Posts tagged ‘Vang Pao’

February 17, 2012

The amazing life of Vang Pao: As Chico prepares to memorialize him, we should understand why the Hmong people regard him as their greatest hero

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This article was published on 02.16.12.

Vang Pao is pictured here in his Clovis home in 2009.

Related stories this week:
Who are the Hmong?
Forever marginalized, they’ve learned either to fight or move on.

A sculptured likeness of Vang Pao will come soon to an honored place in Chico, thanks to a decision by the City Council in November to permit a statue of him to be placed outside council chambers. His picture already hangs in honored places in thousands of homes in Hmong communities now scattered all over the United States. We should know something about him and the many reasons why we should be proud that he and the Hmong people will achieve a deserved recognition.

Vang Pao is not exactly the George Washington of the Hmong—there, after all, is no Hmong government anywhere in the world. And none is on the horizon. But if adulation by large numbers of ethnic kinsmen is any criterion, Vang Pao invites comparison to George Washington. Gen. Vang was on hand to unite and inspire and focus the Hmong people at a crucial juncture in their very long migratory history.

“He is like the earth and the sky,” a Hmong refugee told a Fresno Bee reporter in 2007.

“I trusted Gen. Vang Pao with my life,” said Chai Vang Thao, a spokesman for the Hmong community in Butte County.

The salutes from Americans who knew him are even more enthusiastic. William Colby, the director of the CIA in the 1970s, called Vang Pao “the biggest hero of the Vietnam War.”

Vint Lawrence, one of the earliest of the CIA agents to know Vang Pao, said the general seemed unconcerned about his safety in battle—perhaps he believed that divine spirits controlled his fate. In any case, “His reaction [to danger] was extraordinary. He assumed he was not going to get shot. He just exuded bravery.”

President Bill Clinton, belatedly, authorized a plaque at Arlington National Cemetery in 1997. The valor of Gen. Vang Pao’s troops would never be forgotten, it reads.

Lionel Rosenblatt, a founder of Refugees International, put the matter quite bluntly when he said that Vang Pao’s Hmong were put “into this meat grinder, mostly to save U.S. soldiers from fighting and dying [in Vietnam].” Rosenblatt went on to become one of the main movers in the effort to relocate larger numbers of Hmong to the United States after the end of the Vietnam War—a matter by no means taken for granted at the time.

Many in Washington thought the problems attendant on resettlement of large numbers of Southeast Asian farmers would overwhelm U.S. resources. Former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson stated publicly that Hmong families were incapable of integrating themselves into American culture.

After Vang Pao’s death in January 2011 efforts were made to bury him in Arlington. Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, R-Calif., noted that he “saved the lives of thousands of Americans in the Vietnam War. … He deserves to be buried in Arlington.” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., wanted to extend burial rights in U.S. national cemeteries to foreign-born Hmong veterans—estimated to number as many as 6,900. The Arlington burial efforts failed. Hmong in America, including many veterans of the war, were bitterly disappointed.

Vang Pao and Air America

The history of Vang Pao and the Hmong people and American involvement in the origins of the Vietnam War intersected for the first time in 1960. American presence in Vietnam, in the wake of the earlier (1954) French defeat, was limited at that time to a small number of “advisers” working to prop up an anti-communist regime in Saigon. The full-scale commitment of U.S. ground troops was two presidents in the future—Jack Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson.

This photo was taken circa 1972, during the “secret war” in Laos. Gen. Vang Pao (arrow) is pictured holding hands with Thai Army Chief of Staff Surakij Mayalab at a site overlooking Hmong–CIA headquarters in Long Tien, Laos. To the left of Mayalab is CIA case officer Burr Smith (with shaved head). The rest of the men in the photo are Thai soldiers who served in Laos with Lao-Hmong forces.

Nonetheless, President Eisenhower, worried about a communist insurgency in Laos, declared in 1960 that that country must be kept out of communist hands. The “falling domino principle” was cited as reason. China was already communist; Vietnam was threatened; Laos would be next; Cambodia … Thailand … where would it end?

In 1960 Vang Pao was 31 years old and already an experienced soldier. As a teenager he had fought with the French against the Japanese who controlled most of Southeast Asia during the Pacific War. Later, in the 1960s, he was a major when Americans met him and soon became a major general in the Royal Lao Army—the highest rank achieved by a Hmong in that force. The Hmong, while they had grudges against the Lao royal government whose powerbase was in the lowland areas of Laos, felt they had a better chance for autonomy under it than under the communist insurgency known as Pathet Lao. The Pathet Lao leadership was trained by Hanoi.

Vang Pao first met American counterinsurgency agents in 1960. These CIA agents, often disguised as civilian operatives in the bogus corporation “Air America,” went to work to enlist Hmong villagers in the remote fog-shrouded highlands of central and north Laos. The Americans immediately recognized Vang Pao as their most valuable ally.

With Vang Pao’s help, Hmong allies were recruited and assigned to gather intelligence, protect American radar sites, operate advance radio and surveillance outposts, and rescue downed American airmen. Many Hmong soldiers lost their own lives in their effort to rescue Americans. The Hmong engaged in fierce combat on the contested border region between Laos and Vietnam. One expert estimates that for more than a decade the 40,000-strong Hmong forces prevented as many as 70,000 Vietnamese troops from overrunning Laos.

Vang Pao was compared by one expert as a Hmong version of Gen. George Patton: He could think like his enemy. But instead of great powerful armies, Vang Pao, at least in the early days, commanded men wearing homespun clothes who often took wives and children into battle. They abandoned their traditional homes, their fields, their livestock, and settled in encampments, many concentrated in mountaintop areas surrounding the Plaine des Jarres. (The French named it that after the thousands of stone jars that dotted the landscape and were thought to be prehistoric burial places.)

In the early 1960s, when Americans first met them, Hmong recruits carried hand-made flintlock rifles—Vang Pao presented one to President Johnson in 1968 on the occasion of a visit to the United States. Walt Rostow, national security adviser, sent a note to LBJ praising Vang Pao: “He is a real asset to us, a feisty little fighter ….”

The Secret War

By the mid-1960s, as full-scale war in Vietnam evolved, the Laos-Vietnam border area became ever more crucial. The famous Ho Chi Minh Trail, the supply route from communist North Vietnam to the South, weaved its way inside and out of the territory of Laos. Interruption of the flow of supplies from Ho Chi Minh’s regime in the north to their Viet Minh allies in the south became a principal strategic goal of the United States. And that in turn dictated a strong American presence in Laos. A clandestine presence. Thus the “secret war” in Laos (and also Cambodia).

“Laos was officially neutral; that didn’t stop the North Vietnamese communists nor the Americans nor Mr. Vang,” commented the Economist.

By the mid-1960s Vang Pao and the Hmong were often in the air. “He loved aviation,” writes Jane Hamilton-Merritt, author of Tragic Mountains, a gripping story of the secret war and the heroic role thousands of Hmong played in it. At first he “rode shotgun” on missions, but before long Gen. Vang was flying a Cessna 185 or H-34 helicopter.

He persuaded the Americans that Hmong could be trained as pilots, and scores of them were. Vang Pao regarded Hmong pilots as braver and more skilled than the Lao, or Thai, or even American flyers. The Hmong were flying to protect their people. For them every mission was a life-and-death mission.

“American pilots typically flew 100 combat missions, celebrated with a champagne party and went home with medals for bravery,” writes Hamilton-Merritt. “Hmong pilots had no 100-mission parties with champagne, no R&R in faraway cities, and no end of tour. Instead they flew until they were blown out of the skies.”

The Controversial Vang Pao

This rendering shows how the memorial to Gen. Vang Pao, which the City Council approved in November 2011, will look.


Vang Pao had his enemies and critics. Not surprising for a general fighting guerrilla warfare, he could be ruthless. It is said that his recruitment policies included drafting very young boys; those who resisted were not treated well. He could and did order summary executions.

And it is widely acknowledged now that he financed much of his patriotic activity by being an opium warlord. This was especially true in the early 1970s, as the United States began its strategic retreat from Vietnam.

Financial assistance to Vang Pao began to dry up. He still had to pay his ever-more-besieged troops—and their families. The narcotics trade was a way to solvency.

Critics of American policies in Southeast Asia point to the Secret War as a moral low point in the Cold War. U.S. bombers flying from distant Guam or bases in nearby Thailand dropped more than 2 million tons of bombs on Laotian territory—more than the total dropped on all of Germany during World War II. By another calculation, the 580,000 bombing missions over Laos between 1964 and 1973 constituted the heaviest aerial bombing in history.

Historian Sucheng Chan, though not Hmong, writes with great sympathy for the plight of the Hmong in her 1994 book Hmong Means Free. The North Vietnamese and Americans fought the “Second Vietnam War” partly in Hmong homelands, she says, but neither side cared much about the needs of Laos or the Hmong. They made use of Laos for their own ends.

By the early 1970s, “the United States was determined to end its involvement in Southeast Asia and was looking for a way to extricate itself ‘with honor’ from a conflict that had cost more than a million lives (all participants combined) and left a legacy of ecological destruction that still boggles the mind,” Chan writes.

After 1975

With the American retreat from Southeast Asia in 1975, a decision had to be made who among our Hmong friends could be saved. In the last days, amid great turmoil at remote airstrips, the CIA managed to evacuate Vang Pao and a few thousand officers and their families to safety in America and elsewhere around the globe.

Recall the pictures of the panic scenes as people scrambled to board the last helicopters out of Saigon in 1975? The same scenario played out mostly beyond camera range in Hmong villages at about the same time.

The rank-and-file Hmong left behind were subjected to brutal attacks by the communist victors, who used vastly superior firepower and chemical and biological warfare in an attempt to exterminate the Hmong. The Hmong in general were treated badly; those suspected of ties with the CIA were worked to death by day and put into holes in the ground by night. As many as 100,000 perished; another 100,000 fled Laos.

Of those Hmong people who remained in Laos, tens of thousands were sent to re-education camps as political prisoners, where they served indeterminate, sometimes life sentences. Many of these people are unaccounted for; it is easily assumed that most perished.

For the vast majority of Hmong survivors, the American pullout meant that their only hope was fleeing to refugee camps in Thailand. Can we possibly understand the terror and panic of a people constantly in flight and pursued by troops of the post-1975 government of Laos, which had promised to “wipe out” Hmong who had allied themselves with the United States?

The early stages of escape took them through the Lao jungle, relocating every few months as the communists discovered their locations. They were unable to farm or grow anything in the jungle. “They depended on whatever edible roots they could find,” writes former Marysville resident Her Vang in his recently completed Ph.D. dissertation, “Dreaming of Home, Dreaming of Land: Displacements and Hmong Transnational Politics, 1975-2010,” at the University of Minnesota.

Author John Boyle is a retired professor of Asian history at Chico State University. He has been a “reading pal” with about 30 Hmong second- and third-graders over the last 15 years. He is shown here recently with one of them, Pangsee Xiong, holding a photo of them taken in 1996. She recently graduated from East Carolina University, in Greenville, N.C., with a major in public health and a concentration in community health.


The final stage of the escape involved crossing the Mekong—but many could not swim. There are no great, wide rivers in the Lao highlands. The desperate clung to makeshift bamboo rafts or inflated plastic bags. And they dodged bullets from pursuing troops—and sometimes from Thai soldiers chasing them back from the “safe” side. Many did not make it. How many infants really didn’t have a chance?

And when the lucky survivors waded onto Thai territory, to commence what for many would be permanent exile from their homeland, they ended up in squalid refugee camps, some for years, some for two decades. While there, they were always coping with the threat of repatriation to Laos, where they faced torture and death.

Many Hmong turned down offers of resettlement in America because it would mean that they would have to abandon their families in the refugee camps. One estimate holds that for every person in the camp at Ban Vinai who emigrated to the States, a child was born in the camp. It had a population of about 38,000 in 1987.

The forced resettlement of Hmong continues to be a source of terror for the relatively small numbers of Hmong remaining in Thai camps. In May 2009, Doctors Without Borders withdrew in protest from Ban Huay Nam Khao detention camp in Thailand because of the country’s forced-repatriation policy and abuse of the Lao Hmong refugees. The camp is the last remaining Lao Hmong refugee camp in Thailand.

Doctors Without Borders left behind a trove of accusatory evidence regarding Thailand and the plight of the Hmong. Jane Hamilton-Merritt pleaded to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: “Read the report about the fear of those who are about to be forcibly returned to their abusers in Laos. Know their stories. Hear their cries.”

Vang Pao’s Last Years

Gen. Vang Pao spent most of his time, as one commentator put it, leaning on “his network of former spooks, soldiers and diplomats to twist arms in Washington, D.C., and win help for his kinsmen.” Fortunately for the Hmong cause, Vang Pao had a wide range of connections.

But Vang Pao also never gave up the dream of returning and organizing the ragtag rebels holding out in isolated jungle camps and establishing a Hmong homeland in Laos. The jungles of Laos remained “unfinished business” in his mind.

Central to these dreams was the notion of Chao Fa, a mystical group of Hmong warriors who fought against French colonial rule nearly a century ago. The general dreamed of returning to Laos and reviving the Chao Fa goals.

Vang Pao and many Hmong of his generation were quite different from other refugees America has absorbed. They were not convinced that their final destiny was to be found in the United States. Almost all of them felt a deep connection to their Laos homeland and to their Hmong relatives stranded there. Their quandary was and is an ongoing tragedy.

Vang Pao’s last years produced an episode of great controversy. In 2007 U.S. federal courts ordered Vang Pao’s arrest for allegedly plotting to overthrow the communist government of Laos. Federal agents charged the general and several others with plotting to assemble an arsenal of weapons that they intended to ship to anti-Laotian resistance forces inside Laos.

Appeals came from many quarters to drop the charges. Not lost in the debate was the fact that decades earlier the U.S. had trained and supported Vang Pao to resist the (ostensibly) same regime.

Vang Pao and others were arrested and denied bail. Adding some confusion to this situation, Vang Pao at times insisted that he intended to broker a deal between the Lao authorities in Vientiane and the minorities. Vientiane responded by saying that they would kill him if he set foot in Laos. He was soon released from prison, and after two years of hearings, in 2009 all charges against Vang, by then 80 years old, were dropped. He died in January 2011 in Clovis. A six-day funeral brought thousands to the streets and public places of nearby Fresno—and to Hmong communities across the nation.

Author’s postscript

I’d like to make this suggestion to whoever is in charge of writing the inscription on the Vang Pao memorial sculpture: Please make it abundantly clear that the dedication is not just to Gen. Vang, but also to the heroic and long-suffering Hmong people who committed themselves to the American cause three and four decades ago in far-away Laos.

And to their children and grandchildren who now are increasingly less interested in a resurrection of the Chao Fa kingdom than they are in the daunting task of making their way in America.

The new generations of Hmong will not and should not forget the sacrifices of their parents and grandparents’ generations. If a sculpture of Vang Pao helps them (and the rest of us Americans) to honor those sacrifices, then it will be a worthy contribution to our city.

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April 23, 2011

WikiLeaks cables bare secrets of U.S.-Laotian relations

The Miami HeraldThe Miami Herald

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Posted on Friday, 04.22.11


McClatchy Newspapers

WASHINGTON — The 2007 U.S. arrest of the late Hmong leader Vang Pao hurt him, but it did wonders for U.S.-Lao relations, classified State Department cables show.

Vang Pao’s arrest prompted widespread dismay among Hmong-Americans; at one point, an estimated 3,000 demonstrated outside a federal courthouse in Sacramento, Calif.

Lao officials were “pleased and surprised” by the arrest of the man who’d long denounced their regime, a U.S. diplomat reported. Suddenly, Lao military officers began talking. Bureaucratic barriers shrank. Cross-cultural exchanges became feasible.

“Since the arrests, we have made a surprising amount of progress in areas of our relationship with the Lao government where we had previously experienced difficulty,” Mary Grace McGeehan, who was then the U.S. charge d’affaires in Laos, wrote in a June 22, 2007, memo.

The turnaround was such that some Western expatriates in the Laotian capital of Vientiane “speculated to us that the arrests were a positive gesture toward the Lao government by the U.S.,” McGeehan reported.

Two years later, federal prosecutors dropped criminal conspiracy charges against Vang Pao. In time, the other men arrested with Vang Pao likewise saw all charges dropped.

Vang Pao died last January in Fresno, Calif., prompting widespread grief in the Hmong-American community he’d led. Long-term U.S.-Lao relations remain a work in progress, though some Hmong-Americans see gradual improvement.

“It seems the government has opened up more; they’re reaching out more, to encourage tourism and to encourage business opportunities,” said Fresno City Council member Blong Xiong, who visited his native Laos several months ago.

For their part, U.S. diplomats predicted in the 2007 memo that midlevel Lao officials eager for better relations with the United States eventually would “encounter bureaucratic resistance.” In other words: Be prepared for stop-and-go.

The 2007 memo, classified “confidential,” was obtained by WikiLeaks and passed to McClatchy Newspapers. It’s one of many memos that shed light on the complicated relationship between the United States and Laos, a global odd couple with a war-torn past and many domestic offspring.

Lao Embassy officials in Washington didn’t respond to requests for comment. State Department officials denounce the WikiLeaks release of documents.

The Hmong first began coming to the United States after the 1975 communist victory in Laos, concentrating in cities that include Fresno and St. Paul, Minn. Nationwide, more than 140,000 U.S. residents claimed full Hmong ancestry as of the 2000 Census, the most recent for which such data are available.

Isolated by language and culture, the Hmong have struggled to assimilate while community leaders have clashed over strategies and tactics.

“The politics of the Hmong communities in both Laos and the United States are extremely complex,” a secret June 11, 2007, memo noted.

That summer, for instance, a U.S. diplomat reported that “protection from the local police and/or FBI” might be warranted if certain Hmong-Americans were to visit Fresno, because of the potential for violence.

Typically, the memos provide an unfiltered U.S. view of the Lao government. One March 31, 2006, classified U.S. cable, for instance, noted allegations of corruption and observed that “government ministers and officials with salaries of less than $75 per month sport villas and cars worthy of Monte Carlo.”

The raw observations made in the classified memos are echoed publicly in the State Department’s annual human rights report on Laos.

Last July, in one sign of warming relations, the Laotian foreign minister visited Washington for the first time since 1975.

“The United States is committed to building our relationship with Laos as part of our broader efforts to expand engagement with Southeast Asia,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said at the time.

Lao officials can seem conflicted sometimes. For instance, Lao authorities seemed intrigued and nervous about Fresno council member Xiong when he visited in November 2008. He was one of the first Hmong-American elected officials to visit the country.

A U.S. diplomat subsequently noted that the Lao government dragged its feet and limited the audience for Xiong’s presentations, but then praised “extremely positive” meetings.

“I was the guinea pig for visits,” Xiong said an interview. “They were extremely cautious.”

Of all the Hmong in the U.S., the Lao government was most concerned about Vang Pao.

The longtime military leader had worked closely with the CIA during the Vietnam War. Once living in the United States, he vocally opposed the Lao government.

So did others. In April 2007, for instance, a secret State Department cable reported that “unidentified Hmong-Americans are said to be recruiting Hmong … to return to Laos to stage incidents.” Vang Pao wasn’t named in that cable.

In June 2007, federal prosecutors charged Vang Pao and his allies with conspiring to overthrow the socialist Lao government. Before the arrests, U.S. diplomats in Laos were complaining of “bureaucratic obstructionism and veiled hostility” from Laotian authorities. Afterward, diplomats noted a “sudden and pronounced” improvement, even though some Lao officials suspected that the CIA was still in league with Vang Pao.

“The more forthcoming we can be with the (government of Laos) … the longer the positive climate is likely to last,” McGeehan concluded.


April 3, 2011

William Young, Helped U.S. Organize Secret War in Laos, Is Dead at 76.



Published: April 3, 2011

CHIANG MAI, THAILAND — William Young, the scion of a U.S. missionary family in Southeast Asia who mixed evangelical zeal with covert missions for the C.I.A., has apparently killed himself, the Thai police said.

An investigator for the Thai police, Uthai Kadchadacom, was called to Mr. Young’s home in this northern city Friday and found Mr. Young dead from a gunshot wound. He had a .32-millimeter handgun next to his right hand and was clutching a crucifix in his left.

William Young, circa 1963.

Mr. Young, 76, who most recently was a consultant to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, had made enemies among the tribes of Indochina during his colorful life of intrigue and battles against drug traffickers and communist armies. But the police say they did not suspect foul play.

Mr. Young had been suffering from emphysema and numerous other ailments. Friends said the old soldier appeared to be losing the will to live.

“I spoke to him earlier in the day and he said, ‘I’m feeling lower than I ever have,”’ said David Lawitts, a family friend who is preparing an authorized autobiography.

Born in the United States, Mr. Young spent most of his life in the hills of northern Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, which was British-controlled Burma when his grandfather first arrived as a Baptist missionary in the late 1880s.

His family was successful in converting countless members of the Lahu tribe to Christianity and became greatly celebrated figures among the region’s patchwork of ethnicities.

In a sign of the family’s stature, the British colonial administration appointed Mr. Young’s father, Harold Young, as an administrator of a region in northern Burma inhabited by the Wa ethnic group, a very unusual appointment for a U.S. citizen.

Harold Young was recruited by the C.I.A. and led intelligence-gathering forays into southern China in the years after Mao Zedong’s communist takeover.

William Young followed his father’s path and joined the C.I.A. after a year serving in the U.S. Army. In the early 1960s, as the war in Vietnam escalated, William Young assembled an army of local tribespeople in neighboring Laos, a force that at its peak reached several thousand men.

“We used to jokingly call him the American warlord,” said Bertil Lintner, an author and longtime friend of Mr. Young’s. “He was ideally placed to organize the secret war in Laos.”

Missionaries were the best assets the Americans had in the region, Mr. Lintner said: “They spoke local languages and were respected.”

U.S. involvement in Laos was known as the “secret war” because it contradicted the official U.S. policy of respecting the Laotian government’s neutrality.

Mr. Young led his fighters into battles against communist forces and directed the construction of dozens of airstrips to be used by Air America, the C.I.A.-financed airline that supplied the hill tribes with weapons and supplies. Among those he recruited was Vang Pao, the ethnic Hmong warrior who would later lead the C.I.A.-backed anti-communist forces.

Mr. Young became disenchanted with the C.I.A. over differences in strategy. The falling out was mutual. He was dismissed from the C.I.A. in 1968 as the war in Vietnam was raging.

“He was extremely patriotic but he felt that the American government had dealt their hand extremely clumsily in Indochina,” Mr. Lintner said.

Mr. Young went on to trade in gems, owned a fruit orchard, opened a guesthouse and worked in Sudan as a security consultant for an oil company.

But he never fully left the shadowy world of intelligence gathering and tribal intrigue. Visitors to his house noticed he was rarely very far from his handgun.

In recent years he advised the D.E.A. on the drug trade in northern Myanmar, a hub for heroin and methamphetamine production. His knowledge and contacts helped collar several traffickers.

In an interview two years ago, Mr. Young displayed a deep knowledge of the political complexities of northern Myanmar, possibly unsurpassed by anyone outside the country.

Mr. Young is survived by five children and two grandchildren, said one of his sons, Jerrick Young.

In a sign of the family’s continued prestige among hill tribes, Wa and Lahu representatives are set to converge on Chiang Mai on Monday to pay tribute to Mr. Young.

A version of this article appeared in print on April 4, 2011, in The International Herald Tribune.

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March 9, 2011

Philip Smith: Vang Pao burial decision is a disgrace

Lao Hmong veterans who fought in America’s covert war should be fully honored.



Last update: March 7, 2011 – 7:33 PM


The recent funeral and burial of Gen. Vang Pao in California symbolizes why Lao Hmong veterans who served alongside U.S. military and clandestine forces in the “U.S. Secret Army” should be more fully honored by the United States as national policy.

The time is long overdue for Washington to permit these veterans of America’s covert war in Laos to be granted the honor of being buried in U.S. national veterans’ and military cemeteries.

Vang Pao, who, perhaps, became a more complex and enigmatic figure in recent years, died in January in Clovis, Calif., at age 81.

During the Indochina conflict, he was the leader of Laotian and Hmong irregular forces, as well as main-force units, formed in cooperation with the U.S. military and clandestine services of the CIA.

With American support, he helped to lead the largest covert operation in U.S. military history before the war against the Soviet Army in Afghanistan.

His Laotian and Hmong troops rescued American pilots and air crews shot down over Laos during the Vietnam War.

His Lao Hmong special forces also saved the lives of countless U.S. soldiers, in part because of their interdiction of enemy troop and supply convoys as well as by tying up key North Vietnamese divisions in combat in Laos.

Following his death, many appealed to official Washington, including the Pentagon and White House, for his burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

Those making the requests included his family; his combat veterans, led by the Lao Veterans of America; members of Congress, Lao Hmong community leaders, and others.

The appeals were largely met with a mixture of insensitivity, hubris and indifference by those responsible for America’s national security and veterans affairs issues.

In a terribly timed statement on Feb. 4, the opening day of a weeklong funeral and mourning period marked by tens of thousands of grieving Lao-Hmong Americans, U.S. Army Secretary John McHugh announced that burial of Vang Pao at Arlington would not be permitted.

The stench of betrayal from Washington is once again overwhelmingly apparent to Lao Hmong-Americans and the Vietnam veterans who served with them during the bloody war in Southeast Asia.

America has for too long abandoned the Lao Hmong veterans and their refugee families in their hour of greatest need, both in terms of their horrific plight in Southeast Asia following the war as well as their current status in the United States — where they are still largely forgotten, misunderstood or worse.

In light of this, Congress and President Obama should immediately work to enact legislation to authorize the Pentagon and Secretary of Veterans Affairs to grant the approximately 10,000 surviving Lao Hmong combat veterans the final honor which Gen. Vang Pao was denied.

Such legislation was introduced last year but did not reach a vote. Its reintroduction and passage would send an important message of gratitude and respect to Lao Hmong-American veterans and their families.

Lao Hmong veterans, including Vang Pao, should rest with honor at America’s national cemeteries.

Philip Smith is the executive director for the Center for Public Policy Analysis in Washington, D.C. He has worked with the Lao and Hmong community on refugee, human rights and veterans issues for more than 20 years.

February 11, 2011

Claiming snub, Hmong bury Vang Pao in LA


LOS ANGELES — Emotional and angry Hmong on Wednesday buried legendary general Vang Pao in California after failing to win a funeral with US military honors for the commander of the Vietnam War-era secret army.

Draping a US flag over his coffin, tearful mourners escorted Vang Pao’s body to Los Angeles for burial at a private cemetery after an elaborate six-day funeral in Fresno, the central California city home to a major Hmong community.

Vang Pao, who died of pneumonia at age 81 last month, led his hill people in Laos in a CIA-backed campaign against communist forces during the Vietnam War. Thousands of Hmong later fled to the United States speaking of persecution.

Hmong Americans appealed to bury Vang Pao as a hero in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington. The Pentagon said no, saying that the limited spaces at Arlington were reserved for US combat veterans.

Charlie Waters, a Korean war veteran who was a friend of Vang Pao, said he tried frantically until the last minute to seek President Barack Obama’s intervention but could not get a response from the White House.

“This is just so sickening,” Waters told AFP, saying that Vang Pao’s widow “is just going crazy and the veterans are furious.”

“They are asking, ‘Why doesn’t the United States love us? Why are we here?'” Waters said. “The family is lying on the floor, crying.”

“It’s breaking my heart,” Waters said.

The Hmong community was divided on whether Vang Pao could be disinterred if Washington gave the green light for a funeral at Arlington.

Waters said the Hmong advocates would keep pressing for a response from President Barack Obama, saying: “He’s at least got to give a letter of condolence to the family. It’s unacceptable to have nothing.”

But there were no signs of a change of heart. The Pentagon board that decided against Vang Pao’s burial at Arlington said that its decision was unanimous.

Four members of Congress wrote to Obama urging him to reconsider the burial decision, saying that an Arlington funeral would mark “a solid step in the journey of Hmong recognition.”

“Fighting shoulder to shoulder with American soldiers, many Hmong soldiers paid the ultimate sacrifice to our country. The United States owes them a debt of gratitude and their service should be appropriately honored,” they said.

The letter was signed by Representatives Jim Costa and Dennis Cardoza, both Democrats from California; Representative Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas, and Larry Kissell, a Democrat from North Carolina.

Vang Pao was buried at Forest Lawn, one of the most prominent private cemeteries in Los Angeles. Hmong leaders said the spot was selected at the last minute.

Situated near Hollywood studios, the cemetery is also the resting place of pop icon Michael Jackson along with screen legends Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable.

Vang Pao joined the military at a young age, receiving training from the French as he became the first Laotian general from the Hmong community, who then lived mostly by slash-and-burn agriculture in the hills.

US intelligence agents tapped Vang Pao when they sought a force in Laos to fight off North Vietnamese communists, who along with the United States had turned the neighboring country into an unwitting battleground.

Vang Pao became legendary for his organizational skills from his mountain post, guiding everything from US air strikes to medical supplies and managing a motley army of Hmong, lowland Lao and Thai mercenaries.

North Vietnam triumphed in 1975 by seizing Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, and communists afterward took over Laos. Vang Pao was sentenced to death in absentia and became the leader for some 250,000 Hmong who moved to the United States.

But Vang Pao remained a controversial figure. In 2007, he was arrested in California on charges of plotting to overthrow a foreign government after an undercover agent tried to sell him weapons at a Thai restaurant.

Prosecutors dropped their charges in 2009 and recently ended the case for all Hmong Americans over the case.

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