Bandits or Rebels: The Hmong in the Jungle of Laos and their Struggle for Survival
By Gary Yia Lee, Ph.D.
On the evening of 31 March 2000, the relative calm of Vientiane, the small dusty capital of Laos, was shattered by a bomb blast in a crowded Korean restaurant with the quaint name of "Khob Chai Deu" (Thank You Yes) in the central part of the city, near the old Lan Xang Hotel and about a block from the Mekong River. It was a grenade reportedly thrown by two men on a motor cycle, causing injuries to two local Lao diners and eight foreign tourists (mostly British and German), two of them seriously. A second bomb went off five days later next to a government-run hotel, a few hundred metres from the scene of the first explosion, followed by a third bomb a few days later. Then, a fourth bomb exploded at the busy Morning Market and injured 15 Lao civilians on May 28.
The Government explained the first explosion as being the result of personal business rivalry, but offered little information on the other incidents or their perpetrators. Following the 28 May blast, however, it finally declared a national alert. A fifth bomb went off on 7 June 2000, and other bombs were reported to have been found at the airport and near the Vietnamese Embassy. These events finally prompted the Lao Prime Minister, Gen. Sisavath Keobunphanh, to state that he believed the incidents to be the work of ethnic Hmong living in other countries who had returned from exile to carry out a campaign "to disturb the government and people" of Laos (The Nation, 9 June 2000).
The Bangkok Post (1 July 200) also reported that the Lao Ambassador to Thailand, Mr Hiem Phommachanh, attributed the bombings to "foreign-based Hmong" under Gen. Vang Pao, a former military commander of the Royal Lao Government (RLG) who opposed the communist Pathet Lao (PL) from 1961 to 1974 with the support of the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Vang Pao was seen as "the only resistance leader still critical of the Lao government and soliciting support" from foreign countries. He now lives in America as a refugee. These assertions seem to be based on the fact that the Hmong have been reported to intensify their resistance activities in Borikhamsay and Xieng Khouang provinces since October 1999 and were said to be engaged in shooting officials and burning houses in Muong Khun, the former Xieng Khouang town in the north-east of the country at the time of these bombings. On 4 July 2000, David Brunnstrom also filed a report from Hanoi stating that "Vietnam… blamed forces loyal to an ethnic warlord backed by the United States during the Indochina War for recent acts of "terrorism" in neighbouring Laos" ( message/archive-laonews/1298).
Surprisingly, Vang Pao, who has been rallying support in various countries and promoting resistance in Laos since 1981, denied having anything to do with these bombings (Radio Free Asia, 8 June 2000), saying that "it is ridiculous" for the Lao authorities to accuse him for "the instability, conflict and recent bombings inside the country… I want to deny the accusation that Hmong are responsible for the bomb explosions in Laos." (26 July 2000, asia.dailynews.yahoo.com/headlines/asia). However, the South China Morning Post (15 June 2000) quotes an un-named representative of a "Hmong ethnic group" as stating that "the Hmong, with the support of overseas pro-democracy Laotians, have been responsible for the recent incidents in Laos and for attempts to topple the communist Government".
Diplomats in Vientiane, however, had a different explanation and saw the bomb explosions as the result of internal disputes between PL leaders vying for control of power and business opportunities. The incidents were designed to create instability in the government which has been beset by lack of political reforms and economic problems. Those in power are said to be split into two groups. President Khamtay Siphandone and other elderly hard-liners are reported to want to align Laos with the Vietnamese communist government in Hanoi while a second group prefers more economic opening to the outside world. Officially, the Lao government does not admit to this division within its ranks and insists that internal conflicts are impossible because the country's security is so tightly organised that only exiled Hmong in the United States could have been behind these incidents.
How accurate is this assessment? To examine the reasons for the Lao government's assertions and its attitudes towards the Hmong, it is necessary to go back into the recent history of Laos, its long struggle for independence from foreign control and the role played by the Hmong in this process.
Hmong Resistance in Lao History
The history of Hmong resistance in Laos goes back a long way to well before the Lao civil war that ended in 1975 and its subsequent aftermath. After their migration from southern China in the last half of the 19th century, partly pushed by the Chinese Taiping Rebellions and partly as a result of their search of new farming lands, the Hmong settled in increasing numbers in Samneua, Phong Saly, Luang Prabang and Xieng Khouang provinces of Laos. They soon found themselves paying double tax after Laos became a French protectorate in 1893: a traditional tax to the local Lao chiefs and a new one to the French authorities in the form of silver coins and opium levies. This tax burden caused Hmong leaders in the Nong Het area near the Vietnamese border to organise an ambush against tax collectors in 1896 at Ban Khang Phanieng in Muong Kham, Xieng Khouang province (Yang Dao, 1975: 46).
The French viewed the situation seriously enough to agree to negotiate with the recalcitrant Hmong, resulting in the establishment of Hmong Tasseng (or canton chief) positions that were accountable directly to the French colonial administration. The first Hmong Tasseng was given to the chief negotiator, Kiatong Mua Yong Kai (Muas Zoov Kaim) in Nong Het, and a second Tasseng was created near Xieng Khouang town for Ya Yang Her (Zam Yaj Hawj). This new arrangement would allow all Hmong leaders to collect taxes from their own people and would have their own autonomy in local village administration, bypassing Lao officials at the Tasseng and Muong (or district) levels (Savina, 1924: 238). This was to affect greatly later Hmong involvement in the political events of Laos, for it gave the Hmong leadership a tendency to prefer dealing directly with Western allies (be them French or Americans) instead of the Lao, primarily because of a basic distrust of Lao authorities based on these early administrative conflicts.
The Hmong again raised up in revolt against the French with the Pachai (Batchai) Vue messianic movement - the first of many revivalist cults that gave rise to the "Chao Fa" or Lord of the Sky resistance group today. Pachai was a Hmong living in North Vietnam. He was inspired to lead the revolt from 1918 to 1921 out of a strong mythical belief that God had called upon him to deliver the Hmong from unjust treatments by local foreign warlords. The uprising was originally aimed at Thai Dam (Black Thai) mandarins who conscripted Hmong men from their highland settlements to work as free labour for them in the lowlands and who also levied opium tax on the Hmong. However, it soon spread to include French colonial targets when French soldiers became involved in putting it down. They drove Pachai to seek refuge in Laos where he attracted a larger group of followers. It was claimed that the rebellion at its peak covered a territory of 40,000 square kilometres, spanning from Dien Bien Phu in Tonkin (North Vietnam) to Nam Ou in Luang Prabang, Laos, down south to Muong Cha (now renamed Saisomboun) north of Vientiane, and going north-east to Sam Neua. Many Hmong took up arms with Pachai either out of their own personal grievances against lowlanders or in the fervent belief that they were part of a holy war foretold in many of their myths to regain the country they had lost long ago.
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 and a new Hmong kingdom (Tapp, 1982: 114-127). 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." Pachai was eventually tracked down and killed in his hide-out in Muong Heup, Luang Prabang, on 17 November 1921 (Le Boulanger, 1969: 360). Following his death, many Hmong rebel leaders who surrendered were decapitated at Nong Het by the French in front of Hmong spectators who were forced to assemble there. Other supporters of the revolt were required to pay compensation to the French at fifty piastres "for every Lao or Vietnamese (soldiers) killed, not including compensation for 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.
From these early dissident experiences, the Hmong progressed to full participation in the struggle against the French and the subsequent Lao civil war during the Vietnam War period. Rivalry between the Lo and Lee clans in Nong Het for the position of the local Tasseng chief split the two groups into bitter enemies when the French gave it to Touby Lyfoung in 1939, following the death of its incumbent, Lo Bliayao (Chongtoua, 1998: 54). Touby Lyfoung thereafter became a capable Hmong leader who would remain faithful to the French and their right-wing Lao supporters to the end of his life. During the Japanese occupation of Laos in 1945, Faydang, one of Lo Blaiyao's sons and Touby's rival, made contact and sided with the leaders of the left-wing Lao Issara (Free Lao) Movement under the leadership of Prince Souphanouvong. The Lao Issara, later known as the Pathet Lao (PL or Lao Homeland), would become the main nationalist group that led the fight for independence from French (and later American) domination of Laos with the support of North Vietnam.
The Pathet Lao depended much on Faydang's Hmong and other hill tribes as its main human resources in the jungles of north-eastern Laos. According to Stuart-Fox (1997: 79-80), the movement relied on ethnic minorities for its initial support bases, because it had "little opportunity to mobilise lowland Lao" which was firmly controlled by the Royal Lao Government, its opponent. Thus, the Pathet Lao, from the onset, had tried to adopt egalitarian relations with ethnic groups, as well as adopting well-defined policy regarding national identity and unity involving all ethnic minorities. These were later to be enshrined in the Constitution of the Lao PDR promulgated in 1991. To continue to attract support, the Pachai rebellion, along with similar revolts by Khmu leaders in southern Laos, has been honoured as symbols of the fight for independence from French colonialism by the PL Revolutionary Party who presently controls Laos. It has named one of its PL People's Army battalions as Krom Pachai, consisting mostly of Hmong. After the PL took control of Laos in 1975, Faydang was made Vice-Chairman of the National Assembly, and later nominated as "Heroes of the Revolution".
From 1949 when the French ceded control of Laos to 1954 when it was given full independence, those Hmong who sided with Touby Lyfoung were fighting alongside the French as village militia and French colonial soldiers against communist Vietnamese troops which were helping their PL ally in the latter's expansion across the country. After the French left Indochina, the Americans stepped in to counter the spread of communism. The French helped set up the RLG and its army which included many Hmong recruits, among them a young officer named Vang Pao who was later to become a General and the Commander of the Second Military Region in 1962 in north-eastern Laos where most of the Hmong were living. When the Lao civil war was in full swing in 1961, Vang Pao was given full support by the American CIA to set up the so-called "secret army" to combat the advances of PL troops. This support was to last until the Paris Cease-fire Agreement in 1973, leading to the dislocation and deaths of thousands of Hmong in the highlands of northern Laos. It was estimated that the Hmong then numbered 300,000 with about one third living in areas controlled by the PL and the remainder under the RLG. During this period, close to ten per cent of the Hmong population had perished from the war as civilian victims or conscripted soldiers serving on both sides of the conflict.
Resistance or Rebellion?
After Laos changed hands in 1975, the Hmong under Gen. Vang Pao found themselves seeking refuge in the refugee camps in Thailand and were later resettled in Western countries such as the United States, Canada, France, Australia and Argentina. More than 200,00 of them are now in this diaspora, including about 30,000 scattered in various locations in Thailand as illegal residents. A large number of more than 20,000 who could not escape to Thailand in the years immediately after 1975 have adapted themselves to life under the new regime which became known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Many of their leaders, police and military officers under the old RLG were taken to re-education camps and remained there for many years, some never to return. A number of more than 15,000 Vang Pao followers, ever distrustful of the new authorities, went into hiding with their families deep in the jungles of Phu Bia, the highest mountain of Laos and other adjacent areas from where they have continued to wage a constricted war of resistance against the Lao PDR government (Lee, 1982: 212-214).
At first, the new government tried to talk the Hmong into joining in the new political life and socialist economy of the country through face-to-face discussion, leaflet drops and radio propaganda broadcast. However, after much frustrated efforts, it resorted to armed suppression following increasing ambushes of Lao army convoys and troops by the Hmong along Route 13 and the road linking Vangvieng and Vientiane in 1976. The Hmong reportedly used arms and ammunition left hidden by Vang Pao in the Phu Bia region, and later captured weapons from their enemy or took them from dead government soldiers. As these ambushes became more wide-spread and government troops proved ineffective to stop them, four regiments of Vietnamese troops were sent into the Phu Bia area in 1977 to crush the rebellion, causing thousands of Hmong to flee to Thailand with 2,500 arriving in December 1977 alone. Aerial chemical poisoning was also alleged to be used on the rebels by the Lao government (Yang Dao, 1978), but this has proved difficult to confirm (Evans, 1983).
It was estimated that only 3500 Hmong in the Phu Bia area were involved in armed resistance against the government, compared to 150,000 in the country at the time (U S News and World Report, 2 June 1980). At least 1,300 of the rebels were reported killed in 1977, although Vang Pao claimed from his exile in the US that 50,000 Hmong died from Lao government chemical poisoning between 1975 and 1978, with a further 45 000 perished "from starvation and disease or were shot trying to escape to Thailand" (Hamilton-Merritt, 1980: 37). Casualties on the government side were said to be also heavy, including two Soviet helicopters and four crewmen in 1976, in addition to "serious losses suffered by Lao military personnel"(FEER, 10 September 1976).
Since 1977, the Lao government has carried out many intermittent suppression campaigns, and its casualties continue to be heavy - with some military units reported to be nearly wiped out in ambushes by the Hmong and a group of 200 Lao soldiers in the Vangvieng area were allegedly killed by mistaken aerial bombardment from their own air force MIG bombers in 1988. In December 1997, the "Chao Fa" are said to have eradicated all but one member of a company of government troops near Khang Khai south of the Plain of Jars. Hmong civilians are also targeted, and many have died from attacks on villages or ambushes by both sides. Visitors to Laos in 1998 reported that the "Chao Fa" now claimed to occupy the following areas: (1) Muong Mai, Thasi, Pa Na, Nam Hia, Na Kong, Phu Makthao, Chomthong and Muong Sa in Borikhamsay province; (2) Khang Khai, Tha Papang, Nam Tao Samseng, Phu Bia, Muong Mork, Phu Nanon and Samthong in Xieng Khouang province; and (3) Phu Kongkhao and Phu Nhay in Luang Prabang province. Hmong and other inhabitants in these places were said to be living in fear, not knowing which side to align themselves with.
Thus, Hmong resistance fighters, however uncoordinated and lacking in external support, seem to have continued their deadly activities until today. The movement has been kept alive by the fiercely anti-communist stand of its followers and other factors, not the least of which is the fact that Hmong civilians who have rallied to the Lao PDR authorities have been reported taken to resettlement villages in the lowlands where many of their leaders eventually disappear mysteriously or are imprisoned, depending on the decisions of Lao military officials. Other Hmong leaders who came out of their jungle hide-outs to negotiate for the safe return of their followers into normal life under the new authorities were said to have been arrested, tortured and imprisoned (Hmong International Human Rights Watch, Statement submitted to the Lao PDR Ambassador to Washington DC, 31 March 2000). A number of Hmong leaders who voluntarily repatriated from the refugee camps in Thailand also disappeared, were allegedly murdered or put in prison. Among the returnees who disappeared was Mr Vue Mai who was the camp leader at Ban Vinai, the largest Hmong refugee camp in Thailand with more than 40,000 residents before it was closed in 1992 following pressure from the UNHCR and the Lao PDR government, as it was believed to be the support base for many resistance groups inside Laos.
The Lao Government has continued to try and get more Hmong involved in the resistance to "come out" from their jungle hide-outs and to lead "a normal life". Apart from military suppression, it has tried various development projects, chiefly in the "Saisomboun Special Zone" which was established in 1994 north of Vientiane in an area formerly known as Muong Cha under the old Royal Lao Government. This is the area closest to Phu Bia, the base of most of the "Chao Fa" groups. It hopes to make Saisomboun the centre for political and economic development to attract resistance Hmong into the folds of the Lao PDR authorities, by withdrawing lowland ethnic Lao personnel from the area and putting Gen. Bounchanh (a Khmu who successfully suppressed many "Chao Fa" Hmong in the late 1970’s) as the local military commander, with Col. Lo Lu Yang (a PL Hmong) as deputy commander and Mr Siatou Yang (another Hmong who was formerly the Chao Muong or district governor at Moung Hom) as the unification coordinator. The Special Zone covers the districts of Muong Phoun, Muong Hom, Muong Cha and Long San. The Lao authorities are now putting Hmong to work with the dissident Hmong to try to bridge the deep political divide between them.
There is no doubt that the Government believes it best to have the Hmong deal with each other over this long-standing political issue. This does not seem, however, to have assuaged the anger of the so-called Hmong " bandits". They continue to ambush army convoys and even taxis travelling between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, or to and from Saisomboun. This has escalated since May 1998 into free-for-all shooting by Hmong government troops against "Chao Fa" villages, with the resultant armed retaliations on Saisomboun town itself. Whereas it was lowland Lao soldiers shooting at Hmong before, now the Hmong are killing each other. It is said that many Hmong families have fled Saisomboun to Kilometre 52, the major Hmong settlement on the road linking Vientiane to Muong Phon Haung and onto Vangvieng. The latest overseas resistance propaganda from Radio "Hmong Voice" (broadcasting on the Internet in the US) claims that the Lao Government, in order to continue its campaign against the Hmong, is now "forcing and picking up hundred (sic) of children and young men age (sic) 13 to 25 for military service, especially Hmong and Khmu kids in rural areas" (Hmong Voice, 22 July 2000, at www.geocities.com/hmongvoice).
The Lao PDR government has appointed Mr Tong Yer Thao, the Vice-Chairman of the United Lao National Reconstruction Front (previously known as the Pather Lao Revolutionary Front) to negotiate with resistance leaders and to be responsible for the resettlement of former Hmong rebels in the Muong Kao area, Borikamsay province, where they are given lowland wet rice farming land and other forms of assistance. Despite these efforts, the government has not been able to assist with inquiries or explanations on the disappearance or mysterious deaths of Hmong leaders who have "come out". This has deterred many of the rebels from finally laying down their arms, reinforced by a strong belief that the Hmong expatriates in America and Western countries will come to their eventual rescue based on propaganda from overseas Hmong resistance groups, broadcast from Radio Free Asia and other covert means of contacts. In a sense, the Hmong cannot be said to be rebels against the Lao PDR government, as these dissidents have never joined the new regime. They have chosen to resist by isolating themselves in their mountain fastnesses and refusing to be under the control of the new authorities.
The rebels seem to strongly believe that the current Lao government is no more than a puppet of the Vietnamese politburo, the real colonial master of Laos, a belief fed by a continuing similar political position of Hmong resistance groups in America. This ideological stand, stemming also from their past involvement with the Royal Lao Government and the CIA-financed secret army, has prevented the resistance leaders from having any trust in the pronouncements and overt intentions of the new Lao PDR officials. The Lao government, on its part, has tried to hide the problem from the outside world by dismissing Hmong resistance activities as being merely the works of armed "bandits" and "highway robbers". For example, an ambush on 21 May 1994 which killed an Australian hydrologist and five Lao civilians 70 kilometres north of Vientiane was blamed on "Chao Fa bandits" (BBC, 05/21/94). This has made it easy for real Lao and Khmu bandits to kill and loot travellers but to blame the "Chao Fa" Hmong for their bloody deeds. Lao officials have accused overseas Hmong refugees of trying to create instability in Laos, but has never openly acknowledged the existence of this twenty-five-year-old rebellion by Hmong living inside the country. The international media and the diplomatic corps have been barred from visiting areas undergoing suppression campaigns by Lao and Vietnamese troops or under the control of the real "Chao Fa" rebels.
Who Are Involved and Why?
In 1976, the two major groups of rebels in Phu Bia were under Mr Yong Youa Her (Ntxoov Zuag Hawj), a former sargeant in Vang Pao's secret army, and Mr Xai Shua Yang, a former Tasseng (canton chief) at Pha Khao, east of Long Cheng that used to be Vang Pao's former headquarters. Yong Youa joined a Hmong revivalist movement in 1972 which, amidst all the suffering sustained by Hmong refugees in the Lao civil war, was advocating the formation of 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. Under Yong Youa's military guidance and messianic leadership, the resistance movement soon became known as "Chao Fa" (a Lao term meaning "Lord of the Sky or Heaven" or God).
As stated by Lee (op. cit.: 213), Yong Yua'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…. 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.
In 1979, Xai Shua Yang's followers had to split up into small bands, 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 Yong Youa and his "Chao Fa" freedom fighters to roam the thickets of Phou Bia in a hopeless resistance struggle for their promised Hmong kingdom. Yong Youa's movement was picked up in Thailand by a group of former "Chao Fa" adherents, headed by Pa Kao Her. For a time, the group gained support from China which supplied it with arms and military training from 1979 to 1980, following the 1979 border between China and Vietnam, the Lao PDR government's primary ally. The Thailand "Chao Fa" followers established their base in Nan, near the border of Laos and launched intelligence and armed operations into Sayaboury province in Laos as well as Phu Bia where Young Youa and his followers were stationed. Today, however, the group in Thailand has dissolved into small scattered elements, due to lack of overseas support and crackdown by the Thai government acting on border security agreements it has signed with the Lao PDR government in 1994. By 1998, Yong Youa also seems to have pinned his hopes on Vang Pao to return to the jungles of Laos and help him with the resistance, declaring in a video message that "I am continuing the fight for you and we are all suffering from your dirty legacy (of cooperating with the American CIA)".
In 1981, Vang Pao established the United Lao National Liberation Front (ULNLF), based in Santa Ana, California. The Front was supported by a number of prominent former RLG political and military figures such as Sisouk Na Champassak (former RLG Minister for Defence), Gen. Phoumi Nosavanh (the liberator of Vientiane during its occupation in 1960 by Lao Neutralist forces under Captain Kong Le), Gen. Thonglit Chokbengboun, Mr Outhong Souvannavong (elderly stateman and a former minister of the first Lao cabinet after independence from France in 1954), and a number of other right-wing Lao politicians. They formed a government in exile with Souvannavong as Prime Minister and Vang Pao as Minister for Defence (Chan, 1994: 47). Members of the Front travelled frequently to different countries with Lao émigré communities to promote their organisation and to gain support. They were able to increase its membership and financial donations greatly between 1982 to 1992. It also established its base in Thailand within the Hmong refugee camps, especially in the former Ban Vinai camp in Loei. It also had the cooperation of Thai army border intelligence units which were using the Hmong refugee resistance fighters to collect military information inside Laos for Thailand. At the time, Laos and Thailand had not opened up to each other, and the Thai were still treating the new Lao regime with suspicion, depending mostly on refugees from Laos for any border military information.
By 1985, Vang Pao's ULNLF had penetrated deep inside Laos with many contact points established in the jungles of his former RLG Second Military Command area in north-eastern Laos. It also tried unsuccessfully to make headway into central and southern Laos, but found the going difficult as most of Vang Pao's operatives were Hmong while the Lao resistance groups continued to squabble with each other and to do most of their fight verbally against the new Lao authorities in the comfort of their armchairs overseas in France, America or Australia. In 1992, however, the ULNLF fell victims of the Thai-Lao rapprochement, like other resistance groups based among the Lao refugees in Thailand. The Lao PDR government, mindful of the use of Lao refugee camps as the staging points of the overseas resistance groups, made overtures to the Thai government in an effort to bring the two countries closer together and to stem out these dissident operations. Vang Pao who used to be able to spend much of his time in Thailand was no longer welcome there, and he had to content with calling the tune from America and he could no longer made radio contacts with his supporters in Laos the way he used to do, thus gradually losing ground on the resistance.
The "Chao Fa" Hmong refugee supporters in Thailand are reported to continue their activities along the Thai-Lao border near Sayaburi province in Laos. Its leader, Pakao Her, is said to be still in Thailand with his family, and many of his followers are reportedly living at Tham Krabok. This Thailand connection of the "Chao Fa" has been used by its followers to claim that they have been able to maintain contacts with those inside Laos and to keep the fighting going. They have also claimed that because of this, the Lao government has retaliated and killed many innocent Hmong civilians. The director of the Hmong International Human Rights Watch (HIHRW) based in Chicago recently alleged in a submission on 22 July 2000 to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland, that the Lao government and the Vietnamese military "are carrying out heavy military attacks against Hmong civilians living in the Saisonboun special region, Xieng Khouang province and Borikhamsay province - killing thousands of Hmong people…. These renewed attacks have been going on since 1 December 1999, non-stop but nothing is being done to halt this genocidal campaign" (HIHRW, Press Release: Deteriorating Human Rights Conditions for the Hmong Living in Laos, July 2000).
It is interesting to note that it is not only the Hmong who used to serve under Vang Pao that have resisted the new Lao PDR government. In July 1995, Bouachong Lee, a Hmong major in the Pathet Lao army, staged a minor coup against government military installations near Luang Prabang, the former royal capital (Asia Week, 28/07/95). He was reported to be upset with the Lao government for by-passing him for a promotion and for trying to retire him from active service without all the promises made to him before 1975 having been materialised. The same discontent is said to simmer within the ranks of many Pathet Lao Hmong supporters, due to lack of promotions and unfulfilled promises by the government. Bouachong and his supporters were arrested while trying to escape to Thailand. He is now said to have his jaws and other body parts broken from torture and to remain chained in prison to this day. A number of other Hmong leaders who used to oppose Vang Pao and to work faithfully with the Pathet Lao are now also in prison on suspicion of supporting him and planning a rebellion against the Lao authorities.
Another cause of discontent is the perception by some Hmong in and outside Laos that they are the subject of blatant racial discrimination by some elements of the Lao population and government. It has been alleged, for instance, that the current Lao President who is a prominent ethnic Lao member of the Lao Politburo once made a speech to an all-Lao audience that no Hmong military personnel, even those who served the communist Pathet Lao for the last 40 years, were to be promoted beyond the rank of major because they were not to be trusted (so long as Vang Pao remains alive). This happens to be true of the current Hmong army officers in Laos when officers of other ethnic backgrounds have become colonels or generals. The Hmong who were some of the first Pathet Lao soldiers now find themselves still serving under Lao or Khmu commanders, but have no one of their own in any high-level military positions.
Another indication of official Lao discrimination against the Hmong is the "black book" maintained by the Lao government on Hmong visitors to Laos from America and other Western countries. It appears that this black list only exists for the Hmong, and few Lao or visitors of other ethnic backgrounds suffer the same fate. This has created much resentment against the Lao government and may have spurred some Hmong to support the resistance movement. A Hmong traveller to Laos will usually have been granted an entry visa by the Lao Embassy in his or her country of residence. However, once he or she reaches the Lao border, the person's name is checked carefully against names on the list in a spring-bound book maintained at the airport in Vientiane and other border check points. Should a name be found on the list which is similar to the name of the Hmong visitor, the latter is then barred from enter the country on the assumption that he or she used to have a prominent role in Vang Pao's CIA secret army or is currently alleged to be involved in anti-Lao government activities overseas.
Many innocent young Hmong visitors and couples who grew up in refugee camps in Thailand or in their Western country of adoption and who know little about the Lao civil war of the 1960's, have found themselves being sent back to Thailand from the Vientiane airport after spending a lot of money getting there to see relatives who still live in Laos. Some are retained at the airport for days (while officials claim to be making inquiries) before being bailed out by relatives, while others have to pay bribes to airport officials before being allowed to go. All this is because they have a name similar to one on the Lao black list, and this would easily happen as the Hmong use very simple names which are shared by many others. If justice is to be seen to be done by the Lao authorities, more than a name has to be used to check Hmong visitors: at least a date of birth or a photograph has to be added to the name. To carry on with the existing system will be seen as mere prejudice and an attempt to get bribes rather than a genuine means to check undesirable elements who want to enter Laos for political or criminal reasons.
Foreign Connections - The Role of Thailand
Because Thailand was refuge for more than 300,000 refugees since the PL control of Laos in 1975, it became the base for many of the resistance groups which operated inside the refugee camps. Resistance fighters in Laos became better co-ordinated and even had regular radio communication contacts with supporters in Thailand. However, this support was very ad hoc and only exposed the resistance groups to greater danger of discovery. When the Thai and Lao PDR governments started negotiations on border security in July 1994, these resistance support networks were dismantled and their members dispersed or imprisoned. By now, Thailand also had new changes of governments and military commanders who had developed new attitudes towards a Laos that was beginning to open up its market to the free economy of Thailand and other nations. The older die-hard anti-communist elite of Vang Pao's generation were gone. Many of the new people in command in Thailand did not even know who Vang Pao was, although he used to be its closest ally during the Lao civil war and the fight against communism in Laos throughout the 1960's and the early 1970's.
The new Thai authorities began to arrest Lao and Hmong refugees suspected of being involved in supporting resistance activities inside Laos, and those from America were stopped and turned back at the airport in Bangkok. By 1992, virtually all three Hmong refugee camps (Nam Yao, Chiang Kham and Ban Vinai) were closed, with more than 20,000 of their residents repatriated "voluntarily" (by UNHCR accounts) to Laos. With the closing of the refugee camps in Thailand, the resistance groups in Laos have been on their own since 1993. The remaining of the Hmong refugees who had not been repatriated or accepted for resettlement in Western countries, ran away to live at Tham Krabok (a large Thai Buddhist drug rehabilitation centre and temple in Saraburi province, north of Bangkok). Others were dispersed into various parts of northern Thailand, or were relocated to Ban Napho camp in Nakhone Phanom, the last camp scheduled for closure by the UNHCR in December 1999.
Foreign Connections - The US Connection
As the country responsible for supporting the Indochina War, America was also recipient of the biggest number of Indochinese refugees since their exodus from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia in 1975. The number of refugees from Laos accepted for resettlement in the US is estimated at more than 350,000 with two thirds being Hmong. Vang Pao was among the first to resettle there. As stated earlier, he and Phoumi Nosavanh (a former General in the Royal Lao Army exiled in Thailand) set up the United Lao National Liberation Front (ULNLF) in 1981 in America with affiliates among Lao refugees living in France and Australia. The Front and other resistance groups have also lobbied the American government for support and for political or economic sanctions against the Lao government. This is despite the fact that US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has clearly stated that the US Government "does not support Laos Resistance Movement" (Business Day, 31 July 2000).
Regardless of the official American stand, much of the support for resistance groups and their morale still emanate from the US, largely because of the huge number of expatriates from Laos in that country who act as a source of financial donations and the presence of Vang Pao, Laos' major enemy. He was sentenced to death in absentia by the new Lao government in 1975, but he continues to represent a threat to the Lao regime. Judging from public statements made by Lao officials, there is no doubt that Vang Pao still commands fear among the Lao authorities, although he has vehemently denied being involved in any resistance activities in Laos or the recent bomb explosions in the Lao capital (Asia.dailynews.yahoo.com, July 29, 2000). The Lao government accuses the Hmong in America of continuing to send arms and money to resistance groups in Laos. It claims that six Hmong Americans were caught doing this at Nong Khai province in Thailand just across the border from Vientiane in January 2000 (Far Eastern Economic Review, 6 May 2000). Two Hmong men from America visiting northern Laos had also disappeared in 1999, although the object of their visit was never made clear. Overall, many Hmong in America still have relatives in Laos and often send them large sums of money - an activity regarded with suspicion by Lao officials. Many of them also visit Laos each year as tourists or on business - again making the Lao authorities suspecting some of them as using these visits as a front for politically subversive activities.
Foreign Connections - The Chinese Connection
Before Xai Shua Yang's escape to Thailand in 1979, rumours were already circulating of Hmong resistance bands harassing Lao troops near the border of China and Laos. Pa Kao Her, the "Chao Fa" Hmong leader in Thailand was also said to have sent 100 young Hmong for military training in southern China. Vang Pao was alleged to have contacted Chinese leaders in August 1978 (FEER, I September 1979). 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" (FEER, 8 December 1979). However, there is no conclusive evidence on the extent or effectiveness of China's use of tribespeople to interfere in Lao internal affairs.
The Lao PDR government is also mindful of this possible threat and has made several high-level friendship visits to China each time Hmong resistance activities are increased, the latest being a State visit by the Lao President, Mr Khamtay Siphandone, to Beijing on 14 July 2000 at the invitation of Chinese President Jiang Zemin. Another Lao delegation also visited Yunnan province bordering Laos a few days later. The official Chinese Xinhua News Agency (14 July 2000) reports on the Khamtay-Jiang meeting that "the two leaders reached common ground on furthering comprehensive and cooperative relations between the two countries, and will as soon as possible sign a document to define the framework for the further development of Sino-Lao relations".
Foreign Connections - The Vietnamese Factor
The Lao PDR government appears to recourse to Vietnamese military intervention every time the Hmong rebels intensify their activities. This has not helped to quench the resistance movement, but only to reinforce the claim by anti-government elements that Laos is but a colony of communist Vietnam, although the latter denies any involvement by saying that Laos is a country capable of looking after its own security. This is despite the fact that in June 2000, Vietnamese Communist Party chief, Le Kha Phieu, told a visiting Laotian army delegation that he wanted the two countries' armies "to cooperate in the struggle against hostile forces." (egroups.com/message/archive-laonews/ 1298).
Resistance sources claim that two battalions of Vietnamese troops have been sent to Laos since October 1999 (Hmong Voice Radio, 22 July 2000). This seems to have been confirmed by foreign diplomats in Vientiane, one of whom was quoted by Agence France Press (2 June 2000) as saying that "in the past few months there have been frequent clashes in Xieng Khouang province which are getting bigger, causing mounting casualties for the Lao army", including heavy material losses such as a helicopter carrying artillery being shot down by the rebels. These losses have forced the Lao government to seek help from Vietnam. The diplomat went on to say that "the Vietnamese army has sent soldiers and military equipment to bolster the Lao army which is struggling to control the situation. We have seen military vehicles carrying Vietnamese troops on the streets of the capital."
The Hmong International Human Rights Watch recently stated in its submission to the UN Commission on Human Rights, cited above, that evidence of Lao and Vietnamese government joint involvement in the planning of military actions against Hmong insurgents in Laos "surfaced over two years ago, when, on 25 May 1998, a Russian-made YAK-40 military jet flying over Saisomboun…. was shot down". Among those killed in the crash were said to be 14 senior Vietnamese officers (including Lieut.Gen. Dao Trong Lich, the Chief of Staff and Deputy Defence Minister, another lieutenant-general, three major-generals and nine colonels and lieutenant colonels) together with 12 Laotian top military personnel (HIHRW, Press Release: Deteriorating Human Rights Conditions for the Hmong Living in Laos, 22 July 2000).
At any rate, recent exchanges of official visits between Vietnam and Laos seem to have increased markedly in June and July this year since news of the bombings in Vientiane emerged internationally. For example, On 16 July 2000, the Vietnam News Agency reports a story on a six-day visit to Laos by "a high-level Vietnamese military delegation" which was headed by the Vietnamese Deputy Defence Minister, Lieut. Gen. Le Van Dzung, member of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central Committee and Chief of the General Staff of the Vietnam People's Army. The delegation was said to hold "talks with their Lao counterparts in the spirit of solidarity, friendship and mutual understanding…. (and) also discussed activities to promote mutual assistance and set the orientation for further friendship and cooperation in the near future."
A high-level provincial delegation from Xieng Khouang, the seat of most of the Hmong resistance activities, also visited Hanoi on 13 June 2000 - just after the spate of bombings in Vientiane. The visit was headed by the province's Communist Party deputy secretary, Mr Sivongya Yangyongyia (a Hmong). The group met with the powerful external relations commission of the Vietnamese Communist Party (Agence-France Press, 14 June 2000) with the aim to "strengthen relations between the two parties". The Lao delegation also visited areas with ethnic hill tribes in Vietnam to see how they are being run by the Vietnamese government. Hmong Voice Radio (22 July 2000), however, sees the visit as a punishment for the PL Hmong leadership in Xieng Khouang for being too weak and lenient by allowing Hmong dissidents to shoot government officials at random, to burn houses and to kill innocent villagers. The party leadership was thus called to Vietnam to get a lecture. The resistance fighters also claim that these killings were carried out by racist and corrupt Lao officials or soldiers who then blamed them on the Hmong. A number of highway armed robberies allegedly committed by the "Chao Fa" Hmong have been discovered to be the work of local Khmu and Lao government troops or village militia. Since the arrests of many of these recalcitrant elements in the Lao government, much of the armed highway robberies are said to have decreased.
These foreign connections and influences play an important part in maintaining the survival of the resistance movement and keeping up its morale both outside and inside Laos, the most important being the Lao PDR government's relations with Vietnam. It appears that the increase of insurgent activities often coincides with state visits to Vietnam by the Lao authorities, further fuelling the resentment and belief by resistance groups that the Lao PDR is no more than a puppet regime of its Vietnamese neighbour. So long as these factors remain, Hmong resistance will likely continue because these influences seem to work for and against each other to reinforce the ideological stands and resources of the parties involved in this long drawn-out conflict. Only time will tell how long this will continue in the years ahead.
To return to the question of whether the Hmong were involved in the spate of bombings in Vientiane from March to June 2000, it is clear from the above discussion that the Hmong are in no position to infiltrate Vientiane, an urban lowland area traditionally and tightly controlled by the Lao PDR government. There is also the problem of the "Chao Fa" Hmong in the remote jungles of northern Laos having access to the necessary implements to make explosive devices. This is especially the case now when local insurgents do not have direct contacts with their overseas supporters who cannot supply them directly with the wherewithal’s of war. The Hmong insurgents are not familiar with Vientiane to be able to make their way into the city and secretly plant bombs there, despite the claim by some that the Hmong were involved.
The Lao PDR government has tried hard to blame the instability on overseas Hmong, not local Hmong inside Laos whose dissidents have so far been officially labelled only as "bandits". It has tried quietly to solve the problem of Hmong resistance in the backwaters of its jungles in northern Laos. It has tried to deny that such resistance groups exist rather than acknowledging them for what they are. It has made prominent reference in the country's Constitution to ethnic minorities as inseparable groups in the make-up of the Lao nation's unity who are accorded equal rights and obligations. It has established the Saisomboun Special Zone as a show-case development site for the Hmong to attract Hmong rebels. There are now Hmong district and provincial governors, Hmong deputies in the National Assembly and even a Hmong Minister (for rural development) in the current Lao government. Many Hmong are now in middle management in the Lao public service, more than under the old right-wing Royal Lao Government. A group of Lao soldiers who arrested and killed a number of Hmong civilians a few months ago, in Saisomboun were reportedly executed by their local commander in front of survivors as an example of what is not allowed by the Lao government.
A number of resistance groups announced last month that they have formed a "New Lao Liberation Alliance" which will "mean a new challenge to the government of the Lao PDR" (Hmong Voice Radio, 11 September 2000). The Alliance comprises six "groups of freedom fighters", namely:
the Lao Pasa Liberation Front, an ethnic Lao group to be responsible for Luang Namtha, Bokeo and Oudomsay provinces in north-western Laos.
Local Freedom Fighters with an ethnic minority leader to cover Sam Neua and Phong Saly provinces.
Hmong Liberation Front, formerly lead by Gen. Vang Pao, to oversee activities in Xieng Khouang and Luang Prabang provinces.
Ethnic Issara, with recently defected Khmu PL military officer as leader, covering Sankham, Vang Vieng, Phaun Hong, Vientiane, Muong Hom and Saisomboun.
Chao Fa group to be responsible for Phu Bia, Kham Keut, Nong Het and Muong Khun.
Lao People's Liberation Front, a merging of three other Lao resistance groups, led by Captain Vinai, to cover Khammouane down to Sepon in southern Laos.
The Alliance states that the formation of the last group, the Lao People's Liberation Front, was necessary as the leaders of the former smaller three member groups denied the 3 July 2000 attack at Vang Tao, southern Laos, by exiled resistance fighters from Thailand. They have thus been replaced by a new and more vocal leadership. The announcement claims that the Alliance has its headquarters in Vientiane, Laos. It is not certain whether this new Alliance is pure political propaganda without substance, or whether it does exist in reality. Judging from the past performance of similar groups, the new alliance will probably remain in existence mostly on paper. It is very difficult to see how they will coordinate and carry out their activities, given the long distance and cultural gulf between the various member groups and the lack of support from the general Lao refugee population and foreign governments overseas. They will probably end up squabbling between themselves and disintegrate.
On its part, Vang Pao's movement does not seem to have slowed down its activities, judging by what it has publicised recently. It has renamed itself the "United Lao Movement for Democracy" with its own Internet site (http://members.nbci.com/_XMCM) - a new development for resistance groups. It organised an international conference in 1997 and the conference proceedings and resolutions were featured in detail in the site, with full participation and support from members of the exiled Lao Royal family. Among other things, Vang Pao wants the overthrow of the current communist Lao authorities and their replacement by a monarchy with a democratically elected government and the late King Savang Vatthana's grand-son, Prince Soulivong now living in France, being re-installed on the throne. The PL has, of course, abolished the old monarchy when it took over Laos in 1975 - a sentiment shared by many other resistance groups who do not want to see the return of the monarchy.
Since September 2000, the Lao PDR government has issued orders to local Hmong cadres and public servants to "all go out and raise the heart and mind of the people at all levels and on every front", following a recent field visit to Hmong villages in Vientiane province by the immediate past President of Laos, Mr Nouhak Phomsavanh. Secret unwritten orders were also issued to ban all religious activities by Christian groups in the country because they are believed to ferment disloyalty which could lead to insurgent acts directed against the government. An unidentified subordinate of Gen. Bounchanh, the former military commander of the Saisomboun Special Zone, was reported by Hmong Voice Radio (11/9/00) to have escaped recently with some of his troops to join the Hmong "Chao Fa" and has set up a new political front called the Ethnic Issara (Ethnic Independence) because of alleged discontent with "Vientiane's policy towards the ethnic minorities" in Laos.
On 12/10/00, Radio Hmong Voice claims that a new Khmu general from southern Laos has been moved by the Lao government to be the new Saisomboun commander to replace Gen. Bounchanh because the latter is seen to have become too friendly with the local Hmong. This source of information also states that Mr Sue Yang (no rank specified), the Hmong officer in charge of the Krom Pachai PL Hmong troops, has been transferred to be the commander of southern Laos because the government allegedly believes southern Lao army officers were too lacking in their duties and allowed the incursion of a group of 60 exiled Lao insurgents from Thailand into southern Laos and briefly raised the old royalist flag on the roof of the Lao customs office near Pakse on 3 July 2000. At the same time, the Lao government has allegedly allowed Vietnamese troops, Battalion no. 213, to cross the Mekong river into Sayabouri province near the Thai-Lao border, supposedly to help fight drug trafficking along the border rather than to defend it against "freedom fighters" because a Lao government spokesman states that there are "no freedom fighters in the area" in spite of claims by the "Chao Fa" insurgents that they operate there. Along with these official military movements, it has been reported by resistance groups inside Laos that the Lao PDR government has put Brigadier-General Myka Sivongsa in charge of the campaign against Hmong resistance fighters and plans to "exterminate them" by the years 2001-2002.
Die-hard resistance groups appear to continue their activities, however sporadically, and to distrust the government. Apart from political differences, there seems to be other equally important factors involved in the equation, including racial discrimination of ethnic minorities by private Lao citizens, poverty and high inflation, ripe official graft and corruption, lack of economic and employment opportunities leading people to be easily susceptible to alternative political propaganda, resentment for lack of promotion and forced retirement of Hmong communist party supporters, alleged framing of Hmong officials for drug trafficking and other crimes leading to their arrests and imprisonment to deprive the Hmong of their leadership, murder and mysterious disappearances of repatriated Hmong refugee leaders and resistance leaders who rallied to the Lao PDR government.
These factors together with political influences or material support from the diaspora Hmong outside Laos will continue to make it difficult for the Hmong resistance fighters to stop their activities. The ultimate aim of some resistance groups is the total destruction of the current Lao communist government, while others content themselves to simply bring about disruptions in order to force the Lao PDR authorities to change their political course to a more democratic and freer regime with a multi-party political system to replace the current totalitarian one-party state. In its attempt to cling to power, the Lao PDR government seems intent on stemming out the resistance by force as well as political persuasion and economic development projects. With such divergent views on the situation, it will be difficult to find viable and enduring solutions to the problem, so long as the current proponents of these conflicting views remain active on their home grounds.
Regardless of this continuing thorn on the side of the Lao government and the resistance leadership, we need to keep the problem in perspective. There are currently 315 465 Hmong living in Laos according to the 1995 Lao government census, representing 6.9 per cent of the total population of the country. Of this number, less than 5,000 are actively involved in the resistance, and their number ebbs and flows according to their fortune and the action of the Lao government at any particular time. The number is small, but the Lao authorities will need to resolve many of the causes of this discontent before it becomes too wide-spread to do anything about. The problem is real and cannot be ignored or simply stemmed out by force as there are many underlying social and economic factors involved, not just political ideologies. So long as these needs are not addressed, even if existing protest groups are stemmed out, new ones will rise up to show their discontent in one form or another if they cannot voice their problems openly as in a free democratic society.
The information on which this article is based comes from books, media news reports, the Internet and interviews with recent visitors to Laos and Thailand. No direct contacts have been made with Lao government officials or representatives of political groups in or outside that country. I have tried to be as objective as possible in my assessment of the situation and not all claims by all parties may have been discussed as they are difficult to confirm, but I hope that at least a big picture has been given on the issue without going into all the minutiae. I would like to thank Mr Karl Malakunas, of the Herald Sun newspaper in Melbourne, Australia, who generously shared with me information he obtained from a recent trip to the Chao Fa Hmong in Thailand. Help in accessing news reports on Laos has also been generously given by Mr Jo M. Davy, of the Hmong International Human Rights Watch, and is here also gratefully acknowledged.
A shorter version of this paper is published in a special issue on Indochina of the Indigenous Affairs Journal, 4/2000 (October-December 2000).
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