Dedicate My Life to The Hmong
The year 1941 was a year of heavy frost, resulting in meager harvest in Xiengkhoung Province, Laos. A White Hmong boy had taken his precious black gelding on a day’s journey from his village to the tojxeem to pay a debt that his family owed. There, at the tojxeem’s house, he saw many other Hmong that had also come to pay their taxes. The boy saw “an elderly Green Hmong couple who couldn’t pay their tax…they didn’t have enough, they also brought a pig.” The tojxeem told them it still wasn’t enough; they had to go home and bring more.
The boy’s eyes filled with tears. He thought to himself: I also have the fortune to be born a Hmong; I am already thirteen years old. I will take time to think hard to see what I can do for the Hmong, so that the Hmong can escape this burden.
“That was what made me instantly decide to dedicate my life to the Hmong,” says General Vang Pao.
Looking for Ways to Advance the Hmong
Returning from the tojxeem, the young Vang Pao began to see Hmong fracturing and suffering with new eyes. “The Hmong had always been refugees, fleeing their homelands. They broke into small groups,” says Gen. Vang Pao. “And one group settled on this mountain, another in that valley. They faced many hardships. They didn’t even have salt to eat.”
The young Vang Pao set out to make changes. “Returning from that experience, I set out to gain an education. I also accepted the responsibility of helping the Hmong. Whatever ways we would gain knowledge and wisdom; whatever ways we would gain self-sufficiency, shelter, wealth, position, good reputation; I sought those ways for the Hmong to follow.”
After three years of school, he started as a translator and messenger for the French, to “help fellow Hmong citizens.” A few years later, he earned a position in the Lao Gendarmerie, a paramilitary force commanded by French officers. “I earned first place in corporal course; and first place in sergeant course. After that, I worked for three-four years,” he recalls. He proved himself to be an exceptional soldier and leader, rising to the rank of sergeant-major.
“After that I went to Officer Candidate School (OCS).” He successfully graduated from OCS to become the first Hmong officer in the Royal Lao Army (RLA). His success opened up an avenue for other Hmong to advance in the military–an important social improvement for the Hmong.
Hmong Achievements in Laos
Gen. Vang Pao says that one of the first Hmong achievements in Laos was being “able to protect the country.” In 1962, Colonel Vang Pao was promoted to General and given responsibility over Military Region II (MR II) whose numbers were close to 140,000 soldiers. Most of these soldiers were home militias, but he had an elite core of 12,000 Special Guerrilla Unit (SGU) soldiers and 4,000 RLA soldiers. With the formation of the Hmong SGU army, many Hmong officers advanced into command and leadership positions of the regiments and battalions. Other Hmong filled important roles such as fighter pilots or interpreters and liaisons with the American advisors and trainers.
MR II soldiers engaged the vastly more numerous Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army units throughout northeastern Laos, but “the biggest battle for Laos was at Thong Hai Hin, the plain northeast of Long Cheng,” recalls Gen. Vang Pao. It was a fifteen-year stalemate where “you captured this place, and then the enemy would come and capture that other place; always pushing at each other.” Finally, “in the year ’70, I decided to capture and hold Thong Hai Hin. So in ’70 we captured it, ’71 we held it, then it was lost in the year ’72.”
The second achievement of the Hmong in Laos was “the way in which the Hmong were educated and given wisdom; taught skills and knowledge; taught self-sufficiency,” says Gen. Vang Pao.
With the new army, Gen. Vang Pao needed a new headquarters base. He decided on a valley called Long Cheng. “The main reason for the success was Long Cheng. It was a narrow valley…and the roads approaching it were few, so I decided to relocate [headquarters]to Long Cheng…so that is wasn’t easily accessible, and hard for Nyab Laj to approach.”
In addition to being a military base, Long Cheng was also a cultural, economic, and educational base. “The reason Hmong had a future was because of Long Cheng. Schools, hospitals, trades, all manner of [Hmong] skills and knowledge originated from there,” says Gen. Vang Pao.
Laying a Foundation for Hmong Success in the United States
In 1975, when Laos was lost to the Communists and Gen. Vang Pao first arrived in the U.S., he felt that his first duty was to try to protect his people, so he went to meet President Gerald R. Ford, who had just assumed the presidency after President Richard Nixon resigned, and asked for asylum for the Hmong.
“President Ford didn’t acknowledge the Hmong and Laotians; he only acknowledged Cambodians and [South] Vietnamese,” he recalls. “I wasn’t satisfied, so I said [to Pres. Ford]: the Hmong and Laotians and South Vietnamese and Cambodians sailed the same boat to fight North Vietnam. If you say otherwise, then you are not just. So he said: don’t worry, General, I will direct the State Department to give the Hmong refugee status.”
His next action was to study how other groups of immigrants from Europe, Asia, and Central America had successfully integrated into American society. “I thought carefully; studied other groups of people. What did they do to live successfully in the U.S.? I found that they have non-profits [organizations]to help them,” says Gen. Vang Pao. He wanted to set up programs to help the Hmong adapt: to learn English, to acquire job skills, to access different resources to help them start their new lives here. So he set up the first Hmong non-profit called Lao Family Community in Santa Ana, California. Soon he opened up other branches throughout the U.S. where there were concentrations of Hmong populations.
He started the Hmong Council to bring Hmong people together, to mediate between the 18 clans. Next, he started Lao Veterans to highlight Hmong and Laotian contribution to the Vietnam War, to remind young Hmong as well as Americans of the sacrifice Hmong made. Then he looked back at Laos and saw the oppression that the Hmong left behind in Laos were suffering, and he started Lao Human Rights to speak up for them. Soon, other Hmong non-profits started up and strengthened Hmong communities further. All these organizations have helped the Hmong to adapt and become successful in the U.S.
Looking toward the Future
As Gen. Vang Pao pauses to take stock of the present and ponders the future, he is proud of the Hmong. “The Hmong, whether it’s the pursuit of knowledge, of wealth, of position and power, the Hmong work very hard to achieve them. Everyone is pushing very hard on their own,” he says. “The ones who work on the land work very hard; the ones who work on trade also work very hard; boys and girls who attend school, for the most part, study very hard.”
But no matter how hard we work or how successful we are as individuals, the general says, we won’t be as effective or powerful as a group. To participate effectively in American society, he advises us to come together as a people, not to bargain with politicians, but to effectively focus our concerns, so that “whoever is in charge of government – Democrat or Republican,” will notice us and hear our unified voice.
He advises that, to get along, we Hmong should “be patient, respect each other, don’t poke each other in the eye.” We should “form friendships, don’t exclude one another, don’t be jealous of each other.” We should also take personal responsibility, “don’t abuse drugs, don’t abuse alcohol.”
As a group, says Gen. Vang Pao, we Hmong should come together and try to find workable solutions to four immediate problems: 1). Supporting and strengthening organizations like the Hmong Council and Hmong National Development so they can unify us, 2). Establishing senior homes for the elderly Hmong “so they won’t be so depressed,” 3). Establishing facilities for Hmong funereal rites to cut down the ruinous cost, 4). Streamlining and standardizing Hmong rituals, such as whether to pay “txiv qeej, txiv ruag” or not.
Gen. Vang Pao says, “Right now, power rests with the younger generation.” They are the ones who will unite, inspire, and lead the Hmong in the future. They are the ones who will dedicate their lives to the Hmong.
As for himself, the general feels he has fulfilled the pledge made 67 years ago when he was a thirteen-year-old boy: “My life and my energy, I have absolutely given to the Hmong; 100%!”