Hmong Rebellion in Laos: Victims of
Totalitarianism or Terrorists?
By Gary Yia Lee, Ph.D.
Information for this chapter came from various sources both in and outside Laos, including the Internet. I would like to thank all those informants who generously shared with me their information, resources and time. This paper is based on an older version entitled “Bandits or Rebels?”, originally published in a special issue on Indochina of the Indigenous Affairs Journal, 4/2000 (October-December 2000). Written 2005, updated 2008.
On the 4th of June 2005, a group of 171 people (20 Hmong and 9 Khmu families with 83 adults and 88 children) emerged from the forest and put themselves in the hands of a government police officer in the Saisomboun Special Zone, north of Vientiane province. Their arrival had been well publicised as one of the few rebel groups that voluntarily surrendered. Government troops of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) and other officials were soon on the scene, including four US citizens from the Fact Finding Commission, a lobby group based in California, USA. The US visitors were there to witness the rallying and to ensure that the group was given all the help they needed after spending 30 years in the jungle of central Laos refusing to be part of the Lao communist regime. The Americans were promptly arrested for “liaising illegally” with the Hmong, but were released and deported a few days later after diplomatic discussions between the two countries (BBC News, World Edition, 7 June 2005).
The new arrivals were taken a few hours later by military trucks to Phu Kout in Xieng Khouang province where they were allocated 50 hectares of farm land and other forms of emergency assistance, with local officials welcoming them “as a gesture of appreciation for their support to (sic) the government's policy of alleviating poverty”, according to Vientiane Times, the official English language newspaper (http://www.vientianetimes.org.la/Contents/2005-107/Phou.htm). For the Lao authorities, the Hmong families coming out of the jungle were no more than villagers on the move in search of new farming land. There was no question of rebellion or resistance.
On the other side of the globe, however, the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, on 7 June 2005 in New York, welcomed reports on the humane treatment extended to “Hmong, coming out of remote areas of Laos” and urged the Vientiane government to continue providing the necessary assistance to them in case a larger number decide to follow in the days ahead. The Secretary-General said the UN was ready to provide every kind of humanitarian assistance to such groups the Lao government may request (News Updated, Tuesday 12 July 2005 at ). This is the first time, the UN made any public acknowledgement of the existence of Hmong rebels in Laos.
Meanwhile, a television report in France entitled "The Secret War in Laos" was broadcast on 16 June 2005 on France Channel 2 (http://info.france2.fr/emissions/73095-fr.php). It shows a campaign of “ferocious repression, even extermination” conducted for the last three decades by the leaders of the one-party state of the Lao PDR against thousands of Hmong in the jungle of Saisomboun and Bolikhamsay province (Lao Movement for Human Rights, “Petition to Save the Hmong in Saisomboun” at http://www.mldh-lao.org/petition_online/petition1.php). A Lao Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mr Yong Chanthalansy, dismissed the televised report as an attempt to “make something out of nothing”, claiming that there were no rebels in Laos and that the two French reporters had been mislead by “bad people” (“khaun-bordi”) to invent the report (Lao Language Program, Radio Free Asia, 26 June 2005).
Ever since 1975 when the communist Pathet Lao (Lao Nation) gained control of Laos with the support of the then Soviet Union and North Vietnam, reports have continued to circulate about the exploits and suffering of many thousands of Hmong resistance fighters in remote jungles of that country. Initially they saw themselves as part of a rather ill-coordinated liberation movement to bring back democracy and non-communist rule to the country. After many years with little progress, this mission was changed in the last five years to one where the few small groups who remain, are simply fighting for survival as remnants of the so-called “secret army” which the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruited and supported during the Lao civil war from 1961 to 1973 (Conboy, 1995 and Warner, 1998). They now see their plight as the legacy of their involvement as members or descendants of the members of this CIA “secret army” and are thus targeted for extermination by the new communist regime.
This paper will focus on the Hmong and their armed resistance in Laos. It will begin with a short overview of the Hmong and their past armed rebellions. I will then discuss the current situation by looking at the internal and external factors and groups involved, before concluding on what will be the likely future of Hmong armed resistance in that country. 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 and raise up against it from within its own ranks. Rather, they have chosen to resist the new communist rule by being fiercely anti-communist and by isolating themselves in their mountain fastnesses, refusing to be under the control of the new authorities.
Why the Hmong?
During the sixty-one years (1893-1954) of French colonial control of Laos, a number of armed rebellions by ethnic Khmu and Hmong minorities took place (Gunn, 1990). However, the Hmong remain today the only ones involved in armed resistance against the ruling authorities, although there are more than 40 other minorities living in the country. To explore the reason for this occurrence, we need to look at the role the Hmong have played in recent Lao history, and mythical religious beliefs which shape their political outlook and which influence them to instigate or join armed insurgency.
The Hmong began migrating from southern China to Laos during the last half of the 19th century, partly pushed by the Chinese Taiping Rebellions but largely in search of new farming lands. They settled in increasing numbers in Samneua, Phong Saly, Luang Prabang and Xieng Khouang provinces. After Laosbecame a French colony in 1893, they became subjected to heavy taxes: a resident tax paid to the local Lao chiefs and a colonial tax for the French administrators. This official tax burden soon lead Hmong leaders 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 were concerned 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 authorities.
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 Hmong leaders to collect taxes from their own people and to have autonomy at the level of village administration, thus 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 officialdom based on these early confrontations. It also created a political outlook that would subsequently make some Hmong unwilling to accept orders directly from the Lao authorities.
These early administrative arrangements with the French brought relative calm to their relations with the Hmong until the latter took up arms again with the Pachai (Batchai) Vue messianic revolt from 1918 to 1921. This was to be the first of many revivalist cults that eventually gave rise to the "Chao Fa" or Lord of the Sky resistance in Laos today. A Hmong living in Tonkin (North Vietnam), Pachai was called upon to lead the rebellion out of a mythical belief that God had ordained him to deliver justice to his people who greatly suffered in the hands of Thai Dam (Black Thai) mandarins who not only conscripted Hmong men from their highland villages to work as free labour in lowland Thai Dam settlements but also levied opium tax on the Hmong.
However, the uprising soon included other grievances when French soldiers became involved in putting it down. Pachai fled Tonkin and sought refuge in Laos where he attracted a larger group of followers who saw in him the messiah they had been waiting for. It was claimed that the rebellion at its peak covered a territory of 40,000 square kilometres, spanning from Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam to Nam Ou in Luang Prabang and down to central Laos as far as Muong Cha (now renamed Saisomboun, the site of the current Hmong rebellion). 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 Han Chinese domination based on a belief in the coming of a mythical king and a new Hmong kingdom (Tapp, 1982: 114-127).
When the Pachai rebellion spread to Laos, the largest military expedition ever organised by the French "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." (Gunn, 1986: 115). 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 had 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).
From these early dissident experiences, the Hmong gravitated to full participation in the Lao struggle for independence from France (1945-1953) and the subsequent Lao civil war (1954- 1975) while other ethnic minorities remain very much in the background due to their smaller numbers or their lack of political participation in Lao national affairs. For the Hmong, however, political rivalry in Nong Het, Xieng Khouang, for the position of the local Tasseng chief made the Lo and Ly clans into bitter enemies when the French gave it to Touby Lyfoung in 1939 a few years after the death of Lo Bliayoa, the local kiatong chief (Chongtoua, 1998: 54). Touby Lyfoung thereafter remained faithful to the French and their right-wing Royal Lao Government (RLG) until his death in a communist political re-education camp in 1978.
During Japan’s occupation of Laos in 1945, Faydang, one of Lo Bliayao's sons and Touby's political rival, sided with the Lao Issara (Free Lao) Movement. The Lao Issara, later known as the Pathet Lao (PL or Lao Homeland), urged on initially by the Japanese and later aided by North Vietnam and the Soviet Union, eventually won the fight for control of Laos in 1975 from the RLG, its America-supported faction in the civil war. The left-wing PL depended much on Faydang's Hmong and other hill tribes as its main support base in the jungles of north-eastern Laos. According to Stuart-Fox (1997: 79-80), the movement relied on ethnic minorities because it had "little opportunity to mobilise lowland Lao" people who were firmly under RLG control.
Prior to Laos being independent from France in 1954, those Hmong who sided with Touby Lyfoung were serving the French as right-wing village militia and French colonial soldiers. After the France left Indochina, the USA stepped in to counter the spread of communism (Freedman, 2002). Like the French, the Americans continued to see the Hmong as a trustworthy source of support. The French helped set up the RLG and its army which included many Hmong recruits. Among the latter was a young officer named Vang Pao who subsequently became a General and the Commander of the Second Military Region for the RLG in north-eastern Laos, the home of the Hmong and the seat of many major battles in the war.
In 1961, Vang Pao was offered support from the American CIA to set up the so-called "secret army" to combat the advances of PL troops. According to Prados (2003: 165), “in 1964 the Hmong secret army stood at 19,000 troops, building toward a strength of 23,000… The Hmong not only increased in number, but they also benefited from a constant stream of SGUs (special guerrilla units) sent to Thailand for advanced training… [and].. given heavier U.S. weapons”. Known as Project Momentum by the CIA, this military support was to last until the Paris Cease-fire Agreement in 1973, leading to the dislocation and death of more than ten per cent of the estimated 300,000 Hmong involved in both sides of the war in Laos at the time.
When the PL finally took over Laos in 1975, the Hmong under Gen. Vang Pao found themselves under a communist regime they had been fighting against since 1961. More than 200,000 of them sought refuge in Thailand, and most were later resettled in the West. The majority who could not escape to Thailand in the years immediately after 1975 adapted themselves to life in the new Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Many right-wing Hmong leaders, former police and military officers under the old RLG, were taken to political re-education camps where they remained for many years and where some eventually died. A large number of Vang Pao followers, distrustful of the new authorities and their forced political “seminars”, went into hiding 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). It was estimated that by mid-1980, 3500 Hmong in the Phu Bia area were involved in this armed resistance, compared to 150,000 other Hmong in the country at the time (U S News and World Report, 2 June 1980).
However, the Fact-Finding Commission on Laos, a non-profit lobby group based in Oroville in California , states in February 2002 that there are today 20 such veteran groups consisting of 17,177 people still living in the jungles resisting and defending themselves against the Communist Lao government with “3,334 soldiers”, and that “their military actions are not offensive, but are to protect themselves and their families in the jungles from the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops.” (Lao Human Rights Council, Submission to the US House Committee on Ways and Means, 9 April 2003). A journalist, Andrew Perrin, visited such a group in 2003 and was informed that it now had only 800 persons left from an initial 7,000 (Time Asia Magazine, 5 May 2003).
Messianic Freedom Fighters
In 1976, the two major groups of Hmong 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 military headquarters. Before 1975, Yong Youa was part of a Hmong revivalist movement which, amidst all the suffering sustained by the Hmong 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 Hmong believers from oppression by other people. 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 God).
According to Lee (op. cit.: 213), Yong Yua's leadership attracted many Hmong, desperate to stay alive but unwilling to submit to the PL government. At one stage his messianic army was said to have 400 or 500 men, operating in units of 20 to 50 against PL forces. Believing that they were invulnerable and had God's protection, they went to war with strong religious convictions, carrying their own flag. They only had old rifles, left-over from Vang Pao’s days, but used them sparingly and only when sure of their aim, in order to preserve their scarce ammunition. Sometimes, they might supplement their arm caches with what they could take from their dead victims.
By 1979, Xai Shua Yang's followers had to split into small bands after they ran out of food and could no longer withstand the shelling and gassing of their strongholds by PL and Vietnamese troops. A few months later, most of them reached Thailand with their families, leaving only Yong Youa and his followers to roam the thickets of Phu Bia.
In the refugee camps in Thailand, the “Chao Fa” movement was taken up by former adherents who escaped from Laos, headed by Pa Kao Her. He named his group “the Ethnic Liberation Organization of Laos”. For a time, the organisation gained support from China which supplied it with arms and military training from 1979 to 1980, following the 1979 border clash between China and Vietnam, the Lao PDR government's principal ally. The Thailand "Chao Fa" members who called themselves “freedom fighters”, 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.
After 1980, China no longer supplied aid to the Chao Fa in Thailand, so the group was forced to depend on donations from Hmong refugees living in America and other countries. It also had to dissolve into small scattered elements, due to crackdown by the Thai government acting on border security agreements it has signed with the Lao PDR government in 1994. By 1998, Yong Youa seems also to have pinned his hopes on Gen. 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)". It is rumoured that Yong Youa is no longer alive, and has been replaced by Moua Toua Ter as shown in a video made in September 2002 by the Fact Finding Commission, a Hmong resistance lobby group based in California, USA.
The Chao Fa freedom fighters are reported until recently to have continued their activities along the Thai-Lao border near Sayaburi province in Laos (Vang, 2004a). The group later changed its name to “Democratic Chao Fa Party of Laos” with Pakao Her as President and Nhia Long Moua as Vice-President. Pakao Her moved to Chiangrai with his family while many of his followers were living among the 16,000 remnants of Hmong refugees from Laos at Tham Krabok, north of Bangkok. In October 2002, Pa Kao Her was assassinated when someone fired 28 bullets into him as he was standing outside his house, an act attributed by his wife to “Lao people” (Vang, 2004b). On 3 July 2005, Nhia Long Moua also passed away, leaving no one as his replacement. The leadership and support base of the Chao Fa in Thailand thus appears to have been decimated, although its die-hard followers claim that they still have a network of supporters in the diaspora and have been able to maintain direct contacts with those inside Laos to keep the fighting going in the remote jungles of Saisomboun Special Zone.
After coming to the United States in 1975, Vang Pao first settled in Montana but soon moved to California where he established the United Lao National Liberation Front (ULNLF) in 1981. The Front was supported by a number of prominent former RLG figures such as Sisouk Na Champassak (former RLG Minister for Defence), Gen. Phoumi Nosavanh (the rightist liberator of Vientiane after its occupation in 1960 by Neutralist forces under Captain Kong Le), Gen. Thonglit Chokbengboun, Mr Outhong Souvannavong (elderly statesman and a former minister of the first Lao cabinet after independence from France in 1954), and other refugee Lao politicians. They formed a government in exile with Souvannavong as Prime Minister and Vang Pao as Minister for Defence (Chan, 1994: 47).
Following its establishment, members of the Front often travelled to different countries with Lao émigré communities to promote their organisation. They were able to increase its membership and financial donations greatly between 1982 to 1992. They set up a base in Thailand within the former Ban Vinai refugee camp in Loei, with Mr Vue Mai as their local representative and coordinator. With the covert assistance of the Thai border military, Vang Pao's ULNLF had penetrated deep inside Laos by 1984 with many contact points established in the jungles of his former RLG Second Military Command area in north-eastern Laos. It also tried valiantly to make headway into central and southern Laos, but found the going difficult as most of Vang Pao's operatives were Hmong and were not familiar with this part of the country. Vang Pao received little cooperation from Lao resistance groups whose exile leaders preferred to squabble with each other and to do most of their fight verbally against the new Lao authorities from the comfort of their armchairs overseas in France, America or Australia.
Like the Chao Fa movement and other Lao resistance groups in Thailand, the ULNLF fell victim of the Thai-Lao rapprochement in 1993. The Lao PDR government, mindful of the use of Lao refugee camps for resistance activities against its control of Laos, 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 was barred from the country. He was no longer able to make radio contacts with his supporters in Laos the way he used to do, and to direct his organisation’s resistance activities in the homeland.
Pathet Lao Dissidents
It is interesting to note that it is not only the “Chao Fa” followers and 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. Two Khmu and Lao middle-ranking military officers are said to have joined the Chao Fa in the jungle after defecting from the new Lao government.
In 2003, the Hmong in Samneua province which was the old stronghold of the Pathet Lao during their initial years of political struggle, became the subject of harsh military suppression when some took up arms against the Lao on the ground of racial discrimination. It was alleged that one of the Hmong leaders there purchased a utility truck with money sent to him by relatives in America, but the prized utility was confiscated by a Lao official who accused its owner of receiving money from overseas resistance groups. Other Hmong in turn accused the Lao of pocketing US$36 million from an American opium crop replacement project that had been operating in Samneua during the previous five years. Those Hmong who could not escape to the jungle were arrested and imprisoned. A number was said to have died from torture and starvation, with their bodies left to decompose in front of other prisoners (Radio Hmonglao, 23 April 2004).
Thus, a major 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 officials. 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 military and police personnel of Hmong background, 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 and police 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 positions.
The Foreign Connections
As already mentioned, the Hmong resistance in Laos was initiated by isolated groups who used to serve in the CIA “secret army”or in the Royal Lao Army, and who could not escape to Thailand. Some of them, through former supporters in Thai refugee camps, later established support networks that spanned not only Laos and Thailand, but also the United States and other resettlement countries. The resistance in Laos thus became linked to the refugees in temporary asylum in Thailand and expatriate communities in the West.
Let us now look at these foreign connections that have kept the resistance alive until today.
Between 1975 and 1994, Thailand was refuge for more than 300,000 refugees from Laos. It thus inadvertently became the base for many of the resistance groups which ran inside the refugee camps. Vang Pao’s ULNLF was able to operate with the covert cooperation in military training from Thai Army border intelligence units which were using the Hmong 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 border military intelligence. From 1983 to 1991, the Thai informally provided radio communications and short-term military training to groups of freedom fighters operating under the Chao Fa and the ULNLF, sending small teams of them into Laos and waiting at the border to accompany them back into the refugee camps on their return to Thailand. It was alleged that Thai army officials had an arrangement with the Chao Fa, known as “Special Operation 3091” in which Hmong freedon fighters would be trained to fight inside Laos in return for Thai assistance to help them regain control of Laos or to gain Thai citizenship in the event that such political control could not be realised. Two training camps were established in northern Thailand, one from 1985 to 1988, and the other in 1988. This Thai intervention allowed resistance fighters in Laos became better co-ordinated and to even have regular radio communication contacts with supporters in Thailand. Although Chao Fa leaders had photographs and videos to support their allegations, the Thai government today denies any involvement (Vang, 2004a).
When the Thai and Lao PDR governments started negotiations on border security in 1993 and set up a joint Thai-Lao Border Commission with a formal agreement signed in August 1996, the resistance support networks in Thai refugee camps were quickly dismantled and their members dispersed. By then,Thailand also had new changes of governments and younger new military commanders who had developed new attitudes towards a communist Laos that was opening up its markets to the free economy of Thailand and other nations. The older die-hard right-wing elite of Vang Pao's generation were gone. Many of the new army commanders in Thailand did not even know who Vang Pao was, although he used to be admired as one of its closest and best anti-communist allies during the Lao civil war throughout the 1960's and early 1970's.
Cha Fa leaders claimed that the Thai-Lao border security agreement included the revelation of the locations of Hmong freedom fighters in Laos who were then attacked by Lao troops. In Thailand, the authorities began arresting Lao and Hmong refugees suspected of supporting resistance activities, and those from America were stopped and turned back at the airport in Bangkok. After 1991, Thai troops would chase “Cha Fa soldiers in Thailand into Laos where the Lao military was waiting.” (Vang, 2004a). Many died or were maimed by land mines in this way.
By 1992, all three Hmong refugee camps (Nam Yao, Chiang Kham and Ban Vinai) were closed, and more than 20,000 of their residents repatriated "voluntarily" (by UNHCR counts) to Laos where they were assisted to re-integrate into the local communities. 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 that was closed by the UNHCR in December 1999.
After the death of the Abbot of the Tham Krabok Temple in 1999, the Thai government became concerned that the Hmong refugees would continue to remain there permanently and asked the Lao government to accept them back into Laos, but the latter did not agree (Ranard, 2004:23). Instead, it put political pressure on Thailand to stop providing haven for Hmong insurgents at the temple complex. The Thai then successfully lobbied the US government to agree to accept its 15,000 residents for resettlement in September 2003. On 26 May 2005, this unofficial refugee camp in Thailand was officially closed, marking an end to Hmong support for the resistance in Laos (Washington Post.com, 27 May 2005; p. A20).
A new issue facing the Thai authorities is a new group of Hmong from Laos at Ban Maenam Khao inPhetchaboon Province. Having heard that the US government was accepting the Hmong in Tham Krabok for resettlement, small numbers of these Hmong started to trickle into Thailand across the Lao border to claim political asylum. Some allegedly paid people smugglers to put them temporarily where they are now located. Their number has now swelled to more than 6,000 persons. The Thai are negotiating with the Lao government to accept them back, but most of the asylum seekers have discarded their Lao identity papers, claiming that they had suffered political persecution in Laos or were descendants of members of the old CIA “secret army” so that the Lao are not keen to accept them back. Official negotiations continue on the problem, along with intense lobbying from Hmong political groups in America.
United States of America
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 spate of bomb explosions in the Lao capital of Vientiane in 2000 (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 the Lao PDR. 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.
More importantly, the US continues to be home to many exile political activists and pressure groups working for democracy in the old homeland of Laos. Among the most active are: the Center for Public Policy Analysis, the Lao Representatives Abroad Council (RI), Lao Progressive (RI), the General Assembly of Delegates of Laotians Abroad, the United Lao Congress for Democracy (WI & MN), the Montagnard Human Rights Organization (VA), the Lao Students Movement For Democracy (WA), the Lao Nationalist Reform Party (TN), the Lao Democracy Institute (MA), the Hmong International Human Rights Watch (NE), the United League for Democracy in Laos (USA), the Lao Veterans of America (USA), the Lao Human Rights Council (WI), the Hmong United Liberation Front (Chicago), and the Lan Xang Foundation (TN & GA), with many other unlisted groups.
Public forums, seminars, and mass demonstrations are often organised to bring [political issues of pertinence from the homeland to the attention of the American media and politicians in the US capital. The Center for Public Policy Analysis, which has its headquarters in Washington D.C., and the Lao Democracy Institute are particularly active in issuing press releases on human rights abuse by the Lao PDR government. In August 2004, a group of concerned Hmong in Minnesota organised the Long March to Freedom campaign in which volunteers and one of the local Hmong church leaders walked from Minnesota to Washington DC to bring atrocities suffered by the Hmong in the jungle of Laos from the Lao military to attention of the American public. There is not a week gone by without Hmong discussion groups on the Internet in the US engage in hot debate about some fresh allegations about abuses suffered by the Hmong in the hands of the Lao authorities. It would appear that the Hmong in America simply cannot forget Laos and the communist rulers there.
Although the few radio stations which broadcast in the Hmong language in California, Wisconsin, Colorado and Minnesota, tend to focus on American domestic issues, the Hmong Lao Radio (www.hmonglaoradio.org) spends most of its air time on political propaganda against the Lao government. Apart from news items, commentaries and interviews that are critical of the Lao authorities, it has a very popular news segment where Hmong around the world can send family messages to each other. It also concentrates on resistance news from Laos. Clandestine Radio Watch 122 (at http://www.schoechi.de/crw/crw122.html) reports that the station is operated by the United Lao Movement for Democracy, formerly known as the United Lao National Liberation Front, Gen. Vang Pao’s exile political group. Its transmission was relayed to Laos via Tashkent and was first detected on 6 December 2002. The station today broadcasts on-air to Hmong communities in Laos and in America three times a week, as well as on the Internet, although the latter has suffered from frequent jamming.
A major US connection to the Hmong resistance in Laos is the existence of human rights organisations that specifically lobby against Laos with the United Nations and the American government. Before his sudden passing away on 23 August 2005, Dr Vang Pobzeb, the Director of the Lao Human Rights Council based in Wisconsin, USA, spoke to the 23rd Meeting on Indigenous Affairs of the United Nations in Geneva on 18-22 July 2005 before 1000 participants to whom he made a heartfelt appeal to the Lao government to stop its human rights abuse and ethnic cleansing against the Hmong in Laos. His presentation was featured by Radio Free Asia (http://www.rfa.org/lao/feature/miscellaneous/2005/07/25/globalTribeConference/).
In a similar vein, the Hmong International Human Rights Watch has also been lobbying on behalf of recent Hmong refugees from Laos in Thailand. No less vocal is a new Hmong international political group based in Fresno, California. Although it does not yet wish to be identified officially, it claims to have already made an impact on the Hmong resistance problem in Laos by being accepted to address the UN International Forum on Indigenous People (16 - 24 May 2005) in the UN General Assembly hall in New York, with “51 representatives fully dressed in Hmong national costumes being present among 180 indigenous groups world-wide” (Txia Yao Yang, telephone interview, 18 August 2005). The group will meet with UN officials again in October 2005 to further discuss human rights and resistance issues in Laos.
Another organisation based in the US which has had most impact on the exile global Hmong community and the international media is the quaintly named Fact-Finding Commission on Laos, a political lobby group whose mission is “working to bring the plight of veterans of the US Secret War in Laos to the attention of the US Congress and the American People”. Since September 2002, it has brought out video footage of the struggles and suffering of the Hmong in the resistance in the Saisomboun Special Zone in the hands of Lao government military. For the first time, graphic images of starving children and sick women, crying grown men on the run from enemy soldiers, can clearly be seen in the living rooms of Hmong communities in the West. No longer is there only talks and rumours, but graphic evidence. Video images of disembowelled, murdered and gang raped Hmong young girls from the rebel area were distributed around the world, prompting allegation of war crimes against the Lao government from Amnesty International (14 September 2004, Press Release).
At the peak of the Chao Fa resistance in Phu Bia in 1979, rumours were circulating of Hmong armed bands harassing Lao troops near the border of China and Laos. Pa Kao Her, the Chao Fa Hmong leader in Thailand, was known to have sent 100 young Hmong for military training in southern China and received military aid from a local Chinese army commander. On their return to Thailand, however, most of their Chinese arms were confiscated by the Thai border patrol police. Vang Pao also allegedly made contact with 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 direct use of tribal people to interfere in Lao internal affairs, despite later visits made to China by Vang Pao in 1988 and by the Vice-President of the Democratic Chao Fa Party of Laos, Nhia Long Moua, as recently as 2004. The Chinese seem to have shied away from giving aid to Hmong resistance groups in Laos after learning that one of the Chao Fao Hmong’s intentions was to recruit large numbers of Hmong in China to fight for Laos and make it a Hmong country.
Nevertheless, being mindful of this possible threat from its big northern neighbour, the Lao PDR government made high level friendship visits to China when Hmong resistance activities in Laos increased, the latest being a State visit by the Lao President, Mr Khamtay Siphandone, to Beijing on 14 July 2000 at the invitation of the former 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".
The latest news on Sino-Lao relations focus only on the furthering of trade links between the two countries, and on large investment projects such as the commercial growing of orchids and rubber trees in northern Laos by Chinese companies. China is keen to promote trade cooperation with Laos, said Chinese Prime Miniter Wen Jiabao in Kunming, Yunnan, during his working session with Lao Prime Minister Bounnhang Vorachit who was in China to attend the second summit of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) countries on 4 July 2005 (07 July 2005, KPL News at http://www.kplnet.net/).
Between 1954 and 1973, the Pathet Lao relied heavily on North Vietnamese military troops to gain control of Laos. Since 1975, it has continued to depend on Vietnamese military interventions against the Hmong resistance fighters. In July 1977, Laos signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Vietnam which includes, among other things, the provision for “the realisation of a close cooperation with a view to reinforcing the defence capacities [of the two parties] …in the struggle against …foreign reactionary forces.” (Article 2). This latter reference is clearly addressed to Lao and Vietnamese liberation groups in other countries.
This Treaty and other links with Vietnam have not helped to quench the resistance movement, but only to reinforce the claim by the latter that Laos is but a colony of communist Vietnam. To avoid being seen in this light, Vietnam has consistently denied 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 were sent to Laos in 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 US based Fact-Finding Commission on Laos alleged that Vietnamese troops, in conjunction with the Pathet Lao forces, have used helicopters, MI 6, MI 8, and MI 17, to bomb the positions of the Hmong involved in the resistance in the jungles of northern Laos. Since December 1, 1999, the Lao government has received more military troops from Vietnam. Seventeen military bases, with many battalions of Vietnamese soldiers, are strategically located near the mountain locations where the Hmong veterans of the American secret war in Laos and their families are hiding. These locations are claimed to be as follows:
Lao Military Bases with North Vietnamese Troops
* Troop strength includes both North Vietnamese and Lao.
Source: Lao Human Rights Council Inc., U.S.A, Submission to the US House Committee on Ways and Means, April 9, 2003
Altogether, there are 122,500 combined Lao and Vietnamese troops in Laos. According to Tim Laard (BBC News, 27 August 2001), the relationship between Vietnam and Laos is seen “by Vietnam as closer than lips and teeth - and by Laos as deeper than the waters of the Mekong River.” The Hmong International Human Rights Watch in the USA stated in a submission to the UN Commission on Human Rights, 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 most 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”).
Following a spade of bombings in Vientiane in 2000, exchanges of official visits between Vietnam and Laos increased markedly. 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, visited Hanoi on 13 June 2000 - just after bombings started 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 Pathet Lao Hmong leadership in Xieng Khouang for being too weak 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.
In April 2003, after an attack on a bus killing 13 people in Vang Vieng, the Lao Army Chief of Staff Maj-Gen. Khenekham Senglathone went to Hanoi to meet his Vietnamese counterpart, the Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and the Minster of Defence “for talks aimed to strengthen relations” (Rand, 2003). Since then, there have been reports of Vietnamese border troops killing Hmong insurgents who strayed from Laos in search of food in Vietnamese territories (Associated Press, 16/9/04 at http://perso.wanado.fr/patrick.guenin/cantho/vnnews/erupt.htm).
As recently as July 2005, the Lao News Agency KPL (http://www.kplnet.net/) referred to border cooperation between Laos and Vietnam, stating that the Border Guard Command in the two northern border Vietnamese provinces of Dien Bien and Son La signed a Memorandum of Understanding with a visiting delegation from the Military Command of Laos' Phongsaly and Luang Prabang provinces on promoting joint efforts in the management of their common border. The two sides agreed to educate local communities about the two countries' border regulations, to inform each other on situations relating to border security, to increase bilateral patrols of common border areas, to crack down on border crossings and other violations of border regulations according to the laws of each country and to inspect and repair landmarks. Although no mention is made of insurgents, there is no doubt that they are included as a potential threat to be dealt with by the agreement.
These foreign connections, support bases or influences for the resistance or for the Lao government play an important part in maintaining the ongoing struggle between the two parties, and in the survival of the resistance movement both outside and inside Laos. This is especially true of the relationship between resistance fighters and expatriate Hmong communities in America with the latter’s concerted and very vocal representations to their local American congressmen, the international media, the Internet and the UN body. For the Lao PDR government, its political and military relations with Vietnam have been most important in keeping a lid firmly on an awkward situation that it refuses to acknowledge openly. So long as these foreign connections remain strong, Hmong resistance in Laos 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.
At the beginning, the new Lao government tried to talk the Hmong into joining in the new political life and socialist economy of the country through face-to-face “seminars”, leaflet drops and radio propaganda broadcasts. However, after many failed attempts, 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 ambushes by the Hmong dissidents 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). The 1977-78 campaign by government troops aided by 50,000 Vietnamese regulars dealt a severe blow to the resistance, from which it has never really been able to recover (Evans, 2003).
Although the resistance has suffered many setbacks, casualties on the government side have also been heavy - with some military units reported to be nearly wiped out in ambushes by the Hmong. 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. Without Vietnamese military assistance, Lao government initiatives have become ineffective, resulting in the Hmong resistance claiming in 1998 that they had captured 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 rebel territories were said to be living in fear, not knowing which side to align themselves with. It has been claimed that because of these insurgent activities, the Lao government has retaliated and killed many innocent Hmong civilians. The Fact-Finding Commission, for instance, claims that from February to May 2003 alone, 739 Hmong had been killed, 615 injured and 414 captured in skirmishes north of Bolikhamxay province, and 216 Hmong killed in October 2002 in Saisomboun (Rand, 2003). The Hmong International Human Rights Watch also alleged in a submission on 22 July 2000 to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva that the Lao government and the Vietnamese military "are carrying out heavy military attacks against Hmong civilians living in the Saisomboun 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, 2000).
On 12 October 2000, 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 in Khang Khai, Xieng Khouang, has been transferred to be the commander of southern Laos in Savannakhet, 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. Along with these official military movements, the Lao PDR government put Brigadier-General Myka Sivongsa in charge of the general campaign against Hmong resistance fighters across Laos with the aim to "exterminate them" by the years 2001-2002, although the target date has obviously been passed without an end to the resistance in sight.
Resettlement and Economic Aid
Apart from military suppression, the Lao government has also 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 1977-78 campaign) as the local military commander, with Col. Lo Lu Yang (a PL Hmong) as deputy commander. Another Hmong who was formerly the district governor at Moung Hom, Mr Siatou Yang, became the unification coordinator. The Special Zone covers the districts of Muong Phoun, Muong Hom, Muong Cha and Long San. The Lao thus put Hmong to work with the dissident Hmong to try to bridge the deep political divide between them.
Outside of the Saisomboun Special Zone, Mr Tong Yer Thao, who is now the Provincial Governor of Samnuea and was formerly Vice-President of the Lao National Reconstruction Front (Neo Hom Sang Xat), was appointed by the Lao PDR government to be responsible nationally for negotiating with resistance leaders and assisting with the resettlement of their followers into the Muong Kao area, Borikamsay province. Under the program, each family who rallies to the government is given lowland wet rice farming land along with other forms of assistance such as food and housing materials during the first year of settlement, overseen and assisted from time to time by a team of local bureaucrats from the Provincial Administration. Families are settled together in new villages.
On the whole, the largest number of Hmong who now live peacefully as Lao citizens have joined the Lao government under this program, despite reports of the occasional family which returns to join the resistance in the jungle.
Denial of the Problem
For the past 30 years, the Lao authorities have tried to hide the problem from the outside world and the international media by stating that it has no reason to torture or kill its own people, its support base. It has also dismissed Hmong resistance activities as being merely the work 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). The same pattern of response took place when two bus attacks occurred on Route 13 linking Vientiane and Luang Prabang in February and April 2003 – the first killing 10 persons and the second 13. Although survivors claimed that the 30 or so attackers “looked Hmong and spoke the Hmong language”, the Lao Deputy Prime Minister Somsavat Lengsavad explained that “both incidents involved robberies of armed bandits” and “dismissed suggestions that they were carried out by anti-government Hmong rebels.” (Asia Time Online, 17 May 2003).
One major issue relates to the fact that the Lao government has not been forthright with inquiries or explanations on the disappearance or mysterious deaths of former Hmong resistance leaders who have "come out" to live under its control. Many of those who left their jungle hide-outs to negotiate for the safe return of the resistance fighters 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 after their closure in 1992 had also disappeared, were allegedly murdered or put in prison, including Mr Vue Mai, the camp leader at Ban Vinai, the largest Hmong refugee camp in Thailand with more than 40,000 residents and one of the former support bases for many resistance groups inside Laos.
This has deterred many of the rebels from finally laying down their arms, reinforced by a strong belief that the government is intent on exterminating those involved in the resistance rather than a genuine desire to make peace with them. This fear is grounded not only in these unexplained cases over the years, but also by propaganda from overseas Hmong political groups, conveyed through Radio Free Asia or the Hmong Lao Radio, and other covert means of contacts.
For instance, it was alleged that Hmong resistance fighters “who are captured are dismembered. Their penises are cut off and placed in their mouths.. Women when captured are raped, then killed. Some are tied to stakes and left to die from exposure. Others have a sharp bamboo stick shoved through their vagina up into their chest cavity, the stick is rolled, and they are left to bleed to death….Children who are captured because they are unable to keep up with the fleeing adults have their throats cut or are killed by being swung around and having their heads bashed against trees. There was one report of three children being skewered together on a bamboo pole” (Lao Human Rights Council, 2003).
The Lao government has also been accused by Amnesty International (Press Release,13/9/04) of using starvation as a weapon to bring the Hmong resistance to its knees. The accusation is based on the reported “deaths of scores of civilians, mainly children, from starvation and injuries sustained during the conflict. It is known that several of approximately 20 rebel groups with their families are surrounded by Lao military and prevented from foraging for food that they traditionally rely on to survive. Amnesty International has protested to the Lao authorities at what it believes is the use of starvation as a weapon of war against civilians.” Again the government “vigorously denies” the claim (The Nation, 14 September 2004).
It is difficult to confirm the veracity of both sides of the conflict. The Lao government, on its part, has vehemently denied these claims by its opponents, referring to videos of murdered and starving Hmong resistance children as “a fabrication harming the good image of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic by ill-intentioned groups” (The Nation, 14 September 2004). On its part, Amnesty International (2004) requests that “The Lao authorities must, as a matter of utmost urgency, permit UN agencies and independent monitors unfettered access to those rebels who are recently reported to have ‘surrendered’. They must also permit humanitarian agencies to provide medical and food assistance to those injured as a result of this and other military actions against the rebels. … Several hundred ethnic Hmong rebels are reported to have ‘surrendered' to the Lao authorities in recent months. UN agencies, diplomats and journalists have not been given access to these people and Amnesty International has received conflicting reports as to their reception and treatment by the authorities.”
So far, however, the request has fallen on deaf ears as the Lao government continues to prevent the international media and the diplomatic corps from visiting areas undergoing suppression campaigns by Lao and Vietnamese troops or under the control of the Chao Fa rebels.
Denying existence of rebels allows government to deal with them in any ways it sees fit, and also to let Vietnamese troops into Laos without fear of international criticism. Thus, in 2000, the Lao government has allegedly permitted 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.
Until the Time Asia Magazine report “Welcome to the Jungle” and its accompanying heart-wrenching photo-essay was published on 5 May 2003, the plight of the Hmong rebels in Laos was known only to the Hmong. The International community became further informed on the issue, following the arrest of two other Western journalists (a Belgian and a French) in June 2003 who tried to follow the footsteps of the Time Asia reporter into the jungles of northern Laos. Their well-publicised imprisonment and subsequent release finally put the Hmong resistance in Laos firmly on the international map. This has been followed by another televised report from the BBC in 2004 and by the most recent broadcast, mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, on France Channel 2 on 16 June 2005. The problem has now finally grabbed the attention of the UN, despite attempts to deny its existence by the Lao government.
It was announced in 2000 that a number of resistance groups 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, lead 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 overseas, foreign governments, and the local people in Laos. They will probably end up squabbling between themselves and disintegrate, as happened with similar groups previously.
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 website (http://members.nbci.com/_XMCM) - a new development for resistance groups- and its own radio station (www.hmonglaoradio.org). 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, following the abolition of the old monarchy by the PL when it took over Laos in 1975. All these hopes, however, appear to have come crashing down when many of Vang Pao’s faithful supporters deserted him after his peace overture to representatives of the Vietnamese authorities with a secret meeting in Amsterdam in November 2003. Many now see Vang Pao as having “self-destructed”, taking “a wrecking ball to his historic legacy” (Kennedy and McEnroe, 2005).
Regardless of these setbacks, exiled refugee leaders in the West who engage in homeland politics keep pushing the old line that the current Lao government is no more than a puppet of the Vietnamese politburo, the real colonial master of Laos, a belief that they continue to feed to Hmong and other resistance groups in the homeland. They use as evidence the posting of Vietnamese troops in large numbers in Laos and the alleged settlement of “2 million Vietnamese civilians” in various parts of the country (Radio Free Asia, interview with Dr Pobzeb Vang, 25 July 2005). In 2003, the Fact Finding Commission on Laos even went to far as claiming that “ethnic Hmong groups have united with other disaffected Laotian including army defectors and local militia, to carry out an organised rebellion” across eleven of the seventeen provinces of Laos . This ideological stand has prevented the resistance leaders from having any trust in the pronouncements and overt intentions of the new Lao government. Like their Lao PDR opponents, these exile politicians and the resistance leaders use only information that will make the maximum embarrassment to their enemy, information that is often greatly exaggerated and repeated over and over since 1975. The ultimate aim of some resistance groups is the total destruction of the current Lao communist government, while others content themselves simply with minor political disparagement 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 different turfs and refuse to find solutions through some common grounds.
Evans (Bangkok Post, 8/7/03), an academic specialist on Laos, attributes the survival of the Hmong resistance to the remoteness of their villages and the rugged terrain where they are. However, according to Dommen (2001: 934), the Hmong involved also have a dogged determination to resist and survive, because they were marked for extermination from the beginning by the communist Pathet Lao in a warning broadcast over Radio Pathet Lao entitled “The US-Vang Pao Special Forces Must be Completely Cleaned UP” on 6 May 1975.
In a way, the Hmong resistance now provides the only legitimate political issue against the Lao communist government into which exile political groups can put their teeth. Other opposition groups have come and gone over the years in Laos, through lack of activities or severe suppression by the government. Thus in response to the TV broadcast on France Channel 2 on 16 June 2005, the Lao Movement for Human Rights claimed to have collected 4043 signatures to petition the Lao PDR to: (1) demand solemnly on the Lao PDR authorities to put an immediate end to its campaign of repression against this population and to recognise publicly their existence; and (2) demand on the Lao authorities to permit, without conditions and delay, international agencies to have access to this population in distress in order top provide them with urgent humanitarian aid.
The LMHR organised a public protest in Paris on June 25, 2005 at the Trocadero in Paris, which gathered nearly 600 people, and stated that “we remain ready for action. The LMHR invites Lao exiles around the world and friends of democracy and freedom to keep on signing its online petition, “and to pursue your efforts in approaching the political authorities of your country, your elected Member of Parliament, and the international institutions regarding this critical issue. Restons mobilisés!” (http://www.mldh-lao.org/petition_online/petition1.php). In keeping with its call to stay ready for action, it has organised another public demonstration in Paris for Saturday 24 September at the Place du Trocadéro. It was also urging Lao communities in the US, Canada and Australia to organise simultaneous public events in their countries.
Between 2005 and 2008, what has been happening to Lao exile politics in the West and Hmong resistance in the Lao state? There are now less than 800 of Hmong resistance fighters in the country. Their resolve seems to have been weakened significantly in 2006 with the sudden death of Dr Paozeb Vang, the outspoken President of the Lao Human Rights Council based in Wisconsin, USA. He was responsible for bringing many matters of importance concerning the Hmong of Laos to the attention of the United Nations and the world media. The resistance was dealt a further blow with the arrest of General Vang Pao on 4 June 2007 in California by the American FBI on charges of buying weapons and plotting “the violent overthrow” of the Lao government in violation of the American Neutrality Act . He and nine co-conspirators were put in prison briefly but are now out on bail, awaiting their court hearings which have yet to be set. If convicted, they all face life imprisonment, a prospect seen by the Hmong in America as a clear betrayal of their loyal service to the American CIA during the Lao civil war in the 1960’s. From faithful ally against communism, the Hmong became classified as terrorists by the American government now that the United States is “at peace” with Laos , while small groups of Hmong continue to put up passive resistance against the legitimate government of Laos with the support of homeland political activists in the West. This terrorist classification was only revoked by the Bush Administration in December 2007 after much political pressure from various quarters in America.
It is estimated that the Hmong rebellion in Laos is at its lowest point at present with the arrest of Gen. Vang Pao and the escape to Thailand of leaders of the resistance groups since 2005. More than 2,600 of the 8,000 Hmong currently receiving temporary shelter in White Water, Phetchaboon, Thailand, claim to have fled from the jungle of Laos. A video documentary entitled “Hunted Like Animals” (2006), made by UN lobbyist Rebecca Summer, depicts the terrible plight suffered by these White Water Hmong families. Apart from giving viewers the most graphic images of young Hmong being killed by Lao government troops, raped and dis-emboweled, the documentary carries interviews of Hmong women who surrendered and were allegedly made sex slaves of Lao soldiers, by being passed from one barrack to another. One woman claimed to have become pregnant as a result, as she was seen in tears pleading for recognition as a genuine refugee and for acceptance for third-country resettlement.
What about the rest of the Hmong resistance movement in Laos? By and large, only the groups who are in Saisomboun and the Vangvieng area , north of Vientiane, appear to have remained faithful to the resistance but their number is getting smaller by the day . As of January 2008, the majority of the resistance fighters in Muong Mok in Xieng Khouang, near the Vietnam border, have decided to join the new Lao government after more than 30 years of fiercely refusing to be part of it. In the past, the Lao authorities sent Hmong leaders on its side to work with the dissidents in order to bring them out of the jungle to live under the new communist regime. However, only two of these leaders were said to have survived as the others fell victims to the guns of the insurgents. In the end, the Lao government decided to ask Vietnamese troops from Vietnam to be stationed in great numbers in the region. They started to build roads deep into the jungle of Muong Mok to access the hiding places used by members of the resistance. Instead of armed suppression as was previously the case, they used schools and health clinics to entice the Hmong whose children acutely need education and health care. Those who surrendered were rewarded with agricultural land and corrugated iron roof sheets to build durable houses. According to a Hmong trader who has visited the area, some of those now living under Vietnamese control still have sons and daughters hiding in the jungle, but at least they have been given the freedom to choose between life as normal citizens of the Lao nation and life as dissidents constantly on the run. Many now have land to farm, to raise domestic animals, and to enjoy a more sedentary existence.
Surrender to Whom?
And what happened to the 171 resistance Hmong who surrendered on 4 June 2005 after they were taken away by military trucks? The official view was that they were only “farmers looking for land”, not rebels. By denying that they are resistance members who surrendered, this has allowed the government to deal solely with the group without any other agencies being able to help in their resettlement or to monitor their safety. The US-based Lao Human Rights Council was quick to respond by accusing the Lao authorities of denying the UN and other NGO’s access to the group to render humanitarian aid in blatant violation of human rights since no one could keep track of what the Lao government has done to these former Hmong resistance members (Radio Free Asia, 25 July 2005, interview with Dr. Pobzeb Vang).
According to Ed Szendrey, of the California-based Fact Finding Commission, who accompanied the last stage of the group’s walk from the Saisomboun Special Zone, no soldiers were in the village when the first group reached the roadside but they were warmly welcomed by local people. "It looks like the government is prepared to handle it on the local level and not get the military involved," he said by satellite telephone. "It looks like the Lao government is actually handling it pretty well." (Berger, 2005). It was expected that if everything went well with this first group, as many as 2,000 more Hmong would come out at various locations in central northern Laos with the remaining Hmong, claimed to number 14,000, joining in the next few months, as they only want to live a peaceful life with the rest of the population. They have been running in the jungle for 30 years and are now facing starvation.
It is worthy of note that the group, while discussing its surrender on 1 June 2005 with the other resistance members in the jungle, never planned to surrender to the Lao authorities. It had naively envisaged being met by UN representatives and taken away swiftly to the US for resettlement. In a video yet to be released on the surrender, stage-managed by the Fact-Finding Commission, the two leaders of the group, Nhia Thao Yang and Wa Neng Vue, clearly stated that they were not surrendering to the Lao authorities, but to the UN and the US – the latter being held responsible for the plight they are now in as part of the old CIA-secret army in Laos.
As it turned out, the Lao authorities took matters differently and never allowed the UN or the US near the surrendering Hmong. The official English-language Vientiane Times referred to them simply as a new group of settlers that was part of the “normal movement” of thousands of people from remote areas to the plains as part of a poverty reduction programme. The newcomers have given up “unsustainable swidden cultivation”. The provincial governor of Xieng Khouang province where they were taken to live, has appealed to others in similar situations to join this “poverty reduction” effort by settling in specific “focal points” so the government could better build for them infrastructures and to offer needed services such as health and education (www.vientianetimes.org.la/Contents/2005-107/Phou.htm). There is not one mention of the group being part of a 30 year-old resistance movement surviving on tree leaves and tubers in the jungle, without ever having known how to grow crops through “unsustainable swidden cultivation”.
The latest information indicates that the 171 surrendered individuals, with initially 20 Hmong and 9 Khmu families, have split into smaller groups and gone in different directions . Some have chosen to join relatives in other villages. A few families have escaped to Thailand and become part of the hopeful throng of Hmong asylum seekers who have been waiting since 2005 to be allowed by the Thai government to resettle in a third country. However, the majority of the group have been relocated to Lat Huong, an old settlement on the road linking Xieng Khouang town and Phonsavanh. They have been given farming land and building materials for house construction by government officials, and are said to be better off than their older established neighbours. One informant states that “we have been living here for a long time, but do not even have land and houses like these newcomers from the jungle.” There have also been rumours that some of the newcomers have been killed by government soldiers or have disappeared after being told to guide soldiers back into the jungle to find the remaining bands of resistance Hmong who have refused to surrender.
The Lao PDR government has tried hard to blame the political instability in Laos 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 local 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 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 two Hmong Ministers (one as Minister for rural development and one as Minister for Justice) in the 2008 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 in 2002 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.
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 free-for-all political propaganda (by word of mouth or radio broadcast) and material support from the diaspora Hmong outside Laos, will continue to make it difficult for the Hmong resistance fighters to stop their activities and for the Lao government to pacify them. This is now especially the case when the issue has been well played into the hands of the United Nations, the world media and international human rights organisations which have been keeping a close watch on anything to do with the Hmong and human rights abuses in Laos.
Regardless of this continuing impasse between the Lao government and the Hmong resistance movement, we need to keep the problem in perspective. There are currently 460,000 Hmong living in Laos according to the 2005 Lao government census. Of this number, less than 1,000 are now 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 may be small, but the Lao authorities will need to resolve many of the causes of this discontent. The problem is real and cannot be ignored or simply stemmed out by force as there are many underlying social, political and economic factors involved, not just ideological differences. So long as these needs are not addressed, even if existing insurgent groups are stemmed out, new ones will rise up to show their displeasure in one form or another. Resettlement as has been done in Muong Kao (Bolikhamsay province), Saisomboun and Muong Mok (Xieng Khouang) is a constructive and peaceful response to the problem, and is indicative of a cool and clear-headed approach. The government should be commended for stopping its previous use of armed retaliations and turning to rural development instead. This is the only way that will promote cooperation and trust between those involved in this long-standing conflict.
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