonels (Ly Nou, Blong Thao, Moua Pao and Neng Yi).  Ly Nou also died, leaving his widow and two young sons behind in the camp.


With the formation of the Lao People's Democratic Republic, Faydang became Vice-President of the Supreme People's Assembly, alongside two other minority leaders, Sisomphone Lovansay (Tai Dam) and Sithone Kommadan (Lao Theung). Nhiavu Lobliayao, Faydang's younger brother, was appointed Chairman of the Nationalities Committee, while Maysouk (Tai Lu) was named Minister of Industry and Commerce. None of the other Hmong and Lao Theung on the NLHS Central Committee identified by Zasloff in 1973, [27] such as Phiahom Sombat, Nhia Fung, Apheui, Am Lo and Am Vu, was included among the government's thirty-nine members or the Assembly's forty-five.


Two of the Hmong with the NPCC in 1974, Lo Foung and Yang Dao, had disappeared from the Lao political arena by the end of 1975.  Yang Dao escaped to France after becoming convinced that the Pathet Lao intended to destroy the Hmong people. Lo Foung, who had been with the NLHS since its inception, was said to have contacted Vang Pao by letter a few months after his appointment to the NPCC and was given 500,000 RLG kip by the latter. Despite their political differences, the two were related by close family ties. Furthermore, Lo Foung, along with other Hmong on the PL side, was known to have encouraged prominent Hmong leaders to leave Laos because he was not happy with PL treatment of minority groups, despite official statements to the contrary. In November, he was called back to Phonesavanh and has not been seen since. He is believed to be dead. Some accounts state that he died from food poisoning after attending a banquet, while others attribute his death to a hunting accident.


The New Policies

Prior to 1975, the RLG had no specific policies towards hill tribes people. However, it did not openly discriminate against them except in isolated cases. The most notable of these were the attempt on Vang Pao's life by a group of right-wing Lao officers in Vientiane, the occasional removal of successful Hmong candidates from lists of students examined for study overseas, and the petition to remove Touby's brother, Tougeu Lyfoung, as Director-General of the ministry of Justice in 1964 because he was not a Lao [28]. In general, members of ethnic minorities had the same rights and obligations as other citizens, though this was never verbally stated. The Pathet Lao, on the other hand, had made a determined attempt to unite all nationalities in Laos in a common struggle against foreign and class domination. This intention was stated many times in official documents and seems to have been put into practice among minorities in the "liberated zones".


Despite the creation of the Nationalities Committee and the inclusion of ethnic leaders in the SPA, however, the new Lao government has not set out clearly how it intends to bring about unity and "equality" between all groups, as announced by Prime Minister Kaysone Phomvihane in December 1975. Faydang's functions appear to be largely ceremonial, without any real administrative or policy-making power, as were Sithone's before his death in 1977. The Lao People's Revolutionary Party does not have separate policies or development plans for tribal people, apart from directing them to resettle in the lowlands in order to adopt a less migratory mode of production. Cadres and soldiers are to respect the cultural traditions of all ethnic groups and to assist in raising their educational and living standard. Beyond this, all official pronouncements on indoctrination and development rarely single out any groups for special mention, except to warn the more isolated against enemy infiltration [29].


The Third Resolution of the LPRP Central Committee states, among other things, that it is necessary to encourage the people to grow short-lived and long-lived industrial crops such as beans, potatoes, corn, hot peppers, sesame, tobacco, opium, cotton, coffee, sugar apples, tea, stick lac, dammer, sugar-cane and cinchona. It urges that "the people of all nationalities" should be persuaded and helped to earn their own living "and to create conditions for them to take up permanent residence . . . to undertake grain farming on terraced and sloping fields, and to map out plans to exploit and nurture forests and set up animal husbandry co-operatives" [30].

To implement these policies, Hmong refugees in the Long Cheng and Ban Son areas who were willing to return to their settlements of origin in Xieng Khouang province were hastily repatriated in 1976, with the assistance of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Altogether, about 30 000 people were returned, including many from refugee camps in Vientiane province [31]. Most have gone back to areas within the Plain of Jars or close to Xieng Khouang town, where they have been joined by other family livestock, some Hmong are reported to be happy that "there is no war any longer and we can grow crops and have enough food to eat" [32].


While those on the Plain of Jars are unlikely to be able to cultivate opium poppies because of the low altitude, many Hmong returning to higher mountain regions such as Nong Het and Muong Cha have resumed opium production, with full official sanction [33]. In the opinion of some refugees, the only difference between the new regime and the former RLG has been the political indoctrination and labour collectivisation they now must tolerate. "Seminars" for these highland farmers consist mostly of repetitive history lessons on the PL revolutionary struggle against the old government, but involve no hard labour or physical punishment, as has been the case for the more than 70 000 right-wing officials still held at the end of 1980 in isolated re-education centres in Sam Neua. One informant commented that peasant seminars "are all right, if you can put up with their repetitiveness and are not bored stiff by them."

Some experiments in farm co-operatives have been carried out in the lowlands, but the Hmong have experienced only "work co-operatives" imposed by local authorities. In the future, however, the new labour system seems likely to be applied to all Hmong settlements under PL control. Each family still can own its individual fields, but all villagers must work together on each household's plots in all major farming activities such as field-clearing, weeding or harvesting. The rice harvest has to be divided into three portions: one for the state tax, one for the village rice bank and one for consumption by the household concerned, based on the ration allowed for each household member. Refugees say that an additional rice tax was levied in 1980, because government troops were in need of supply, and each household was allowed to keep only 25 to 50 kilos of un-milled rice for that year.


In May 1976, Sieng Pasason reported that 2077 tribal families had given up their slash-and-burn agriculture "and had instead taken to paddy fields and terraces to conserve the national forests" [34]. A new military district also had been created near the border of Xieng Khouang and Vientiane provinces, to resettle Hmong farmers in agricultural co-operatives, so that they could participate in, and contribute to, national reconstruction activities. More to the point, however, such a military zone would keep people within the government's reach and isolate them from the undesirable influences of dissidents and foreign agents. The people resettled in the district also would have more access to public services, thereby benefiting more from official directives.


Although some Hmong groups welcomed this initiative; others did not readily accept it. In reviewing the implementation of development policies set out in 1976 and for the three-year plan (1978-80), Kaysone Phomvihane freely admitted that state trade enterprises "failed to develop in a timely manner and were unable to thoroughly transform the capitalist enterprises" [35]. Because of this, black markets are still prevalent and the distribution of goods has not been equitable in all areas. Many people have no access to necessary commodities such as medicine and salt, and this applies to nearly all rural farmers and hill minorities. Transportation to the hills is so poor that no trade is possible between market centres and the highland population. The Hmong in Phou Bia and other isolated settlements have had to pay black-market prices for salt to Lao peddlers, and they in turn sell it in small quantities at inflationary prices to other Hmong. Although the government has introduced its own currency, the money used by many Hmong for such transactions is limited to French colonial silver coins and Hmong silver bars. These means of payment existed before 1975 but were not often used. In rejecting the government, some Hmong therefore also shunned its new currency.


The most acute shortage is medicine. More highlanders are known to have died from malnutrition and diseases since 1975 than previously, owing to an almost total absence of basic medical care. The government states that it has set up small hospitals in 91 of the 102 districts in the country, and that about half of the 840 sub-districts or Tassengs have dispensaries. Altogether, however, there are only 90 trained doctors and medical assistants for the whole nation, and many new medical graduates leave for other countries, despite the desperate need for more personnel [36]. Overall, the death-rate for the Lao population was estimated at 2.5 per cent per annum, among the highest in Asia. The government's problems in health care clearly arise from the lack of personnel and drugs, compounded by communication difficulties. The Hmong today have to depend on herbs, opium and other forms of traditional medicine, which are not always effective in combating major illnesses.


Similarly, the lack of transport and open markets has made it almost impossible to obtain materials for clothes and other personal necessities. Household and farming tools also are difficult to find, unless one has enough money and access to the black market. Previously, Chinese itinerant traders used to bring these and other items in on horseback to exchange for opium, but this trading system now has disappeared. The Hmong in the "newly liberated zones" stretching from Long Cheng to Muong Mok are said to have been forced to recycle old clothes acquired before 1975, to the extent that many are now clothed only in rags. One young man in a refugee camp recently remarked that he had used so many pieces from old blankets to patch up his torn clothes in Laos, that “I was weighed down and unable to walk properly every time I had been in the rain".


Strict food rationing, rice tax and low agricultural productivity are other major problems faced by tribes-people who have rallied to the government, while those in hiding have found it extremely difficult to farm in the open and have had to subsist on tubers and roots gathered from the jungle. Many of the latter group have eaten leaves or gone without salt for many months, moving from one mountain-top to another in their search for freedom from the new authorities, for those in "liberated villages", the quantity of rice that goes in tax or for the village rice bank often leaves farmers with insufficient food supplies for themselves and their families. The situation is aggravated by insecurity in some areas inhabited by the Hmong, since Vang Pao's supporters and other subversive elements sometimes disrupt the agricultural activities of the more settled farmers with their guerrilla attacks. Those in especially sensitive areas sometimes have to move to safer places and abandon unharvested crops.


Labour conscription also is said to be most detrimental to agricultural productivity. Some families do not have adequate labour for farming because many young people have fled to Thailand or into the jungle. Moreover, local officials require each week one able-bodied member from every household to carry rice on foot to PL troops stationed at various outposts in the region, the trip can take up to a week and the rice must be supplied from the villagers' own reserve. This requisition drains the people of their energy, manpower and food resources. It affects particularly nuclear families. Husbands and wives may rarely see each other, for one may have to go just as the other returns from "serving the country", and only the children are left to tend the family crops or to take care of themselves. According to refugees, it is this labour obligation that forces many people to seek refuge in Thailand or in the forests of Phou Bia.


The Hmong Resistance


After the Pathet Lao took control of Laos, a few former Hmong soldiers and their families went into hiding in inaccessible mountain areas because of a strong fear of retribution from the new regime. They were joined by other Hmong who were released or who escaped from "seminar" centres. From their jungle hide-outs, small groups of these men first ambushed several PL trucks travelling between Vang Vieng and Vientiane in early 1976, but soon included small units of PL troops in their attacks. They reportedly used arms and ammunition left hidden by Vang Pao in the Phou Bia region.


Although the United States and Thailand disclaimed any involvement with these tribal dissidents, reports of their skirmishes filtered through to the outside world throughout 1976. It was even claimed that by 1977, bands of armed Hmong had pushed government troops from their strongholds along Route 13 and at one time thrust as far south as 60 kilometres north of Vientiane.


Armed resistance also was reported in Sayaboury, where Hmong refugees in Thailand were said to return to Laos to carry out their private campaigns against PL and Vietnamese soldiers [37]. Combined with the subversion in Phou Bia, casualties on the government side were believed to include two Soviet helicopters and four crewmen, in addition to "serious losses suffered by Lao military personnel [38]. In Phou Bia, the two major groups of rebels" were under Tsong Zua Heu, a long-standing messianic leader, and Sai Shua Yang, formerly Tasseng at Pha Khao, east of Long Cheng. In 1972, the former joined the revivalist movement among refugees mentioned earlier, when as a sergeant in the RLA, he had virtually turned away from Vang Pao to set up a "true" Hmong society, in anticipation of the return of the legendary Hmong king who would rescue the movement's followers from oppression by other groups. Sai Shua, on the other hand, only became a dissident leader after the PL take-over of Laos in 1975 and his supporters consist mostly of refugees and ex-soldiers of the old government.


Tsong Zua's leadership attracted a large number of Hmong, and at one stage he was said to have an "army" of 400 or 500 men, operating in units of 20 to 50 against PL forces. Using their claim to invulnerability and God's guidance, they went to war full of religious fervour, carrying old rifles and their own flag. Refugees who took part in the group's guerrilla activities stated that they were amazed how few casualties there were among its members, even when they attacked well-armed enemy troops in the open, however, employed more conventional war tactics, especially ambushes. They used their weapons sparingly and only when sure of their aim, in order to preserve ammunition. When they ran out of necessary supplies, they took what they needed from their victims.


The government was concerned enough about this resistance movement to send troops to the hills, in an attempt to crush it. When these proved ineffective against the small bands of "God's disciples" or "Chao Fa" Hmong, four regiments of North Vietnamese soldiers were brought in from their stand-by positions in various parts of the country. Aerial bombing and gas rockets were also used, along with heavy artillery lifted to the highlands by helicopter. Many Hmong settlements were burned to the ground by Vietnamese troops, who, as one eye-witness recounts, passed through like a hurricane, destroying everything and everyone in their path. Deadly chemicals were dropped on those hiding in the jungle and defoliants were sprayed on their crops [39]. Civilians who surrendered themselves to the authorities were sent to resettlement villages" in the lowlands, where they were dispatched to "seminar" centres, imprisonment or execution, depending on the decisions of military officials.


According to one source, only 3500 Hmong in the Phou Bia area were involved in armed resistance against the government, compared to 150,000 in the country [40]. Another reports that the search-and-destroy operations of 1977 resulted in at least 1300 Hmong rebels killed and "thousands" captured in "heavy fighting. For his part, Vang Pao alleged that 50 000 Hmong died from PL chemical poisoning between 1975 and 1978 alone, and another 45 000 perished "from starvation and disease or were shot trying to escape to Thailand" [42].


It is difficult to confirm the claims by either side. The truth probably lies somewhere between the two sets of figures given by the government and by Hmong refugees. There is no doubt, however, that the campaign against Hmong dissidents has increased significantly the number of people crossing to Thailand. A group of 2500 Hmong, for instance, arrived in Nong Khai refugee camp in December 1977, probably the biggest escape party to reach Thailand It was said to have had more than 8000 members when it first set but from Phou Bia, but a number turned back while many others were captured or shot by PL soldiers along the escape route. Many old people died from exhaustion or drowning and quite a few children died when the adults put their hands over the babies' mouths, to prevent them from crying when they risked being spotted by the PL soldiers. Intelligence teams returning to Laos in early 1978 reported frequent sightings of corpses along the way; and in one instance, a young girl of six years old was found still alive near the body of her dead mother, beside a jungle trail.


By 1979, Sai Shua Yang's rebel partisans had split up into small groups, since they were no longer able to withstand the shelling and gassing of their strongholds. A few months later, most of them reached Thailand with their families, leaving only Tsong Zua and his Chao Fa" followers to roam the forest of Phou Bia, in a hopeless fight to the death in the name of their revivalist cult. Before Sai Shua's escape, rumours were already circulating, telling of Hmong resistance bands harassing Lao troops near the border of China and Laos. Vang Pao was said to have contacted Chinese leaders in August 1978, to work on the creation of a Hmong kingdom in northern Laos and North Vietnam [44]. A handful of Hmong refugees in Thailand who used to serve under Vang Pao are known to have gone to China to help organise subversive activities, Following the capture of a few dissidents bearing Chinese weapons, one prominent Lao official openly commented that "the Chinese have mobilised some Hmong and Lu minority people for a movement against our government.


China's use of tribes-people to interfere in Lao internal affairs is still being reported from time to time. However, there is no conclusive evidence on the extent or effectiveness of this involvement. What is certain is that Hmong refugees still continue to arrive in Thailand from Laos, though those resettled in areas too far from the frontier or too well controlled to flee, seem to have made an effort to adjust to the new order, in spite of low living standards. Since the end of 1980, some of the refugees have included people who traditionally had been aligned with the Pathet Lao and many families who had been living in the "new liberated zone" for the past five years. Since the first group of 25 000 Hmong reached Thailand in May 1975, the number has steadily increased to about 60 000 towards the end of 1979, when close to 3000 were crossing the Mekong each month. It is estimated that 35 000 Hmong refugees have been resettled in the United States, 6000 in France and more than 2000 in Canada, Australia, Argentina and French Guyana.


The total number of Hmong refugees in Thailand in March 1980 was 48 937, with 998 new arrivals during that month. Despite departures for other countries, there were still 46 218 Hmong registered for UNHCR support in five camps in northern Thailand in February 1981, although the number of new arrivals had dropped to 408 a month [46]. Their reasons for leaving Laos are similar to those given by previous groups of refugees, namely political persecution against remnants of Vang Pao's soldiers and RLG officials, gassing, the heavy rice tax and labour conscription, extreme economic deprivation and arbitrary arrests of people suspected of political crimes or disloyalty. None of the prominent Hmong taken to "seminar" centres in Sam Neua have been released, or heard of, which has added further to Hmong distrust of the PL authorities.


Despite the continual escape of Hmong to Thailand, the Lao government appears to have made a genuine attempt to incorporate minority groups into the new People's Democratic Republic of Laos, at least in so far as policy-making is concerned. Those displaced by the war prior to the 1973 ceasefire either have returned to their old settlements or were resettled in new villages. To increase the people's productivity, labour co-operation and other changes in the relations of production have been tried, but the means of production remain much as in the RLG days. The capitalist economy m Vientiane has been dismantled, severing almost all trading links with the domestic economy of the highlands. This has caused severe economic hardship among the Hmong, especially since government development policies have failed to achieve desired results. These difficulties have been due partly to environmental destruction by the war and the lack of human and natural resources, and partly, as Kaysone Phomvihane admitted, to "insufficient practical experience in socialist transformation and construction [47].


There continues to be sporadic anti-government activities in different parts of the country, but these do not appear to threaten the stability of the new regime, since none of the resistance groups seems well enough equipped or organised. Nonetheless, the government still has to contend with Hmong dissidents in the area around Vang Pao's old headquarters at Long Cheng. Strategies used to win their support have included leaflet drops, radio appeals in the Hmong language and relocation of formerly inaccessible villages. Official publications such as the KPL Bulletin Quotidian and Sieng Pasason often urge cadres and state employees at the provincial and local levels to pay special attention to the needs of minorities, to raise their political consciousness and to ensure just distribution of necessary goods such as salt and utensils for all groups [48]. In his annual New Year messages, Faydang repeatedly has stressed the need for solidarity among the Hmong against the "Chao Fa bandits" and "exiled reactionaries", and has called Hmong refugees or dissidents to "return to the homeland" [49].


These official policies appear to had some effect where the Hmong have been traditionally on the side of the Pathet Lao. Few of these have escaped to other countries. A number of refugees are also known to have returned voluntarily to Laos, but it is not known exactly how many or what has become of them. Some reports suggest that they have been well received and have encountered no official reprisals [50]. It is estimated that about 200 000 Hmong remain in Laos, despite the endless exodus to Thailand [51]. The flow of refugees across the Mekong was very high during the government's military campaign to wipe out Hmong dissidents between 1977 and 1979, but since has declined to a few hundred a month. However, the gassing, the military draft, the rice tax and simple poverty continue to force many families to risk their lives in escaping to Thai refugee camps, Dissident activities virtually have ceased, at least south of the Plain of Jars [52].


The government now has introduced its first five-year development plan (1981-85), with more emphasis on economic and agricultural productivity than on internal political consolidation. The unity of all ethnic groups is still seen as one of the conditions for the success of the new plan. This unity has been difficult to achieve so far because the political bases of the masses have not been well established, and because. in Kaysone Phomvihane's opinion, cadres and soldiers "have abused their power by intimidating the people" with political persecution and arbitrary arrests [53]. More co-operation from the masses would have been forthcoming if these "unlawful acts" could have been curbed. More importantly, the people now know that what is said on paper and in large public meetings is not always what is done at the grass-roots level. Until stated policies are matched by action, there is little possibility for an improvement in the lot of the Hmong and other minority groups in Laos.



  1. Yang Dao, Les Hmong du Laos au Development (Vientiane: Editions Siaosavath 1975), p 7

  2. P. Le Boulanger, Histoire du Laos Francais (Paris: Plon, 1931), p 212

  3. P Neis, "Voyage dans le Haut Laos", Tout du Monde 50 (1885): @-80

  4. Military Research and Development Centre, Thailand, Meo Handbook (Bangkok, 1969), p. 13.

  5. Yang Dao, Hmong du Laos, op. cit., p. 30.

  6. This title is often written as "Kaitong", but is pronounced ""kiatong" by Hmong speakers.

  7. M. Dasse stated that Nong Het was allocated two Tasseng, one for the Lo clan under Song Tou and one for the Lee under Lyfoung's oldest son. This was, however, incorrect according to Nhia Long Lee, who was closely involved in the political events of the time (pers. comm., 1980). The allocation was based on geographical boundaries, not clan lines. See M. Dasse, Montagnards, Revoltes et Guerres Revolutionaires en Asie du Sud-Est Continentale (Bangkok: DK Book House, 1976), p. 124.

  8. H Toye, Laos Buffer State or Battleground (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), p. 70.

  9. J. Larteguy and Yang Dao, La Fabuleuse Aventure du Peuple de l'Opium (Paris Presses de la Cite, 1979), pp. 143-57.

  10. Faydang is said to have earlier given Prince Phetsarat a rhinoceros horn as bribe in return for a position in his government, but it could have been merely a gift to show respect.

  11. With Hmong assistance, Toulia Lyfong, Touby's half-brother, led the fifty-man Hmong force that helped the French recapture Luang Prabang. Toulia and his troops remained long enough in Luang Prabang for him to marry a Lao wife, reportedly a princess, although the marriage later ended in divorce.

  12. W G Burchett, Mekong Upstream (Berlin: Seven seas Publishers, 19590), p. 230.

  13. L G. Barney, "The Meo of Xieng Khouang Province, Laos", in Southeast Asian Tribes, Minorities, and Nations, ed. Peter Kunstdter (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1967), p 275.

  14. Toulia was responsible for getting the RLG to adopt the terms "Lao Soung" to refer to Hmong and Yao hill-top dwellers, "Lao Theung" for those inhabiting the lower slopes and "Lao Loum" for the Lao of lowlands. These official designations, however, have become popular only with the Pathet Lao. Also, they can be rather misleading, since there are more than sixty ethnic groups in Laos and some could be equally well described by different terms. [p. 218]

  15. Because of his generosity, Vang Pao did not become wealthy through his involvement in the war economy of Laos, unlike some other of his subordinates or colleagues. Apart from gifts to gain political support, he also married five new wives, in addition to his original, to create further alliances and strengthen his position.

  16. Larteguy and Yang Dao, Peuple de l'Opium, op. cit., p. 266

  17. Ly Yia, "War Refugees in Laos" (Master's thesis in Social Work, University of New South Wales, 1975).

  18. J. Hamilton-Merritt, "Poison-Gas War in Laos", Readers Digest, October 1980, p. 36.

  19. F. Branfman, "Presidential War in Laos, 1964-1970", in Laos: War and Revolution, ed. Nina S. Adams and Alfred W. McCoy (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), pp. 252-53.

  20. Larteguy and Yang Dao, Peuple de l'Opium, pp. 237-38.

  21. Ibid., p. 238.

  22. Yang Dao, "Guerre de Gaz: Solution Communiste des Problèmes des Minorites du Laos", Temps Modernes, no. 402 (January 1978): 1210.

  23. Garrett, W. E. “The Hmong of Laos: No Place to Run”, National Geographic, 154, no. 1 (January 1974),    pp.78-111.

  24. Sao Lee, personal communication, 24 January 1980.

  25. Yang Dao, "Guerre de Gaz", p. 1213.

  26. Ibid., p. 1216

  27. Joseph Zasloff, The Pathet Lao: Leadership and Organization (Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1973), pp. 5-6.

  28. Yang Dao, Hmong du Laos, p. 52.

  29. Zasloff, Pathet Lao, pp. 123-30

  30. Vientiane Mai (Daily Newspaper in Lao), 18 May 1975.

  31. L. and M. Hiebert, "Laos Recovers from America's War", Southeast Asia Chronicle, no. 61 (march-April 1978): 8.

  32. FEER, 11 July 1980

  33. According to data provided by Lao authorities (W. Worner, pers. comm., 1981), the official price per kilogram of opium before December 1979 was set at 180 KIP (Qtr 1), 150 KIP (Qtr 2) and 100 KIP (Qtr 3). After December 1979, the official price per kilogram of opium was set at 700 KIP (Qtr 1), 600 KIP (Qtr 2) and 400 KIP (Qtr 3). Considering that the average output of a household is 8 kilos per year, the new pricing would yield as little as 3200 kip annually. This is far below the cash needs of any one family when a 100kg bag of rice costs 3000 kip and meat is 50 kip/kg on the open market. Opium-growers may prefer to sell their crops on the black market, where it will fetch a much higher price than above price fixing, however, is considered necessary, and the government is determined to return many Hmong to the cultivation of opium poppies, so that it can monopolise the opium trade in the years ahead. See FEER, 30 April 1976.

  34. Far Eastern Economic Review (FEER), 8 September 1978.

  35. JPRS/TSEA, no 808. 19 March 1979, p. 32.

  36. FEER, 6 May 1977

  37. FEER, 13 February 1976.

  38. FEER, 10 September 1976

  39. For more detail on the chemical warfare against the Hmong in Laos reports prepared for the US Senate, Reports on the Use of Chemical Weapons in Afghanistan, Laos and Kampuchea (Washington, 1980), pp. 31-101. Also, the submission on Indochinese refugees by the Hmong-Australia Society (Sydney 1980) to the Australian Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence obtainable from the author.

  40. U S News and World Report, 2 June 1980.

  41. Asia Week, 16 December 1979.

  42. Hamilton-Merritt, "Poison-Gas War in Laos", p. 37.

  43. Asia Week, 10 March 1978.

  44. MacAlister Brown and Joseph Zasloff, "Laos 1978: The Ebb and Flow of Adversity", Asian Survey 19, no. 2 (1979): 98. Also FEER, I September

  45. FEER, 8 December 1979.

  46. UNHCR Month Statistics, March 1980, and February 1981

  47. Kaysone Phomvihane, "Report to Joint Session of the SPA and Council of Ministers", FBIS, Supplement, 17 March 1978, p.45.

  48. PL Party leaders frequently remind officials of the contributions made by ethnic minorities to the revolutionary struggle in Laos, and the tasks that need to be done in order to extend government services to these isolated groups. The Hmong are urged to follow the lines of the Party and not to be misled by imperialists and reactionary’s intent on creating division among minority groups. See e.g., editorials and speeches published in KPL/BQ, 29 December 1978, pp. 5-8; 25 September 1979, pp. 4-5; 6 November 1979 pp. 6-7; 12 November 1979, pp 2-3, and 21 November 1979, pp. 1-2.

  49. FEER, 6 February; also, KPL/BQ, 13 November 1979, pp. 1-2.

  50. J.M. Yoder, "Refugees Who Returned", Southeast Asia Chronicle. no 61 (March-April 1978): 14.

  51. Asia Week, 5 October 1979.

  52. Despite their lack of co-ordination, it is worthy of note that a group of these Hmong dissidents succeeded in assassinating General Paseuth or Foung Tongsee Yang, who replaced Thao Tou in 1963 as commander of PL Hmong troops. This occurred at Pha Khe, near Long Cheng, in 1976.

  53. Kaysone Phomvihane, "Report", op. cit., p. 27.

Private Feuds & Public Effects
The Elusive Union
Socialist Order
The New Policies
Hmong Resistance
bottom of page