12:00 AM, May. 16, 2011
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — Sheboygan resident Phia Lee, one of thousands of Hmong who aided the CIA during the Vietnam War, said Thursday that Laotian-Hmong veterans deserve GI benefits for their service.
Lee, who participated in a Capitol Hill forum on Laos and Vietnam with his son, Ge Lee, said through an interpreter that the “Hmong people and Laotian people have helped American people since the 1960s, and the United States government should give benefits to Lao veterans.”
Phia Lee came to the United States in 2004 as part of a wave of Hmong refugees who had been living at a Buddhist temple in Wat Tham Krabok, Thailand. After the communist takeover of the Laos and Vietnam governments, thousands of Hmong fled Laos, fearing persecution for their alliance with the U.S. during the war.
“He lived a long time in a cave,” Ge Lee said about his father.
Philip Smith, director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis, one of the sponsors of Thursday’s forum, said Phia Lee represented the Hmong story of “moral courage and fight for survival.”
The Hmong struggle to survive has again been in the news since early May, when the Vietnam government began cracking down on mass protests by Hmong people in the Dien Bien province near the border of Laos. The protesters have been demanding land reforms and religious freedom.
Smith said 72 demonstrators have been killed by the Vietnam military, including a woman who was bludgeoned with an AK-47 assault weapon. He said there also have been casualties on the Laotian side of the border. The death toll could not be independently verified. Foreign journalists have been barred from the area.
Smith and others said the crackdown underscores the abuses of human rights and civil rights that the Hmong have been subjected to since the communist takeover of the region. He said Hmong land is being confiscated by corrupt military officials, and Hmong Christians are persecuted for practicing their religion. Smith called on the Obama administration and Congress to investigate and impose sanctions.
“No Hmong Bible is permitted in Vietnamese language in this area,” Smith said. “Efforts to smuggle Bibles into that province have been met with severe repercussions.”
Thongchanh Boulum of the United League for Democracy in Laos Inc. told of life under an authoritarian regime. He said those in charge “rely on violence and terror to gain and maintain power. They use lies to justify violence.” The people, Boulum said, “have no right of expression, no right of assembly — nothing at all.”
Jane Hamilton-Merritt, an expert on Southeast Asia and Hmong and a human-rights advocate, said the current situation is a familiar one. She said what’s happening in Dien Bien is drawing little attention in the U.S. because of all the focus on Middle East uprisings and the war on terrorism.
“Hmong are once again being persecuted, and the worst part about it is the press can’t get in,” she said.
In reviewing a State Department file on Laos and Vietnam, Hamilton-Merritt said she found “page after page” of human and civil rights violations but nothing on freedoms enjoyed by Hmong people.
“If you’re on land that has the potential for a golf course … your land is taken, and you’re not compensated,” Hamilton-Merritt said.
She praised the fortitude of Hmong people who have survived or escaped abuse and persecution, and she questioned whether she would be as strong in the face of such adversity.
“I don’t know if I would have the courage to do anything,” Hamilton-Merritt said. “But Hmong have courage. It is in Hmong DNA that they will not suffer for too long.”
Larry Bivins: firstname.lastname@example.org