The Last Gasp of Resistance

Photo: General Vang Pao c. 1960


Today, the streets of Vientiane and Luang Prabang are alive with cafes and shops that hark back to the days when Laos was a stop on the so-called hippie trail. The landlocked country, still a mysterious destination for westerners, is teaming with tourists drawn by a combination of inexpensive travel and exotic culture. Expanding by almost 30 percent a year, Laos now draws more than a million visitors annually. The easygoing ambience that attracted tourists decades ago has returned.

The economy is also on the move and is set to grow by a respectable 6 to 7 percent over the next two to three years, mainly on construction of the controversial Nam Theun 2 dam on the Mekong River and eventual sale of electricity. Increasing commercialization of agriculture and new mineral extraction projects, according to the Asian Development Bank, are also helping to wake the country up from years of slumber caused by war and the torpor of a socialist regime.

In Vientiane, the internet cafes are bustling with students, travel agents are busy organizing tours across the country’s improving highways, and cargo laden trucks ply the trade route across the large and modern Friendship Bridge linking Thailand and Laos. Thus the idea that a violent rebellion, launched by overseas Hmong refugees and supported by a disenfranchised population, seems more than a little remote; it seems impossible.

Yet, 32 years after fleeing the communist takeover of Laos for the United States, one-time CIA warrior General Vang Pao is facing trial by his former ally for plotting a rebellion against the Lao government. In the coming months a federal court in Sacramento, California will hear the case against Vang, along with 10 other ethnic Hmong and an American veteran, on charges of violating the US neutrality act and conspiring to possess missile systems in a complicated plot against the communist government. The group was arrested in June. The trial is expected to begin in October.

Despite the growing picture of a nation at peace pursuing its economic fortunes, out in the remote tropical rainforest of the Annamite Cordillera, a handful of armed Hmong remain. They are the remnants of the “secret army” paid by the US and led by Vang to fight against Vietnamese and Laotian communists.

As a figurehead of overseas Hmong, especially the war generation, and a supporter of his version of revolution in Laos, Vang’s aging and weak appearance, being led in and out of court in a wheelchair, has done little to lend credibility to the coup plot. And indeed, the appearance might best summarize the state of resistance in Laos. What had once been a serious threat has now been virtually extinguished.

Back in the tumultuous years following the 1975 communist take over of Laos, the country seemed ripe for rebellion, at least to Vang and fevered anti-communists who could not accept America’s defeat in Indochina. Thousands of Hmong, the remote hill tribe recruited by the CIA as allies in the war, and Laotians who had sided with the Americans fled across the border into Thailand or up into the mountains to escape a questionable fate in government re-education camps. Anti-communists like Vang helped fuel the exodus and the resistance with dire warnings that the Hmong were slated to be exterminated en masse by the Laotian communists. That did not turn out to be the case, but eventually some 300,000 Hmong refugees settled in the United States.

In 1977 Hmong soldiers, using weapons and ammunition left over from the war, were not just hiding in the jungle but were rumored to have battled government troops to within 60 kilometres of Vientiane. Hmong refugees in Thailand were reported to have rearmed and returned to Laos where they engaged in sporadic clashes with government forces. The shadowy Vang, back in the US, claimed for years to be on the verge of seizing control of the homeland and he compelled vast numbers of Hmong refugees to donate money to his rebellion through a community organization that was eventually charged with extortion by officials in a number of states.

According to a New York Times article in 1990: “For years, some members of the most primitive refugee group in America, the Hmong, have complained, mostly in whispers, that the anti-Communist leader who fled here with them from the remote mountains of Laos has been extorting money from them.

“Now the California Department of Social Services has given substance to those grievances, charging that Gen. Vang Pao’s resistance organization has demanded contributions from Hmong refugees in return for welfare assistance through a state-financed social service group he controls.”

Vang was eventually forced to split off from his above ground-charity, Lao Family Community, as younger leaders stepped forward more interested in life in America than the dreams of an old cold warrior. Madison, Wisconsin, home to a large Hmong community, dropped a plan in 2002 to name a park in his honor after University of Wisconsin professor Alfred McCoy, an expert on the secret war in Laos, cited numerous published sources alleging that Vang Pao had committed summary executions of his solders, enemy prisoners and political enemies during the war. Vang denied the charges.

The rebellion has been in a state of decline since the late seventies. Vietnamese troops, supporting the Lao government, responded to the insurgent threat by launching a brutal campaign to eliminate the rebels. Reports of the fighting vary from a few thousand insurgent fighters dying to claims by Vang, impossible to confirm, that upwards of 50,000 Hmong, mostly civilians, were killed.

During the 1980s pockets of resistance continued to fight yet their ability to seriously challenge the government was doubtful. Constant harassment by Lao and Vietnamese troops scattered resistance into isolated bands of fighters more often in a state of retreat than attack.

By the 1990s support for the resistance was waning due to geopolitical changes that made complicity with the rebels impossible. Sino-Lao relations had been fully restored by 1989 and Thailand and Laos were forging stronger and stronger economic links. Thai authorities also began forcibly deporting thousands of Hmong refugees back to Laos.

With the closure of major refugee camps along the border, the ability of insurgents to slip in and out of Laos was severely curtailed.

The United States also began rebuilding political relations with Laos. The Lao government's efforts to eradicate opium cultivation along with allowing US military teams to recover the remains of soldiers lost during the Vietnam War started negotiations that would eventually lead to the normalization of trade relations between the two countries.

By 1995 tourism was quickly becoming the country's fastest growing industry, Hmong living in the US were largely free to visit and Laos was welcomed into the political neighborhood when it became an official member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1997. With market forces taking control, cold war ideology, once a cornerstone of support for the insurgency, was becoming an anachronism.

Through it all, Vang, a hero to older Hmong because he was a tribesman who rose to the highest echelons of the pre-communist society, kept at it. Despite declining support for revolution even in his own diaspora, some aging Hmong cling to the dream. Leading the campaign has been Vang, who has raised funds, engaged in extensive lobbying against the Lao government and championed the cause of retaking Laos by force.

As the Cold War was no longer inspiring support in the US, Vang and those advocating revolution logically turned to human rights issues to fill the ideological vacuum and garner sympathy for their cause. The United Lao Council for Peace, Freedom, and Reconstruction – an overseas organization of "ethnic representatives and Laotian peoples" with Vang as vice president – has claimed that "Since 1975, over 300,000 Hmong-Lao loss (sic) their lives at the hands of the Lao PDR." Essentially, they have blended allegations of genocide with their rallying cry for armed revolution.

Vang's allegations of genocide are almost certainly not true but human rights abuses in Laos do continue. Amnesty International has long reported that the Lao government and has singled out the Hmong bands in for harsh treatment. “Thousands of men, women and children from the Hmong ethnic minority are living in the mountainous jungle to avoid abuses by the Laotian military,” the group said in a report earlier this year. “The Lao army continues to mount violent attacks on them, even though the jungle-dwellers' military capacity is all but depleted decades after some Hmong fought in the CIA-funded ‘secret army’ in Laos during the Vietnam War.”

The few intrepid journalists who have risked breaking the government's media restrictions and trekked into the jungle have brought back harrowing stories of starvation, disease, and a grossly prolonged military campaign that has decimated the dwindling numbers of Hmong still running from the from the government.

The Laotian government has denied allegations that it is trying to exterminate the jungle-based Hmong and has claimed to have pardoned and resettled many Hmong. Amnesty International agrees, stating that "in the 1990s and early 2000s, authorities assisted such groups (Hmong hiding in the jungle); offering amnesties and enabling them to join planned resettlement schemes." Yet, the report continues; "at least two large groups of mostly women and children ‘surrendered,’ after which reports about their whereabouts came to an end."

It could be exactly that kind of ambiguity over the safety of those emerging from the jungle that keeps the resistance on life support. American photographer Roger Arnold, one of the few journalists to witness first-hand the Hmong resistance in 2006, says that their fear of the government is legitimate. "They are caught in a difficult situation; if they surrender they are likely arrested or worse, if they flee to Thailand they will just get deported."

Yet it is not just the Lao government to blame for prolonging the Hmong resistance. According to Professor Martin Stuart-Fox, an expert on Lao history, "Those who have kept the insurgency alive have done so with the encouragement, for their own selfish political reasons, of Hmong in the US." Another source, who requested not to be named due to previous trouble with Lao authorities, when asked why the insurgents remain in the jungle responded; "they are extremely isolated from the rest of the world and easily lied to by the Hmong Americans, they are naive pawns in a larger game."

The game is the political life of Vang. Court documents against him and his co-accused show how the Neo Hom, also known as the United Lao Liberation Front, conducted extensive fundraising efforts to buy almost US$10 million worth of military equipment on the pretext of support for “resistance fighters.”

According to the indictment, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported, “The suspects ‘issued an operations plan to a contractor to conduct a military strike in downtown Vientiane,’ the complaint said, ’against specifically identified military and civilian government personnel and buildings.’ It said the suspects told their mercenary force ‘to reduce [the targets] to rubble, and make them look like the results of the attack upon the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.’"

Court documents also reveal that the would-be coup makers had an overly optimistic evaluation of the current strength of antigovernment resistance in Laos. Exhibit 2 in the federal prosecutors’ case is a document prepared by one of the defendants which details their plan for overthrowing the Lao government. If the document is to be believed, all those travelers sipping espressos in Luang Prabang better watch out, because Laos is already at the cusp of armed revolt. “People may rise up against the government at any time,” it reads.

Nonsense, say most experts who follow Laos. "This is total fantasy. Laos is as stable as it has ever been. There is zero support for any coup," says Grant Evans, a senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong. "I really think this is the result of the loss of perspective which comes from exile. They even failed to understand that if you talk about buying guns, etc in the US these days you attract the attention of the authorities who in this case stung them. That's how out of touch with the world around them they are."

After the coup plot emerged, Thailand announced a fresh round of forced repatriations of Hmong refugees. Approximately 8,000 Hmong from a refugee camp in Phetchabun province will be forced back into Laos and how they are received could reveal the future trajectory of the conflict. If the refugees are resettled by the Lao government without any major incidents, Vang and his supporters face political oblivion. Without championing the human rights cause their argument for armed revolt will be rendered into little more than a hollow war cry.

The Lao government might be able to coax the remaining Hmong out of the jungle if it can demonstrate a willingness to peacefully settle the refugees. Vang's arrest has removed a major cause that kept the Hmong in hiding but the Lao government's past behavior hasn’t helped. By demonstrating a genuine willingness to resolve the crisis, Vientiane could end the insurgency while simultaneously undermining the lingering claims that overseas supporters of revolution have relied upon.