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    Southeast Asia
     Jun 13, 2008
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The wrong way to end a secret war
By Brian McCartan

VIENTIANE, Laos - The fire that broke out at the Hmong refugee center at Ban Huay Nam Khao in Thailand's northern Petchabun province on May 23 was a last-gasp attempt to attract global attention to the ongoing plight of Laos' ethnic Hmong group. Before the fire, the center's residents staged protests and a hunger strike after Hmong refugee leader Lee Xue was arrested by the Thai military.

Lee Xue was arrested for providing information to the media which suggested that the 67 Hmong repatriated from Thailand to Laos in April were forced against their will, a claim that Thai authorities have denied. Fearing his own forced repatriation, the Hmong leader chained himself to the main gate of the camp for a week


while tensions escalated and around 7,000 fellow refugees protested the Thai and Lao governments' repatriation plans.

A Laos-Thailand Committee on Border Security agreement signed jointly by senior military officials in May 2007 enabled the Thai military to send back Hmong asylum seekers on arrival in Thailand. In February 2008, Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama said that both governments had ordered their respective Defense ministries to arrange for the repatriation of all the estimated 8,000 Hmong encamped at Ban Hauy Nam Khao by the end of 2008.

No arrangements were made for international monitoring of the repatriation or resettlement process as part of the bilateral agreement. Meanwhile, the Hmong in Thailand are adamantly against against repatriation and continue to request resettlement in third countries, based on well-grounded fears of government persecution on their return to Laos. Rights groups claim that at least 370 Hmong refugees have been forcibly repatriated to Laos since December 2005. The most recent repatriation took place on May 30, when 59 Hmong refugees - who Thai authorities said all volunteered - were quietly sent back to Laos.

The United States, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands have all said they are willing to accept Hmong refugees with genuine reasons to fear persecution. But the cries of the Hmong are falling mainly on deaf ears due to the political sensitivity of the issue in a region more concerned with removing barriers to trade and economic integration than on upholding human and political rights.
The US, the Hmong's former patron and military ally, is stuck in the middle of the controversy and critics say Washington is now more concerned with counterbalancing China's growing regional influence than taking a stand for the marginalized ethnic minority group. Hmong fears of persecution stem from their involvement with the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the so-called "Secret War" in Laos in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The covert association began when Hmong Royal Lao Army officer Vang Pao was recruited by the CIA in 1961 to help prevent supplies moving down the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Laos, rescue downed American fliers, protect navigation sites strategic to the bombing of North Vietnam, as well as help prevent a communist takeover of Laos. Hmong forces under Vang Pao eventually grew to an estimated 39,000 fighters.

By the time the US pulled out of Indochina in 1975 and the communist Pathet Lao took control of the country, thousands of Hmong fighting on behalf of the US had been killed. Following the communist takeover, Vang Pao and other senior Hmong leaders were evacuated and eventually resettled in the US, France and other Western countries.

Yet many Hmong fighters were left behind and hundreds of thousands have in the intervening years fled to Thailand. In 2004, around 5,000 more - many of whom were still hiding from government forces in the jungle - fled to Thailand. Between June 2005 and May 2007, around 2,000 armed Hmong and their family members surrendered to the government. At least a thousand more are still on the move in remote areas, where some continue a desperate guerilla fight against Lao government forces.

The Lao government says that they have all been settled and allowed to merge into mainstream Lao society. But critics claim many of the returnees have disappeared, and those who haven't are treated as second-class citizens. The Lao government has not allowed third-party monitoring of the resettlement of recently surrendered Hmong, making it difficult to verify or disprove either side's claims. While the many Hmong who fought on the communist side during the war were able to return home and resume their lives, those who fought for the CIA still face political persecution.

They were, until recently, all but ignored by the US, which did not officially acknowledge the "Secret War" in Laos until 1997 when a monument at Arlington National Cemetery was dedicated to honor the Hmong and other veterans of the conflict. Human rights and Hmong advocacy groups say thousands have since died from army ambushes, disease and starvation.

Turncoat arrest
The Hmong's plight returned to the media spotlight on June 4, 2007, when Vang Pao, eight of his associates and retired US Army officer Harrison Jack were arrested for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the Lao government, a violation of the US's Federal Neutrality Act. The group has been charged with inspecting weapons, including Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, with the intent to purchase and smuggle them to Thailand and eventually to anti-government forces in Laos, and was indicted last June by a US grand jury. If convicted, they could all face life sentences.

Vang Pao was released on a $1.5 million bond on July 12 and is still out on bail. Hmong settled in the US, concentrated in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin, strongly protested his arrest, which was also criticized by political supporters of the Hmong, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and certain high-ranking members of Congress.

US Magistrate judge Dale Drozd said on April 23, 2008, that arguments would be heard in November for motions seeking information from US intelligence agencies on the alleged coup-plotters, including whether the US government intercepted satellite phone communications between US- and Laos-based Hmong.

Of interest to the defense will be how much the US intelligence community knew about the plot and, more broadly, about an insurgency that has been ongoing for the past 30 years and allegedly led by a former CIA-linked general based in the US. Vang Pao's arrest is seen by critics of the US's current engagement policy as an attempt to appease Laos' communist regime, which in recent years has cultivated strong commercial ties with China.

Vang Pao's defenders have even questioned the legality of the sting operation and believe that his arrest may have been politically motivated. They contend that the prosecution's presentation comparing the alleged Vang Pao-led conspiracy "to murder thousands and thousands of people" in Laos to the September 11, 2001, terror attacks against the US was outrageously misleading.

US government officials who spoke with Asia Times Online deny the US has gone soft on the Lao government. According to one US State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity, US policy towards Laos is the same as before Vang Pao's arrest. The official pointed to the testimony of current US ambassador Ravic Huso in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in May 2007 that US policy also includes working to protect the rights of Hmong, both in Laos and as refugees in Thailand.

Huso said in his testimony, "I will make it a priority, if confirmed, to work with the Lao and Thai authorities and appropriate international agencies to find durable solutions to the plight of the displaced Hmong. I will also work steadfastly to encourage the Lao government to respect the rights of its minority ethnic groups and provide those who may return as well as those who have stayed with the protection and assistance they need to integrate fully into Lao society."

US policy in Laos currently centers on the recovery of soldiers missing in action (MIA) dating to the Vietnam War, counter-narcotics cooperation, economic development programs and the steady improvement of diplomatic and military relations meant to hedge China's strategic march in the region.

In July 2006, US Admiral William Fallon offered US military assistance to help build schools, clinics and roads during a meeting with Lao Defense Minister Major General Duangchay Phichit. Fallon, according to news reports at the time, told the minister that the lack of interaction between the US and Lao militaries over the past 30 years was "not good". The assistance offer was declined by Duangchay, who said that while Laos would welcome US funds, it did not want US troops on Lao soil.

With such apparently more important policy priorities, critics say very little has actually been done under ambassador Ruso's watch to address the plight of the Hmong in Laos. Philip Smith, the executive director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis, a Washington-based think-tank that advocates for Hmong refugees in Thailand and Laos, said, "The [George W] Bush administration has sought to appease and strengthen the Lao regime and has betrayed America's former allies, the Hmong." He also alleged that the current and past two ambassadors have "focused on appeasing the Lao regime and seeking to grant normalized trade relations".

Tentative engagement
Others paint a more nuanced portrait of US policy towards Laos. For instance, a January 2008 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report says that the US government has been active in encouraging the Lao government to accept international monitoring and humanitarian assistance for resettled refugees. Smith refutes that assessment, claiming that the US Embassy in Laos has made no efforts to press the Lao government for access to Hmong who have recently surrendered to ensure their safety.

The US re-established full diplomatic relations with Laos in 1992, opening the way for the resumption of bilateral trade. In December 2004, the US granted Normal Trade Relations (NTR) status to Laos and a bilateral trade agreement entered into force thereafter in February 2005. Actual bilateral trade volumes, however, are still low at a mere US$25.4 million in 2007, though that figure is up substantially from the $15.7 million recorded in 2006.

The CRS report also noted that total US assistance to Laos was only $4.8 million in 2007, most of which was earmarked for de-mining, unexploded ordnance clearance and counter-narcotics activities. A very limited amount of funds went to health, education, economic development and governance. Those aid figures, the report noted, pale in comparison to the $55 million granted in 2007 to neighboring Cambodia, which has dropped its communist rhetoric and embraced market economics.

United States aid to Laos is also considerably lower than the amounts on offer from China. The CRS report noted that since the late 1990s China has "provided grants of nearly $300 million, loans worth $350 million, pledges of trade, and investments worth $876 million, as well as technical assistance and high-profile public works projects".

Washington's decision in 2004 to grant NTR status to Laos was seen as a betrayal by many in the Hmong community. Earlier that same year, on May 6, Congress passed House Resolution 402, which acted to urge the Lao regime to cease military attacks on

Continued 1 2  

Fear of foreigners in Laos (Feb 2, '08)

Laggard Laos turns the economic corner (Jan 10, '08)

China rubber demand stretches Laos
(Dec 19, '07)

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