So thousands of mourners — including the exiled prince of Laos
, widows of Hmong soldiers who died in a “secret” war and families who battled an East Coast blizzard to make it in time — lined the streets Friday for a procession marking the start of an elaborate six-day funeral for Gen. Vang Pao, leader of the Hmong people and a key ally of the United States during the Vietnam War
Women in traditional Hmong clothing stood shoulder to shoulder for three blocks, forming a wall of black that was accented with bright pink, green, blue and orange — their different sashes and exotic headpieces symbolizing different provinces in Laos.
Men wore suits with crisp, white shirts —- the color of peace. Inside the convention center were hundreds of wreaths of white carnations, burning white candles, and white bunting.
“I look at all this — the different colors and costumes and ages and all the people and I think ‘It is all Hmong.’ Gen. Vang Pao made us one people,” said Victor Xiong, 15, of Fresno.
Vang Pao was the first in 500 years to unite about 18 different Hmong clans. He led the Hmong, a remote, rural ethnic minority who lived in the mountains of Laos, into war, siding with the Americans against the communists in a secret front of the Vietnam War. When the United States lost the war, the Hmong were left hunted and on the run.
Many of those who survived and escaped came to the United States as refugees, and about 30,000 live in California’s Central Valley. Vang Pao was a father figure to the community as it grappled with moving from an ancient, agrarian lifestyle, without a written language, to modern American life.
Such great sweeps of history played out in personal conversations at Vang Pao’s funeral.
Retired Air Force Brigadier Gen. Art Cornelius, once one of the pilots who flew secret missions into Laos during the Vietnam era, talked with Peter C. Vang.
“He has five children. They all went to college,” Cornelius said. “He was gravely wounded in Laos. I was afraid he wasn’t going to make it. He is very important to me.”
Cornelius laughed when asked what made him so close to Vang, now a Portland, Ore., city worker.
“Fly 100 missions with a guy with gunshots everywhere. You get to like him,” Cornelius said.
Hundreds of members of the Special Guerrilla Unit, the CIA-backed Hmong army, wearing camouflage uniforms, were seated at the front section and followed the casket in the procession outside the Fresno Convention and Entertainment Center. The widows of Hmong soldiers stood together along the route.
“The general led us into war and into this American world. We worry that the American people will not love us without the general here with us,” said Neng Vue, 65, whose husband, Chong Nyia Vang, was a soldier killed during the war. “He was our leader and our father.”
While the funeral was in progress, it was announced that a request to bury Vang Pao in Arlington National Cemetery had been denied because Vang Pao and the soldiers who fought under him to help the U.S. did not directly serve in the American military.
For the Hmong, the days since Vang Pao died Dec. 6 in Clovis, Calif., at the age of 81 have been a mix of ancient traditions and the modern world.
A cameraman filming for an Internet broadcast of the funeral wore a red arm band to ward off evil spirits. Elderly Hmong women arranged a spokeswoman’s sash so it would be full in back, like a “proper Hmong woman,” while her sister told her she needed more lip gloss.
In much of Fresno County there’s nary a cow, chicken, duck or pig left unsold. Animal sacrifices, and big barbecues feeding friends and family during funerals, are part of the Hmong’s tradition. But there will be no animal sacrifice during the funeral because it’s at the convention center.
There will be songs and poetry, and Hmong flute and funeral drums, which are believed to communicate with the spirit world.
A key part of a Hmong funeral is qhuab ke, or “showing the way.” A guide takes the spirit of the deceased back through each place and time it has lived, giving thanks and honor to each, before sending it on its own into the future.
As the body of Vang Pao arrived, the conversations between friends, some of whom had not seen one another in 30 years, quieted. Old Hmong soldiers in uniform, young Hmong beauty queens in tiaras, families holding hands, all filled the street and followed the horse-drawn carriage carrying Vang Pao’s casket.
They had come to give thanks and honor before going forward alone.
Marcum is a special correspondentCopyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times
Decision announced at start of six-day funeral service
By GARANCE BURKE
Hmong war veterans and community members form an honor guard beside the casket containing Hmong Gen. Vang Pao in Fresno, Calif., on Friday.
FRESNO, Calif. — Thousands of sobbing mourners in military uniform and traditional Hmong dress paid their final respects Friday to the late Gen. Vang Pao, a U.S. ally in the Vietnam War whose proposed burial at Arlington National Cemetery was denied by the Army.
A stately procession marked the opening of an elaborate, six-day funeral service in Fresno, a city with a large Hmong population.
Vang Pao’s extended family — including his 25 surviving children — a member of the Royal Lao family in exile, and the former CIA officials who recruited him to lead a covert guerrilla army during the Vietnam War followed his flag-draped casket through packed city streets.
Once the casket was lowered, a rifle team fired volleys into the air, a color guard presented Laotian, American and California flags, and bagpipes sounded as a flight team flew over the mourners who clutched cameras, tissues and sticks of incense.
The grandeur of the ceremony, however, was dampened by news that the Army had denied the Arlington burial request.
California Democratic Reps. Jim Costa and Dennis Cardoza had submitted the request on behalf of Vang Pao’s family shortly after his Jan. 6 death, saying the general had earned the honor of being buried alongside American soldiers.
A board comprised of senior military and civilian officials reviewed the request and unanimously recommended that officials decline the burial waiver, Army spokesman Gary Tallman said.
Army Secretary John McHugh carefully reviewed the matter and accepted the board recommendation, said Tallman, who declined to discuss the reason for the decision.
“Obviously to everyone who is here today to honor Gen. Vang Pao, this is very disappointing,” said Costa, adding that he planned to seek a review of the decision-making process with McHugh. “He is not just a hero to the Hmong people. He is a hero to those American men and women who served with him in Vietnam.”
Family members could not immediately be reached for comment on the Army decision.
It was not immediately clear where the remains would go following the funeral, given the Army decision. Family members had discussed a possible burial in a Santa Ana cemetery near one of the general’s homes.
Vang Pao, who commanded CIA-funded guerrillas in the jungles of Laos, is revered as a leader and father figure by the Hmong and Lao people he helped to resettle across the globe after Saigon fell. He died at age 81 near Fresno after battling pneumonia.
“There will not be anyone like Father anymore because he was truly a godsend,” said Chai Vang, one of the general’s 32 children. “All we can do is unite the community and form partnerships around the world to carry out the work he began.”
Fresno, a city of about half a million people in the state’s agricultural heartland, has pulled out all the stops for the ceremony. Businesses are gearing up to supply travelers with food and help them take part in the historic gathering of the clans.
Hmong spiritual guides and funeral specialists burned incense, chanted songs, and played bamboo wind instruments to lead Vang Pao’s soul back to his childhood home in Longhay, Laos, where his spirit can don the placental jacket to be worn on its journey toward reincarnation.
On Saturday morning, his family will present chicken, rice, drinks and paper money for the general’s voyage into the afterlife. His relatives will then cook and serve food to funeral guests, making hot meals of the animals sacrificed in his honor in tents outside the convention center, where the ceremonies were being held.
Thong Chai, who manages a Hmong grocery store on Fresno’s gritty east side, said his family has donated a pig to the general’s family.
“The general is like a hero for us, and we’ve got to help his family because it’s hard to provide all this food for everyone who’s coming,” he said, looking over the pallets of coconut juice and white gourd beverage he was preparing.
Vang Pao’s death left many issues unresolved for those who fought alongside him in the Vietnam War then came to America because of his advocacy.
Shoua Vang was among those who traveled across the country to take in the Hmong and English-language speeches and ceremonies.
“We would not be here in this country without him,” said Shoua Vang, 52, of Rockford, Ill.. “He is the Hmong leader and the Hmong father. I don’t know who will lead our people in the future.”
Once Saigon fell, thousands of his soldiers languished in refugee camps in Thailand until they were granted refugee status in the U.S., including about 30,000 Laotians, Cambodians and Hmong who moved to Fresno.
In 2007, Vang Pao and 11 others were accused of plotting to violently overthrow the communist government of Laos, sparking a 3½ year legal battle. Vang Pao was dropped from the case in 2009, and federal prosecutors said suddenly last month they were dismissing all remaining charges in the interests of justice, only days after the general’s passing.
“When we were over there, our blood ran with theirs, and we became friends,” said Dean Murphy, a brigadier general with the Joint Service Honors Command, a volunteer group of military retirees and former service members that presided over the military funeral rites. “When the Hmong came here, our tears flowed with theirs and today, we mourn our friend together.”
Earlier this week, a phalanx of the general’s former recruits lined up in their fatigues to lay a wreath of yellow daisies before Vang Pao’s portrait, which lay against a solemn monument to Laotian veterans on the lawn of the county courthouse.
Most were well into their 60s, but the aging secret army still snapped to attention as their former commanders cried out in Hmong for them to salute in unison.
“We fought in the American war, and if we didn’t join that war there might be thousands more Americans dead,” said Col. Wangyee Vang, president of the nonprofit Lao Veterans of America.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
By Mark Ralston (AFP) – 2 hours ago
The casket containing Hmong war hero and community leader General Vang Pao
FRESNO, California — Thousands of ethnic Hmong paid their last respects Friday to Laotian general Vang Pao, who led a CIA-backed “secret army” in the Vietnam war, at the start of a six-day funeral service.
But the gathering was clouded with anger when it was announced that US authorities have refused a request for the 81-year-old Hmong veteran to be buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
Military veterans who fought alongside him joined family and community mourners at the traditional funeral service in Fresno, California, where he died last month.
Shortly after the initial two-hour funeral ceremony, however, a confidant of Vang Pao said US authorities had told him they were refusing a burial at Arlington, where top US military brass are laid to rest.
Hmong war veterans form an honor guard
“They called a little while ago… and they told me the committee turned the general down,” said Charlie Waters, an American military veteran and confidant of Vang Pao told AFP, adding: “So we’re appealing to the White House.”
“They gave me this lame excuse that it would take it the place away from an American serviceman. That’s crap,” he said adding that he would offer to surrender his own place at Arlington.
Vang Pao led the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-backed force that assisted the United States in Vietnam, during its ill-fated war with communist forces in the north of southeast Asian nation.
He died of pneumonia on January 6 in the central California city of Fresno, one of the major hubs of the United States’ 250,000-strong Hmong community, some 30-40,000 of whom live in the western US state.
Draped in the Stars and Stripes flag, Vang Pao’s coffin was borne into Fresno’s convention center where tens of thousands of Hmong from the United States and abroad were expected to gather over the weekend.
Members of the Hmong community
Rows of black-clad mourners joined ranks of soldiers in uniforms and khakis, as well as bagpipers in kilts who had accompanied the casket into the hall, to the strains of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony.
“Today our Laotian nation has lost… one of its outstanding sons,” said Khamphay Abbay, a former Royal Lao official and Laotian currently living in Australia, who was an advisor to Vang Pao during the war.
California US congressman Jim Costa has led a group of lawmakers in Washington lobbying for Vang Pao to be buried at Arlington, outside Washington DC.
William Dietzel, another US friend of the Hmong general, also paid tribute to Vang Pao’s support for the United States in one of its darkest hours.
“General Vang Pao will forever be remembered for his extraordinary service in the defense of freedom,” he told the ceremony.
Waters, who spoke during the two-hour ceremony, lashed the Arlington decision.
“How many times can these bureaucrats hurt these people?” he said, adding: “The timing sucks .. How dare they? These people are hurting. These jerks, they could have told us a long time ago.”
There was no immediate word from the Pentagon in Washington.
The central California city of Fresno is one of the major hubs of the United States’ 250,000-strong Hmong community, some 30-40,000 of whom live in the western US state.
Vang Pao, a fierce opponent of the communist government in Vientiane, was also 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. On Monday, a judge ended the case for the remaining 11 Hmong Americans accused in the case amid persistent questions over the government’s evidence.
Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved. More »