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Last Updated: Monday, 11 June 2007, 15:56 GMT 16:56 UK
Laos' controversial exile
By Penny Spiller
BBC News website

When Vang Pao was arrested last week on charges of plotting a coup in Laos, it sent shockwaves through the Hmong community in the US.

This file 11 May 2000 file photo shows former Hmong general Vang Pao with Lao veterans
Vang Pao in recent years advocated peace with Vientiane

General Pao is a revered figure for many of Laos' ethnic Hmong who fought with him in the CIA-backed army during the 1960s and fled with him to the US after Laos fell to the communists.

The 77-year-old has for some been the Hmong leader-in-exile for the last 30 years, helping the refugees build large, successful communities in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California among others.

Such is his standing that there has been talk of naming schools and parks after him.

But his reputation took a severe blow last week when he and eight other respected members of the Hmong community were charged by the US government with plotting to overthrow the Laos government.

They were accused of conspiring to spend millions of dollars on weapons to carry out attacks that prosecutors said would have killed "thousands of people".

"It's taken us by surprise, we are shocked by the news," said Keo Chang of the Hmong-American Partnership in Wisconsin.

"It's hard to imagine that he is involved in any of this."

Touger Vang, a university counsellor who works with Hmong students in North Carolina and whose father once worked with Vang Pao, agrees.

"I think many people don't believe these allegations make any sense, and are hoping they turn out not to be true," he told the BBC News website.

This is a man who spent all his life fighting communism and for democracy, and now [he] could be punished for it
Touger Vang
Hmong community worker

In the early years of their exile, in the 1980s, maybe there was talk of returning to Laos and overthrowing the government, Touger Vang said, - but not now.

"A lot of people who respect him don't believe in going back to Laos and fighting," he said.

"Vang Pao himself has talked about re-establishing ties with the Laos government and normalising trade."

Persecuted Hmong

Vang Pao made his name after leading a CIA-trained guerrilla army against the communists when the Vietnam War spread into neighbouring Laos during the 1960s.

When Laos fell to the communists, he and as much as a third of the country's ethnic Hmong population fled to neighbouring Thailand amid fears of retribution for siding with the Americans.

HMONG IN LAOS
Ethnic group that often complains of marginalisation in Lao society
Took the side of the US in the Vietnam War - and say they are persecuted because of it
Many still live in jungles
Small numbers say they are fighting a rebel insurgency
Thousands have fled to Thailand in recent years
US took in 14,000 Hmong recently, but has no plans for taking more

While many Hmong settled in Thailand, or moved on to the US and elsewhere, thousands stayed behind in Laos.

Many retreated into the forests from where they were rumoured to be carrying out a low-level war against the Vientiane government.

Hmong activists and human rights activists say those in the jungle have long-since ceased to pose a threat, yet the government continues to wage a campaign of vengeance against them.

The few journalists who have managed to track down some of them say they have been isolated by government troops and are malnourished, wounded and in need of shelter.

Analysts have speculated that this - and the fact that Thailand recently agreed to forcibly return any new Hmong refugees to Laos - could have been a strong motivating factor behind any alleged coup plot.

Allegations

While Vang Pao is credited with doing much to help the Hmong refugees and keep the plight of those back home in the public eye, he is not popular in all quarters and some of claims against him in recent years have raised eyebrows.

One organisation he has been linked to, Neo Hom, was reported to have been set up in the 1980s with a view to funding a possible coup against the Laos government - a not unpopular idea among the newly-arrived Hmong in the US.

Chong-Cha Lee, a Hmong rebel in Laos
Many Hmong are still hiding out in the Lao jungles

It came under investigation by the authorities in California in the 1990s amid rumours it had raised millions of dollars.

Some refugees alleged they were being strong-armed into handing over donations with the promise of receiving social service benefits or key jobs in a free Laos.

Vang Pao's son-in-law Kao Thao later pleaded guilty to embezzlement, but no charges were brought against the general, who had denied any involvement.

Speaking on Vang Pao's behalf in 2005, his son Cha Vang told a Minnesota newspaper that nobody gives money "unless they have some personal interest".

"Nobody is coerced. My father's not going around demanding money," he said.

Many in the Hmong community also leapt to Vang Pao's defence when, in 2002, old allegations that he trafficked drugs during the war resurfaced.

Vang Pao refuted as "completely untrue" the claims by respected US historian Alfred McCoy that he had traded in opium to help fund his army in the 1960s.

In recent years, there have also been reports of in-fighting as other community leaders sought to move on from the old talk of toppling the Laos government.

Vang Pao surprised many when he released a "peace doctrine" in 2003 in which he proposed seeking peace and normalising trade with the Laos government.

He called for the past to "stay in the history books... to let a new era of peace, prosperity and reconciliation return" to Laos.

Many of the 250,000 Hmong living in the US - particularly the older generation who fought alongside him - are angry, not with Vang Pao, but with Washington for last week's arrests, Touger Vang believes.

"This is a man who spent all his life fighting communism and for democracy, and now this democratic country, the US, could punish him for it."


SEE ALSO
Laos 'coup plot' uncovered in US
05 Jun 07 |  Americas
Hmong group surrenders in Laos
13 Dec 06 |  Asia-Pacific
Forgotten Hmong find new home
14 Sep 04 |  Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Hmong resettlement
14 Sep 04 |  In Pictures
Hmong refugees reach US
22 Jun 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Laos' forgotten Hmong
02 Jul 03 |  Asia-Pacific



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