Transnational Adaptation of The Hmong Of Laos: Overview of The Hmong After The 1975 Communist Take-Over of Laos
The first international workshop on the Hmong/Miao in Asia 11-13 September 1998, Aix-en-Provence, France
Theme 4: Transnationality, Social Change and Adaptation
Information for this paper was gained from many sources, including written documents, newspaper reports, the Internet and interviews with Hmong and non-Hmong in Laos and elsewhere. To all those who gave me help, I would like to thank them sincerely and to state that I am alone responsible for the interpretations and opinions expressed in this paper.
This paper is a brief examination of the Hmong of Laos and their adaptation to a new political order since the formation of the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) in 1975. It begins with a short history of Hmong settlement, and goes on to examine their current socio-economic situation, their participation in the Lao nation's social and political life, as well as raising some contentious issues which need to be addressed both by the Hmong themselves and by the central government in regard to their full integration in the Lao nation state.
The paper argues that the Hmong in Laos have taken two roads of transnational adaptation to the new order. One path leads the majority to acceptance and support of the new regime, and the order leads scattered little groups to resistance, isolation, and a self-destructive life in inaccessible no man's land enclaves, sometimes aided and abetted by Hmong expatriates in Western countries. It is proposed that unless the Lao PDR Government and Hmong leaders in the diaspora change their respective approach towards the Hmong of Laos, the latter will continue to suffer from distrust and political exploitation, and will find it difficult to integrate fully, despite only a very small number being involved in armed resistance.
Yang Dao (1972: 6) situated the Hmong’s first arrival in Laos between 1810 and 1820, although it is not known exactly when they first settled there. By the time of French domination of Laos in 1893, there were enough Hmong for the French to impose taxes and other obligations on them, subsequently leading to minor revolts in 1886 and 1919. By 1937, the Hmong population for all of French Indochina was estimated to be 100,000 (Leroi et al, 1953: 647, quoted in Yang Dao, op. cit.: 27). The Lao civil war from 1949 to 1973 also prevented any official counting, although figures for the Hmong were variously given for 1968 as: 60,000 (Morechand, 1968: 60); 150,000 (Lemoine, 1968, quoted in Yang Dao, op. cit.:28); and 300,000 (Yang Dao, op. cit.: 30).
Following WWII, the Hmong became involved in the civil war of Laos which saw them divided into two camps: those who supported the Pathet Lao under the leadership of Faydang Lobliayao and those who sided with the Royal Lao Government under Touby Lyfoung and later Gen. Vang Pao. Following the establishment of the Lao PDR in 1975, close to 200,000 Hmong fled to refugee camps in Thailand and were later resettled in various countries in the West such the United States (with an estimated 150,000), France (7,000), French Guyana (2,000), Australia (1,600), Canada (600) and Argentina (500). These consisted mainly of families of Hmong military personnel who served as Royal Lao Army troops or as members of the so-called CIA secret army. A further 30,000 remain in Thailand today as illegal residents or Thai citizens.
Those who stayed on in Laos after 1975 consisted of three groups. The first were those who lived in territories occupied by the Lao revolutionary forces, and are usually known as "thirty-years Hmong", meaning that they were supporters of the 30-year revolutionary struggle of the Pathet Lao. The second group comprised of former soldiers or refugees on the side of the Royal Lao Government and who were unable to leave Laos or who decided not to. This groups is sometimes referred to as "Vang Pao Hmong" or former supporters of Gen. Vang Pao. The third smaller component of the current Hmong population in Laos consists of small resistance groups, known as "Chao Fa" (or followers of the Lord of the Sky). They are commonly labelled "bandits", and are found in inaccessible and rugged mountain areas, numbering probably no more than 500 to 1000 today. Some build make-shift houses hidden deep in the foliage of tropical forests while others reportedly live openly in traditional Hmong villages and practise normal subsistence farming.
Demography and Economy
If we accept that there were 300,000 Hmong in Laos in the early 1970’s and that 200,000 escaped to Thailand, we would have about 100,000 Hmong left in Laos in 1975. It is estimated that half of this number were "thirty-years Hmong". Twenty years later when the Lao PDR Government carried out a comprehensive population census in 1995, the Hmong still formed almost 6.9 per cent or 315,465 of the total population of 4,574,848. Of more than 47 ethnic groups in Laos, they are now the fourth largest, after the Lao (52.5%), Phutai (10.3%) and Khmu (11%). They are found in all of Northern Laos from Phongsali down to Borikhamxay, with the majority living in Xieng Khuang province.
The Hmong in Laos are still found predominantly in the highlands, their traditional place of dwelling. During the late 1970's and throughout the 1980's, many families escaped their jungle hide-outs to the Hmong settlement at Kilometre 52 on the road linking Viengtiane and Muong Phon Hong. However, most only used this as an escape route to the refugee camps in Thailand. Others Hmong moved to establish villages around the Nam Ngum Dam in Vientiane province and are still there in great numbers today. There are also Hmong living in Vientiance municipality, but they are mainly public servants, students or factory workers.
Overall, they continue to do swidden farming, with some hunting, fishing and gathering. These subsistence economic activities are sometimes supplemented by vegetable selling at the local markets for those who have access to such cash-earning facilities. The 1996 Labour Force statistics of the Lao PDR shows that 85.5% of the 2,166,501 working age general population (those aged between 10 and 65) were engaged in agriculture and fishery (State Planning Committee, 1997: 87). For the Hmong living mainly in rural areas, this figure would be expected to be even higher, perhaps close to 98 per cent. The 1995 census shows that of the 177 492 Hmong aged 10 years and over, 75% are employed, 1.4% unemployed and 23.6% economically inactive (too young, at school or too old to work). This compares with the national figures of 68.6% being employed for a total working age population of 3 157 417 people, 1.7 unemployed and 29.6% economically inactive (State Planning Committee, op. cit.: 53).
One aspect of Hmong economic organisation in Laos is the small kin-based overseas trading and personal remittances that take place between the Hmong in Laos and their relatives in other countries. Items traded include Lao costumes, Hmong head-bands, silver ornaments, silver bars, herbal medicine, dry mushroom, videos and song cassettes. A number of Hmong in Laos have been able to supplement their farming or incomes through such trading whereby they would send tradable items to relatives in America or France. These relatives will then sell the items among other Hmong there and send back the money to the people in Laos. This trading along with remittances from relatives overseas would easily bring several million kips annually to the Hmong in Laos, particularly those with access to modern postal services.
There have also been very enterprising young Hmong who make feature movies in Hmong or record Hmong singing on video and audio cassettes, send master copies to America for commercial duplication and sale distribution around the world by Hmong video and audio production companies. More than half of the four or five feature films in Hmong are produced each year in this way, with the remainder being produced and shot in Thailand or America. The recording of popular modern Hmong songs - in the style of Lao, Thai, Indian, Japanese or Chinese songs - has opened up an international market, contributing much to the spending pattern of Hmong in different countries. Many young Hmong singers and bands, some based in Laos, now sell their recordings world-wide. A few have even developed Hmong rap music, and tour the US to give concerts to Hmong audiences. In a way, it can be said that the Hmong have undergone much social and cultural changes through these local and international contacts or business undertakings.
Issues in Transnational Adaptation
There are many ways of measuring a group's adaptation to their socio-economic and political environment, their changing identity and the constant need to shift and maintain their ethnic boundaries. Being a minority, the Hmong are well accustomed to adjusting to the political and economic demands made on them by those in power. A group's adaptability and social position in society are often judged by its members' occupations and residential locations. A preference for rural and remote upland residence is usually seen as belonging to a community which is backward, traditional and poor, in contrast to urban, modern living. On this score, the Hmong of Laos are obviously located among the lowest scale of the Lao social ladder.
Given that there are many factors we can examine, I will confine my discussion to three major areas for the purpose of this paper: (1) educational achievements and public employment which can bring about modernisation in outlooks and social mobility; (2) economic development which may achieve a better standard of living; and (3) political alignment and adaptation which would allow participation in national decision-making and social integration.
Education and Employment
By all accounts, there has been a huge growth in educational facilities in the Lao PDR in the last 20 years, judging from information provided by Hmong villagers and visitors to Hmong areas. This would have at least improved the literacy rate of tribal minorities, as there are now many primary schools of at least up to Grade 3 available in the bigger settlements along major arterial roads. Like the rest of the population, the older Hmong have not benefited much from modern education, due to the lack of access to schooling during their childhood and the remoteness of their villages. Equally, women may not have gained much from the new education system, despite government introduction of gender equality as a policy, due mainly to the Hmong's patrilineal family values which favour sons over daughters or which tie daughters to household chores rather than sending them to school.
1995 Population Census on School Attendance for the Top 8 Ethnic Groups in Laos
Source: State Planning Committee, Lao Census 1995 Country Report, 1997, p. 34
Figures from the above table show that the number of Hmong who have never been to school is nearly twice (67.2%) the national average (37.6%), and is the third highest after the Makong (75.7%) and the Kor (94.3%). Only 18.1% of Hmong aged 6 years and over were attending schools in 1995, and 14.7% had left school, compared to 25.1% and 37.3% respectively for the whole population. For Hmong women, the number was even lower: 83.7% never received any formal education, 10.7% were still at school, and 5.6% had left school - compared to the national figures of 47.1%, 21.4% and 31.5%. Again, the Hmong have the third highest number of women without any schooling, after the Makong (86.7%) and the Kor (98%). These figures suggest that schooling achievements by the Hmong are still comparatively low, similar to other remote ethnic minorities or rural lowland Lao.
According to statistics provided by the Lao PDR National Statistical Centre, the number of education establishments in Laos has grown from a total of 4,527 in 1976 to 8,632 in 1996. Of this total, 7,789 were primary schools, 713 were lower secondary schools and 130 higher secondary schools. There were only 3 universities and 12 tertiary technical or vocational institutes. In terms of students, the number has grown from 346,300 in 1976 to 930,700 bu 1996 (Committee for Planning and Co-operation, 1995: 153; and State Planning Committee, 1997: 109 and 110). Thus, there has been a huge growth of educational provisions, doubling the number of educational establishments (4,527 to 8,632) and nearly tripling the number of students (346,300 to 93,700) from 19976 to 1996. If this is the case, why only 18.1% Hmong are attending school in 1995, compared to 25.1% for the whole nation? The literacy rate for Hmong aged 15 years and over (137 774) is 26.5% (with 45.7% for males and 8.1% for females) compared to the national figure of 60.2% (with 73.5% for males and 47.9% for females). Like the school attendance rate, literacy rate appears to be low: 54.3% of Hmong men and 91.9% of Hmong women are illiterate (State Planning Committee, Lao Census 1995, op. cit. : 41).
It is obvious that the Lao Government has made great attempts to allocate educational services to the general population, but still has not reached all sections the community, especially those in rural and remote mountain regions. Much of the growth in primary schooling has taken place across the country up to Grade 3, but secondary and tertiary education facilities still prevail mainly in urban and provincial capitals. The majority of Hmong simply do not have the means to send their children to pursue education in provincial capitals or the city of Vientiane. Moreover, many parents with subsistence farming background still see education as a luxury which has little relevance to their urgent daily needs - the need for immediate survival and family labour. As one government official recently stated to me, the Government may build a school and send a teacher to a remote settlement, but there is little point when parents will not send their children to learn. This is all the more true when education is not yet made compulsory in the Lao PDR.
Despite these cultural, economic and geographic barriers, many Hmong in Laos have managed to gain education at various levels, with some even completing tertiary studies from such countries as France, Germany, Mongolia, Romania, Bulgaria, Canada, Hungary, the former USSR, Poland, China, Vietnam, USA, and Australia. Currently, there are Hmong public servants on study tour with their Lao colleagues in China, Thailand, Malaysia and India. It is also estimated between 20 and 30 Hmong students going to Dong Dok University and Preparatory College each year.
A number of Hmong now live in urban centres or towns and occupy various positions in the Lao public service, or in private employment with 0non-government organisations and commercial companies. A cursory counting of the number of Hmong public servants in Laos shows that currently there are 16 Hmong working as division heads or deputy heads in 10 public agencies, and 109 other Hmong of various gradings scattered through 18 government departments. There are about 50 Hmong doctors, with one working as the deputy director of Mahosot Hospital. Hmong nurses and teachers across the country are said to be too numerous to count. In the various provincial Police and the Ministry of the Interior, 6 officers of the rank of lieutenant-colonel and 8 majors are Hmong. The Revolutionary Army has 2 colonels and 7 lieutenant colonels. Although no Hmong has yet raised to the rank of general in the Lao PDR, the number of Hmong officers in the new Lao Police and Army is still significant, given that those who chose to stay with the new Lao Government are often believed to be small in number or untrained. Overall, the number of Hmong in government positions is probably higher today than it was the case under the former Royalist regime.
Lacking the skills and capital to engage in business or other trades and being generally adverse to doing paid labour for a living, the majority of Hmong only have the choice of subsistence farming – with only a very privileged few able to gain work with the Government. Without rich and unlimited amount of land, subsistence farming poses many dilemmas and problems. Although wet rice farming is the preferred option, not many Hmong have the means to purchase or to obtain wet rice paddy fields, especially in the highlands where they traditionally live.
Ovesen (1995: 55) clearly identifies this preference for wet rice cultivation among the Hmong at Phou Khao Kouay, Vientiane Province, when they took it upon themselves to pay for a tractor to level fields and build dykes for rice terraces. They are said to know the advantages of paddy fields in term of yields and labour demand, compared to swiddening. The only drawback for them is the lack of money to hire or buy sufficient buffaloes to plough and harrow the fields within the time required. Clearly if land could be found for paddy development and resettlement, many Hmong would be willing to settle in the lowlands and to adopt permanent settlements. The Lao PDR Government issued a decree on land tenure in 1994, but has found it difficult to put the law into action.
The Lao PDR Government has a policy of resettling hill tribespeople in the lowlands in order to bring development to them more easily and to avoid further forest and environmental destruction. It has not tried to implement the policy vigorously, due to land tenure problems in the lowlands and lack of space suitable for large scale resettlement. A number of Hmong refugee families who returned from Thailand were resettled in the lowland at Muong Phuong in Vientane Province, but those Hmong who have always been in Laos have not been moved from their highland settlements in any significant scale. In the past five years, there has been much voluntary Hmong migration to Luangnamtha from other provinces, as large tracks of lowland land were opened up for settlement. However, many of the new migrants had met with disappointment when water shortage did not allow them to transform the new land into paddy rice terraces. Many have returned to dry rice farming and gardening.
The Lao PDR Government, through the UNDP and USAID, has initiated two opium replacement projects with the Hmong: one in Vientiane province (UNDP) and the other in Samneua (USAID). Three years after it began in 1991, the UNPD project came to a complete stop when road construction reached the site area in Pha Lavae and project staff were unfortunately met with bullets instead of welcome banquets. The Government blamed "Chao Fa bandits" for this hostile reception, but other people suspected it was the deed of heroin traffickers and opium lords who did not want to see the source of their rich trade being tempered with. The Samneua opium replacement project is said to be still going.
Another small-scale development project which targeted the Hmong was the Muong Hom catchment project run by the UNDP which aimed to encourage better health care and education among the people living in the area in 1989. After more than 5 years, however, it was found that teachers were not receiving salaries, and the dispensaries had no nurses or medicine. A consultant wrote in his draft evaluation report that about 40 per cent of the target population had benefited from the project, but when the report was published by UNDP this figure became 90 per cent (J. Taylor, 1993, personal communication).
As with many of these local development projects, the people targeted do not always benefit from them, but someone else when, for example, materials and money intended to help rural people ended up in Vientiane in the form of newly constructed villas used for renting to foreign workers. For these and many other reasons, life for the majority of Hmong in the highlands continues to be a gruelling chore of seasonal farming, hunting and gathering. Their living standard is now low, but will likely improve once the current road infrastructures being put in place by the Lao PDR Government are completed. Already, many Hmong villagers have managed to build themselves dirt tracks to connect their villages to the main road if the distance is not too great, thus allowing them to transport some farm produce to the local markets. Thus, the Government's road construction program remains the most positive factor in bringing communication and economic improvement to the highlanders. In 1976, there were only 11,462 kilometres of roads of all categories in Laos, but this has increased to 22,321 km by 1996 (Lao PDR Committee for Planning and Cooperation, 1995: 102; and 1997: 65).
As stated by Stuart-Fox (1997: 79-80), the Pathet Lao revolutionary 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 developed effective egalitarian relations with ethnic nationalities, as well as adopting well-defined policy regarding national identity and unity involving all ethnic minorities. To inspire support, the movement capitalised on the mythical exploits of national and tribal leaders who resisted or led rebellions against domination by foreign powers such as the Thai, Burmese or French. It also nominated well-known ethnic leaders, such as Faydang Lobliayao in the case of the Hmong, to be included as “Heroes of the Revolution”.
For these reasons, the "thirty-years" Hmong under Faydang’s leadership fought vigorously alongside other supporters of the Pathet Lao. When victory came in 1975, the euphoria was well justified not only because peace was finally at hand but also because the promises of the revolution would be realised in the form of better living standards, or good positions in the new Government, the army or the public service. The major stumbling block, however, was that "For thirty years war had been the priority, but in 1975 the [Lao People's Revolutionary] Party was faced with the task of governing a modern state, complete with ministries, departments and technical requirements... a challenge for the best-organised and most far-sighted revolutionary movement" (Stuart-Fox, 1997: 171).
Most of the "thirty-years" Hmong and other minorities did not have the training and education to enter the public service of a nation state. Those who were educated or experienced in public offices were mostly on the Royal Government side, were considered untrustworthy and had either fled Laos or were taken to "seminars" in remote regions of the country. When the National Congress of People's Representatives was formed in December 1975, it was revealed that despite their thirty years of helping the Pathet Lao, leaders of minority groups such as Faydang for the Hmong or Sithon Kommadam for the Khmu were not represented on top level of the Party's hierarchy. They were, however, given positions as Vice-President of the interim National Assembly, with Faydang's younger brother (Nhia Vu) heading the Council of the Nationalities (the Government's agency which looks after ethnic minorities at the time).
During this initial period, those Hmong who completed studies in Communist Block countries were slotted into positions in the various Ministries of the new government. For the more numerous Hmong who served in the Revolutionary Army and the Lao Patriotic Front, however, peace presents a problem. Since liberation, many were retired or demoted from service, due to their lack of formal education. This trend seems to be continuing in the face of the Government's emphasis on building infra-structure and modernising the Lao economy, thus giving priority to technical qualifications and higher studies. After thirty years as the backbone of the Pathet Lao military, no Hmong has reached the rank of a General – unlike the Khmu and the Leu. Currently, there are two Hmong Colonels and 8 Hmong Lieutenant-Colonels in the Lao PDR Army - with one being a doctor.
The Hmong leadership appears to accept this adaptation to peace as a matter of course. Some have continued their involvement in various roles in the Party and the political system. For example, after 1975, a few prominent Hmong Party cadres were given positions as provincial or district committee chiefs or deputy chiefs in a number of provinces in Northern Laos. Some of these leaders have now become political players at the national level. In the most recent round of elections in December 1997, seven Hmong were elected to the National Assembly, representing the provinces of Luang Prabang, Sayaboury, Houaphan, Xieng Khouang, Vientiane and Borikhamsay. One of these Hmong deputies, Mr Saisengly Tengblialee, was made Minister Assisting the Prime Minister after the formation of the new Government in February 1998. No Hmong, however, has been made Minister with a portfolio in the numerous government reshuffles since 1975 – again unlike the Khmu, Black Tai or Leu who have representatives in important positions in the Lao cabinet.
When compared to the old Royal Lao Government with only 2 Hmong deputies in the National Assembly, the Lao PDR with its current 7 obviously has more Hmong representation on the nation's law-making body. But how representative are they of their Hmong constituents? These deputies are elected by the people, but they have to be approved by the Party as is the practice in Laos. The Government's policy is that elected members of the National Assembly have to maintain contacts and make regular visits to the local communities they represent. For the Hmong deputies, however, this policy is not easy to implement, due to: (1) the inaccessibility and isolation of most Hmong settlements; and (2) unsafe and dangerous travels to the highlands. For most of their term in office, therefore, Hmong deputies seem to spend time in Vientiane - rarely being heard or seen by their Hmong people. They appear not only to be isolated from their own constituents, but also from their lowland Lao counterparts. Many of the latter have paid good will visits to foreign countries as part of government delegations, but no Hmong or minority deputies have had the privilege to see other lands and learn other ideas. A more detached observer may see this as a sign of token minority representation at the national level rather than real participation in government affairs in the more inclusive sense.
Resistance to Change
Apart from their social and economic development, the most troublesome issue facing the Hmong in Laos today is their overall political integration. Transnationality, the ability to belong to more than one nationality or ethnic identity, has always been difficult - even back in China where many fled Chinese domination in search of independence and cultural survival. Unlike the Khmu and other tribal minorities who easily adopt Lao names and can pass off as lowland Lao, the Hmong seem to stand out with their Hmong names, their lighter physical appearance, their language and their pride in their own ethnicity, their desire for self-government, and the group image given to them by other people. Many Hmong, of course, have been accepted into the folds of the new regime, and have shown full support for it, even though some are ambivalent about a transnational identity.
As I mentioned previously, however, a small number of them have been adamant that they would not capitulate or give up their fear of the unknown and their love of independence. This attitude of the "Chao Fa" Hmong has made life rather difficult for the larger Hmong population in the country. This resistance has its origin in the history of the Lao civil war when Hmong were fighting on different sides of the conflict. Like the Lao Patriotic Front, some Hmong leaders drew inspirations from the mythical deeds of messianic heroes - against the French, the Vietminh, the calamitous power of Nature, or the forces of an unknown enemy. After the Liberation in 1975, those Hmong on the Royal Lao Government side who could not escape to Thailand fled to the protective forests of Phu Bia from where they staged their armed opposition to the new regime. Their number soon spread to Phu Nhay south of Luang Prabang and to Muong Mork near the Xieng Kouang-Vietnam border. In their early years, these resistance groups, with many thousand members, worked independently without much contacts or co-ordination. The Government was able to mount military operations against these recalcitrant groups on the ground or from the air - often after dropping leaflets and unsuccessfully trying to convince them to rally. During the 10 years of suppression after 1975, more than 10,000 resistance Hmong were killed or fled to Thailand as refugees.
In the early 1980’s, support was obtained from refugee groups in Thailand and other countries. The resistance movement became better coordinated 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 Governments started negotiations on border security in July 1994, these resistance support networks were dismantled and their members dispersed or imprisoned. With the closing of the refugee camps in Thailand, the resistance groups in Laos have been on their own since 1993.
To pacify the resistance Hmong, the Lao Government made Saisomboun District (formerly known as Muong Cha) into a Special Zone in 1994. This is the area closest to Phu Bia, the base of most of the “Chao Fa” groups. The idea is to make Saisomboun the centre for political and economic development to attract resistance Hmong into the folds of the authorities. The government withdrew its lowland Lao personnel from the area, and put Gen. Bounchane (a Khmu who successfully suppressed many “Chao Fa” Hmong in the late 1970’s) as the local military commander, with Col. Lo Lu Yang as deputy commander and Mr Siatou Yang (formerly the Chao Muong at Moung Hom) as the unification coordinator. The Special Zone covers the following districts: Muong Phoun, Muong Hom, Muong Cha and Long San. The Hmong are now facing each other trying to build bridge across a political divide.
There is no doubt that the Government believes it is best to have the Hmong deal with each other over this long-standing political thorn. 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 Muong 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 Muong Saisomboun itself. The Hmong are now killing each other, and 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.
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. Visitors to Laos reported that the “Chao Fao” now claim 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 Lhouang Province; and (3) Phu Kongkhao and Phu Nhay in Luang Prabang Province. Hmong and other inhabitants in these places are living in fear.
In drawing attention to the problems posed by the Hmong resistance in Laos, I wish to stress that I am not seeking publicity for the movement, nor acting as any group’s spokesperson. All I want to do here is to express concern about an issue that has been a ongoing source of distrust and frustration for the Government and the cause of death or injuries for many thousands of people, Hmong and non-Hmong , for more than 20 years. It is a major drain on government resources when the country needs everything it has to bring modernisation and prosperity to its four million people, most of whom are living below the poverty level. For the Hmong who continue to resist government control, more than ideological difference seems to be involved. Also at stake are their group identity, cultural maintenance and protection against perceived threats to their ethnic autonomy.
Observations by Stuart-Fox (1997: 40) can equally be used to understand the reasons for Hmong resistance today when he explains the Hmong and Khmu revolts against French colonialism in Laos in the 1920's as stemming from:
".... their opposition to changes introduced through new administrative controls and increased taxes, which threatened traditional interests, relationships, life styles and economies. All were reactions to the disruptions caused by the initial intrusion of French imperialism. [In these rebellions], strong messianic elements were present. Resistance took forms sanctioned by traditional world views. [The rebels] fought for more than independence from both French and Lao. [They] also sought to maintain a way of life that closed out the new forces of the modern world. They looked backwards, in other words, to discover the shape of the future."
The new Lao PDR Government whose victory in the Lao civil war was built much on the use of these anti-French rebellions, has not fully appreciated the causes of the current disruptive activities of the Hmong in central northern Laos. It has addressed the problem through military suppression rather than attempting to allay the fears for changes, the fear for the unknown, and the need to keep one's self-identity in the face of overwhelming power and dominance by other groups. This fear is sometimes reinforced by propaganda fed to them from other countries, and by official acts which are seen as punitive and genocidal. Many “Chao Fa” Hmong have rallied to the new regime over the years, but many leaders who surrendered themselves have met with imprisonment and even death.
A recent case involved Mr Vang Ku, one of the resistance leaders in Muong Mork. He was talked into rallying with his followers in 1997, and the Government initially built him a villa costing 2 million Kip (about US$100). It was not long, however, before he was put on trial and was subsequently imprisoned indefinitely. The same fate befell former Lt. Col. Bouachong Lee, the liberator of Luang Prabang in 1975 for the new Government. Dissatisfied with his demobilisation and fueled by foreign propaganda, he led a failed rebellion against Government troops in Luang Prabang in 1996 and fled to Thailand. He was arrested on the way near the Lao-Thai border and was later put in prison – again indefinitely. The Government, of course, has the authority to use whatever strategies it sees fit to deal with rebels and political activists. The question is whether the strategy used will improve or worsen the situation with the rest of the resistance movement.
The Hmong of Laos have seen war for far too long. Too many had fought for thirty years during the Lao civil war, but some are still fighting and dying in their own personal battles during the last twenty years of resistance. Fifty years of bearing arms and defending oneself is a long time. There is no doubt that they wish for peace and economic prosperity like all Lao citizens. Increasing overseas contacts and visits to other countries to see expatriate relatives have also opened the eyes of many Hmong to other political and economic systems, other kinds of life styles and ideas. There are many signs for optimism, but the hope for harmonious co-existence with other people within the Lao nation state will only come true if full and voluntary integration can be achieved.
By and large, life remains at subsistence level for the Hmong in Laos as for other inhabitants of the poorest country of Southeast Asia. This can be seen not only by visits to the field but also by the frequent requests for money received by relatives overseas and the large amount of remittances sent by the latter to Laos. During the past twenty years, land tenure and land redistribution remain an urgent but highly problematic issue for the Lao PDR Government. Until this is resolved, the Hmong have to cling to their traditional highlands and their destructive swiddening farming. The Government acknowledges this difficulty, but has not yet been able to find a durable solution to this major issue in the face of other more urgent national needs.
The most contentious issue remains political: the dilemma faced by the Lao PDR Government in dealing with Hmong expatriate leaders intent on stirring up the Hmong inside Laos, and in addressing the integration problem posed by the small pockets of Hmong who resist its rule deep in the jungles of central Northern Laos. The “Chao Fa” Hmong, despite being few in numbers, have continued their armed skirmishes, and are creating problems for the majority of peace-loving Hmong in the country. Although the nation’s leadership does not admit this, the resistance movement has made the lowland Lao and the national leaders deeply distrustful of the general Hmong population, thereby making it difficult for the latter to gain offices beyond middle management level in whatever areas of government services. The Hmong, no matter what nomenclatures we give them, need to be given the chance to find peace, to stop killing each other and to find their trustworthy place in the Lao nation.
The Government may need to consider a new alternative to its current practice of talking Hmong resistance leaders into rallying with attractive promises only to put them in prison later. Thailand provides a good lesson when its “Red Hmong” rebels of the 1960’s finally rallied in 1982: all were processed and given citizenship, and not one was imprisoned or punished These Hmong are now loyal and law-abiding Thai subjects. The same could happen in Laos. Continued disregard, distrust and punishment will only make the resistance Hmong clinging to their disruptive tactics and looking for outside assistance, for unfulfilled hopes and messianic dreams.
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Ovesen, J. 1995, A Minority Enters the Nation State: a Case Study of a Hmong Community in Vientiane Province, Laos, Department of Anthropology, Uppsala University
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Recently published as “Transnational Adaptation: An Overview of the Hmong of Laos” in Hmong/Miao in Asia, edited by Nicholas Tapp, Jean Michaud, Christian Culas, and Gary Yia Lee (Chiangmai: Silkworms Books, 2004)