On Tuesday, December 22, at an event celebrating his 80th birthday, Hmong leader and former general Vang Pao announced he was returning to Laos. Claiming support from high-ranking officials in Thailand and Laos, he insisted, "We have to make a change right now . . . We should put something on the table and sit down in peace." Vang's stunning proclamation made little sense. He was tried in absentia and sentenced to death in Laos, and his efforts to sustain an insurgency movement and create a provisional Lao government within Thailand cost him politically there. Then there were the recently-dismissed federal charges accusing him of a plot to overthrow the Lao government. After an official announcement that Laos had no intention of meeting with him unless he first served his death sentence, Vang Pao "postponed" his trip because the Lao government was "not ready." (How's that for understatement?) An American veteran of the "Secret War" now living in Thailand worried less about Vang Pao's peculiar claims and more about their potential to accelerate the long-threatened forcible repatriation back to Laos of thousands of Hmong.
At 6:40 pm on Monday, December 28, that same American expat watched as eleven large, caged vans packed with Hmong made their way across the Friendship Bridge to Laos. Twenty minutes later three more vans and four buses carried more unwilling passengers. Not only were about 4,000 expelled from Huai Nam Khao camp in Phetchabun province, but also 158 from Nong Khai who were already screened and guaranteed resettlement by the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees. At least 500 from Huai Nam Khao, said the expat, had also been "screened in" (classified as people deserving resettlement to a third country) by the Thai military. Who knows how many more would have been deemed worthy of resettlement by a neutral agency?
To be sure, there is no evidence that Vang Pao's quixotic plan actually triggered this tragedy. And yes, at least a few in Huai Nam Khao were, as the Thai called them, "economic migrants." Some were Thai Hmong trying to "blend in;" others left their homes and possessions in Laos, persuaded by human traffickers that this was their ticket to a Western country.
But there were plenty who had every reason to fear for their safety if forced back to Laos. Many had been living in the Buddhist temple of Tham Krabok, given refuge by its powerful abbot, Phra Chamroon Parnchand. After his death in 1999, the Thai military surrounded the settlement with razor wire. Most, both before and after arriving at Tham Krabok, had several opportunities to resettle to third countries, but were so often told "this is the last time" they would be allowed to apply that they were shocked to learn that registrations in 2003 were indeed their final chance. For years most had been encouraged by Vang Pao's, Pa Kao Her's, or other Hmong resistance groups to stay in Thailand and wait for an opportunity to return to Laos and take it back by force.
Still others from Huai Nam Khao had been living in the forests of Laos for many years. Some continued to fight, but most were simply eking out a living in hiding, too afraid of the retribution they were sure the Lao would mete out if they surrendered.
When I visited Huai Nam Khao in November 2007, the Thai colonel in charge brought me three men to interview. All said they had come from Laos and feared being handed back to Lao authorities. The Thai colonel kept haranguing them. "Things are different now. Why don't you go back?" The youngest of the three finally retorted, "If you are going to send me back to Laos, just kill me now." At the time I wondered about the sincerity of his statement. But less than a month later I was back home, going through pictures taken in 2003 of Hmong people still hiding in Laos. There, in one of those images, were two of the men I met at Huai Nam Khao.
The relationship between the Thai government and the Hmong in Laos goes back to 1961, when a CIA officer named Bill Lair, living in Thailand for the previous ten years, had developed a Thai commando team called the Police Aerial Reinforcement Unit, or PARU. It was the PARU who were sent into Laos to train Hmong anti-communist guerrillas under the command of then-lieutenant colonel Vang Pao. Between 1970 and 1974, as many as 20,000 Thai troops were sent to Laos to fight against communist forces. Even after the war's official conclusion, members of the Thai military helped support Hmong insurgents fighting in Laos. Thailand certainly suffered a tremendous influx of refugees from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma in the post-Vietnam period, contending with hundreds of thousands of people staying in the country for an indeterminate length of time. It also received massive aid from several countries and from the United Nations to take care of them and to secure its own borders.
But times have changed, political winds have shifted, and now almost 50 years later, the Thai and American governments who saw the Hmong as crucial to their plans have both abandoned them. The Thai now suffer strained relations with Burma and Cambodia, and cannot jeopardize their ties to Laos -- or their share of Lao hydroelectric power and the contracts to build and finance the dams that produce it. The United States did nothing to curb Vang Pao's fund-raising practices and insurgency activities, and in fact, during the Reagan and Bush, Sr. years, may have played a role in encouraging the latter. While engaging in negotiations and rapprochement with Vietnam, it has done little to improve its relations with Laos or defend the interests of the Hmong and other former allies still living there. Its diplomatic efforts to prevent the recent repatriations were feeble at best.
The Hmong governor who got me into Huai Nam Khao said it was easy to distinguish the true refugees from the "economic migrants." But no one in Thailand seemed interested in trying, or allowing the UNHCR or anyone else to. Thai General Worapong Sanganetra's shameless lie that all Hmong left Huai Nam Khao voluntarily only further erodes what little credibility his country may have retained.
The only hope for a tolerable resolution to this tragedy is that the Lao PDR will allow immediate and ongoing access by the UNHCR, other humanitarian agencies, and the US and other embassies, to all Hmong forced back into their country, as well as any remaining Hmong still hiding in the jungles. But Laos has already said it is "too soon" for UN inspectors. Word is already reaching humanitarian advocates that former resistance leaders have been imprisoned and tortured. Unless Laos invites observers in to confirm or refute these claims, most Hmong will believe they are true, and that the US and Thailand have once again abandoned their former allies, with devastating results.