Why did the Hmong flee China?

The Hmong - still haunted by the Vietnam War

More than 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War, the Laotian government seems to continue to persecute the Hmong ethnic minority, as exile organizations and human rights activists complained to the UN working group on indigenous peoples in Geneva. The Hmong pay for serving in the secret CIA army.

O. I. "First she was raped, then they cut off her hands and ears and finally dismembered her completely," says Maichor Yang, describing the brutal end of her sister-in-law in Laos. In the documentary “Hunted like animals”, a blind young man reports how he lost his eyesight while using chemical weapons. When pictures of a boy flicker across the screen in the UN building in Geneva, whose entrails are hanging out and who is dying to hear his mother's accusations about why, for heaven's sake, he only left his cave hiding place when it was surrounded by Laotian soldiers some viewers no longer see the scenes.

Resentful Pathet Lao

Rebecca Sommer, the New York representative of the Society for Threatened Peoples (STP), brought the rough cut of her documentary to the meeting of the UN working group on indigenous peoples in Geneva at the beginning of August. Her charges against the Laotian government and its Vietnamese supporters were based on questioning 800 Hmong refugees in Thailand and on film footage smuggled out of Laos. Independent investigations in Laos itself have so far not been possible because the closed Saisombun special zone, where many of the Hmong still in the country live, has remained strictly isolated from the outside until recently.

The Hmong are one of the dozen of hill tribes in Laos who together make up around 40 percent of the Indochinese country's population. Traditionally they had the reputation of a warlike people who used their services once for and once against the rulers in Vientiane or Luang Prabang. In 1921, the French colonial rulers had several Hmong rebel leaders demonstratively beheaded in front of their infantry. From 1961, at the beginning of the Vietnam War, the majority of the Hmong sided with the United States. The Americans had not been able to speak openly in Laos; they therefore recruited a secret army among the Hmong, which was initially used primarily against the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and later also in the civil war against the communist Pathet Lao. When the communist Pathet Lao took over government in 1975, hundreds of thousands of Hmong fled to Thailand, led by their American pay-goers, General Vang Pao. The United States then offered the majority of their escaped mercenaries and their families to move to America. Today around half a million Hmong live in the USA, concentrated in St. Paul, Minnesota, Appleton, Wisconsin and California. Vang Pao still has great respect, the 18 Hmong clans in the USA are united in a council. However, many Hmong of the second generation of immigrants do not feel integrated. Tensions between immigrants and mainstream society were highlighted in November 2004 when a Hmong hunter shot and killed six white hunters in Wisconsin.

Re-education or escape

In Laos, part of the Hmong had worked with the Pathet Lao during the civil war. And some Hmong who had no family members in the CIA secret army stayed in Laos after the communists' victory. But about 20,000 Hmong with ties to the Americans failed to escape in 1975. Some were sent to re-education camps, where they suffered miserably for years if they were not killed. Some Hmong preferred to retreat to the jungle, where they still try to survive far from civilization.

According to estimates by the American diaspora, there are around 15,000 to 20,000 Hmong who live hidden in the Laotian mountains. Vang Vaughn, a representative of the Lao Human Rights Council, which is close to Vang Pao, describes in Geneva the living conditions of his fellow tribesmen who stayed behind in Laos and who live in hiding in such a way that they constantly move around in fear and fleeing attacks. The Laotian soldiers would be supported by Vietnamese regiments, who together used the Saisombun special zone as a training area for unpunished excesses of violence. The Hmong had to refrain from starting the fire because of the aerial reconnaissance, whereby the diet was completely one-sided and starvation and malnutrition were constant companions of the persecuted. They no longer had any weapons worth mentioning, the few old rifles were used for immediate defense. Vang Vaughn used not only secretly filmed video recordings of atrocities as evidence, but also transcripts of calls over the satellite telephones smuggled to the Hmong, according to which, for example, on April 6, 2006, 26 women and children were killed in a massacre near the city of Vang Vieng. In addition, individual groups of Hmong arrive in Thailand who could no longer endure life in the jungle while constantly fleeing.

Resistance with weapons or pacifism?

Gone are the days when General Vang Pao and his United Lao National Liberation Front put up armed resistance against the communist regime after the victory of Pathet Lao, says Vang Vaughn. Today Vang Pao and the Council of 18 Clans are against the active use of force and against a Hmong state; Not even the regime of Pathet Lao is being fought, they are only demanding the end of the persecution, the removal of the Vietnamese troops, a security guarantee and unhindered access to the special zone.

Not all Hmong see a pacifist stance as a chance for the continued existence of the Hmong in Laos. The Washington-based World Hmong Congress (WHC) is fighting for a Hmong Chao Fa Federated State, as Hubert Mae Yang explains in Geneva. The name of the hoped-for territory, Chao Fa, indicates a quasi-messianic movement among the Hmong who dreams of a savior who will grant them this wish. Chao Fa means "Lord of Heaven" and is used pejoratively by the Laotian authorities when they speak of bandits who occasionally carried out attacks on the road from Vientiane to Luang Prabang or who threw explosives into restaurants in the capital.

Divisive tendencies in exile

Representatives of the WHC are vehemently speaking out against the old guard around Vang Pao; In Geneva they tried in vain to prevent the Lao Human Rights Council from appearing before the UN, accompanied by the STP representative Sommer. The generation around Vang Pao seems to have come to the realization that armed resistance only provides the Pathet Lao with the pretext not to give up the persecution of the hidden Hmong. Both the WHC and the Lao Human Rights Council complain that their goals are not supported by the American government; they no longer want to be reminded of the unpleasant chapter of the Vietnam War.

The Vientiane regime usually rejects the allegations made by the Hmong diaspora. It is argued that there are MPs and senior officials with Hmong origins. The special zone of Saisombun does not serve the persecution, but on the contrary a model development of backward ethnic groups. In view of the isolation of Saisombun, this argument is not convincing, it sounds cynical. It remains to be seen to what extent the abolition of the exclusion zone announced in April 2006 will really lead to normalization.

Relocation program

A large-scale resettlement program is also under way in Laos, in which hill tribes are being relocated to government-controlled villages in the valleys. A number of foreign governments and private development organizations support these projects. According to the country manager of a private Swiss development organization, the Laotian government unknowingly used it for agricultural advice in villages that were forcibly resettled by the Hmong and other ethnic minorities. The skepticism towards the resettlement has grown strongly.

An extensive field study by experts Ian G. Baird and Bruce Shoemaker concluded that “tens of thousands of debilitated indigenous minorities have suffered or died over the past decade as a result of poorly designed resettlement programs. Many of those affected must expect to live in poverty for a long time. "

Controversial development aid

The fact that foreign donors are sensitized to the problem of resettlement can also be seen in the commitment of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), which has been running a cooperation office in Vientiane since June. The main focus of their activities is in Xieng Khouang Province, where many Hmong live. According to a program manager of the SDC, it is becoming apparent in Laos as in all of Indochina that, despite the evident economic progress, the ethnic minorities are still on the verge of development. From an official point of view, the resettlements were carried out as a result of the rejection of slash and burn techniques, also to control hunting and fishing and to limit opium production. Development organizations like the SDC tried to help the mountain peoples to stay in the mountains by conveying adapted techniques. The traditional slash and burn could be developed further to an adapted alternating field cultivation (rotational farming) with suitable measures.

Not welcome in Thailand

Those Hmong who recently escaped to Thailand are considered to be illegally present there. The USA is no longer ready to take over the up to 15,000 Laotian refugees from Thailand. The Society for Threatened Peoples and Hmong organizations in the USA are protesting against deportation actions by the Thai authorities, which have made life difficult for Laotian refugees inside and outside the camps since the normalization of relations with Laos in the early 1990s. Hmong transferred to Laos must expect an ungracious reception. There are documented murders and disappearances. There are also Hmong people who live in Vietnam, Cambodia and southern China, whose fate is also hardly known outside.