It was a Monday.
A tumultuous day embittered with uncertainty and fear, many Hmong will recall June 4, 2007 and the shocking news that poured out of every major international and domestic media outlet.
Many will pose the classic questions of where were you, what were you doing and what was your reaction when you heard that General Vang Pao and several of his associates had been arrested on charges of attempting to overthrow the communist Lao government.
Elders will divulge stories of the personal heartbreak, illnesses, or inability to function that they or others experienced as a result.
Yet still, many others will turn their heads in wariness and contempt for the situation.
Who is right and who is wrong? In spite of the differing views and reactions, many in the community can agree this incident represents a defining moment for the Hmong people.
The news on June 4 spread instantaneously through informal networks and Hmong radio, between family members, friends and relatives, near and far, reaching entire clans. People relayed the story – “did you hear, did you hear?” – that Hmong leader, General Vang Pao, had been arrested by FBI and ATF authorities on allegations that he violated the Neutrality Act and attempted to purchase arms to overthrow the communist Lao regime.
Over at Fresno’s City Hall, phones rang hysterically at the office of District 1 City Councilman, Blong Xiong, as the media hastened to obtain comments from California’s only elected Hmong official.
Ten other individuals were also taken into custody for their alleged involvement. But officials identified Vang Pao as the group’s front-man and as leader of the Neo Hom, a Lao liberation movement. According to court documents, the group had planned to purchase .8 million worth of arms which would be used to overthrow the communist Lao government.
Negotiations were conducted through one of the arrested men, Harrison Jack, who had been working with an undercover ATF agent to obtain the weapons. The agent, who hid his undercover identity, tipped off the authorities and launched an eight-month investigation leading up to the arrests on June 4.
The case’s enormity attracted high-profile defense attorneys, John Keker and James Brosnahan, both of whom are working without compensation. On June 11, the arrested men were denied bail and would later be indicted by a federal grand jury on June 14.
But almost a month later, on July 12, many people in the Hmong community celebrated as news was released that Vang Pao would be free on bail to go home while he awaits trial.
In the wake of hearing these allegations, how does anyone make sense of what to think? When we look back on our history and at our current situation, we can start to put the pieces together.
History of War and Sacrifice
As the Vietnam War escalated during the 1960s, the CIA enlisted the assistance of General Vang Pao to lead an anti-communist operation in Laos that came to be known as the Secret War. In going against the 1955 agreement that declared Laos a neutral state, the United States provided covert arms and training to over 40,000 Hmong hilltribe men under Vang Pao’s leadership.
Vang Pao was born in December 1929, in Xieng Khouang, Laos, to Neej Tswb Vaj and Ntxhoo Thoj, who were farmers. As a teenager, he got his start by providing translation services and working as a messenger for the French during World War II. Vang Pao was later chosen to train with other officials in a French school where he eventually acquired the title of a commissioned officer.
Fighting communism alongside the French and Americans, Vang Pao quickly grew in his rank, from a major in 1960, to lieutenant colonel, to full colonel, to brigadier general, and finally in 1964, declared as the first Hmong general.
Vang Pao’s staunch leadership led the nearly 40,000 Hmong forces into numerous battles. They rescued American pilots who had been shot down, gathered intelligence, prevented communist soldiers from delivering supplies on the Ho Chi Minh trail, and defended American strongholds and entities in Laos. Hmong soldiers suffered enormous casualties. For every American soldier that died, ten Hmong soldiers died as well.
Between 1964 and 1973, Laos endured the most severe bombing any country had ever seen. According to an educational war exhibit called Legacies of War, over two million tons of bombs were released on Laos, which equates to a planeload of bombs being dropped every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years. An estimated 250,000 people died.
When the United States abandoned the war effort in 1975, Vang Pao left Laos in exile for Thailand. As the war continued to ravage, hundreds of thousands Hmong fled to refugee camps in Thailand, many of whom were following in Vang Pao’s footsteps.
In the United States, Vang Pao resettled on a ranch in Montana, than later relocated to Orange County, CA. He founded the Lao Family Community, a Hmong social service organization with offices throughout the U.S.
As hundreds of thousands of Hmong began to resettle in America, the history of calamity against Hmong people did not stop after the war ended in 1975. Although many fled Laos during the 70s and 80s, several thousands remained in the Lao jungles, steadfast in their belief to continue the fight for a free Laos. Today, their numbers have dwindled into hundreds, and they use outdated weapons from the Vietnam War to defend against violent acts of retribution from government soldiers. Many of those who remain are the wives and children of Secret War veterans.
Undercover journalists, during the past few years, have gone into the jungles to capture footage of these human rights abuses. Many of them believe the Lao government is on a mission to exterminate the remaining Hmong because the Hmong assisted the Americans during the war. Amnesty International reports that Hmong encampments are constantly attacked by the military.
A Community in Limbo
Back in the United States, Vang Pao’s arrest spurredmany people to action, especially Hmong parents and elders. No one knows his true intentions, but many elders speculate it was his last attempt to reclaim Laos for the Hmong people.
As Vang Pao waned inside of the walls of a Sacramento jail facility, thousands of protestors gathered peacefully on several occasions, in cities such as Sacramento and Fresno, calling for his immediate release. Parents and elders took to their city squares, carrying signs and enlarged posters of Vang Pao’s image amid cries of “Free Vang Pao! Free Vang Pao!”
Many young Hmong Americans did not sit idly either.
Over at Fresno State University, students coordinated a screening of a film that illustrates the history behind the human rights abuses in Laos, called Voices of Sorrow, produced by the Fact Finding Commission. Shortly after June 4, young leaders at Stone Soup Fresno held a dialogue and press conference where they discussed the impacts of the arrests. On June 17, over 2,000 young Hmong gathered at the Sacramento Capitol steps to express anguish over the human rights abuses of the Hmong in Laos. And groups of young Hmong professionals have gathered informally with other young Hmong to have dialogues, deconstruct the issue, and attempt to make sense of the situation.
Kazong Yang, 26, a student at Fresno State University, stated she “admires [Vang Pao] for everything he’s done” for the Hmong community. She hopes that what he is doing now “will be for the good of the Hmong people because he is in a position where he has the power to do good, especially because many of our parents support him.”
On the internet, hundreds of people wrote public comments in response to various articles that had been published by local and national media outlets. In many of these open comments, writers expressed their loyalty to Vang Pao, yet many others criticized the General for his alleged actions.
On the Sacramento Bee website, in response to an article published shortly after the arrests, on June 6, a reader by the username “t2xiong” wrote: “What in the world [was]Vang Pao thinking…why did [he]have to go and tarnish our image with this crazy idea…”
Re-Understanding Who We Are
It is unfortunate that it took such an event as this in order for many of us to begin understanding who we are as a people, as individuals, and how far we have come. It took almost 30 years later for our full story to emerge in the mainstream, for us to think critically about our participation in the Vietnam War, for us to sincerely remind ourselves of the courage our parents must have had when they made the journey to this new land, for us to finally begin to grasp the deep longing of many elders to return to a lost homeland, and importantly, for people to even begin caring that they Hmong.
It is an endless journey of understanding that many of us will continue to walk. As we re-connect with their roots, and learn about the struggles and history of oppression our people have endured, we will also seek to fill and understand the roles that await us in our community’s future.
Vang Pao’s role will continue to be engrained as part of Hmong identity simply because much of our history revolves around his leadership. Whether people support him, or whether they disagree with his alleged actions, at least this whole incident got us talking, engaging, and thinking about who we are. At least it got many of us to feel something inside.
The chain of events that describe the Hmong epic journey can be traced back to the early days of the Secret War in the 1960s, and lead up to this point in time, almost 50 years later in 2007. As our community moves forward, it is uncertain what will happen next, in a few months, in one year, three years, or five years from now.
But at this one point in history, summer of 2007, the past, present and future of the Hmong community converged together. This incident spurred a community to look critically at its history, and urged many to understand that history as it applies to the current day. It prompted the community’s participation on a civic level, especially among the older generation.
It compelled many young people to start asking questions to the elders about Vang Pao’s role; and it encouraged many elders to acknowledge that the future leadership of the community lies in today’s youth.
Whether in support or in disdain, the most important factor was that many people in the community spoke out, some for the first time.
It is unusual, but true, that the arrests became a catalyst for change. It urged people to act, to think on a deeper level, to dialogue with one another, to look back on history, and to consider the challenges and hopes for the future.
In the argument of where one stands on this issue, regardless of your socioeconomic background, your religious beliefs, or your age, nothing can override the fact that we are Hmong, we have Hmong blood, and we belong to a long line of Hmong ancestry that crossed borders, rivers and oceans to get here.
Five years from now, when we look back at the events of 2007, a new chapter in our history will have been added.