Tuesday, February 10, 2009
ASHINGTON — Hmong activists said Thursday they look to President Barack Obama to fight Thailand's forced deportations of Hmong refugees to a hostile homeland.
"We put our faith and hope in President Obama to help provide for our people. We must act now before it is too late," said Pa Shoua Vang, the daughter of refugees and a 19-year-old Elk Mound, Wis., resident.
As a presidential candidate, Obama sent a letter to the nation's Hmong community in September in which he wrote, "the U.S. must be clear in calling for all parties to respect international law and ensure that displaced Hmong are not placed in harm's way." Obama said as president he would restore America's commitment to human rights abroad.
The Thai government has denied the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to the Hmong camps to review the conditions under which they are held. Hmong supporters also accuse Thais of knowingly deporting refugees to Laos despite evidence of persecution.
"Right now we have a president who says we have the opportunity to change history," said Ger Yang, an 18-year-old Wausau resident.
The two women, members of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Hmong Human Rights organization, were part of a student contingent that participated in a briefing and press conference at the National Press Club. The Hmong activists and supporters planned to carry their message to congressional offices and human rights group on Thursday and Friday. They want Obama and Congress to use U.S. influence and international law to stop Thailand from returning Hmong refugees to Laos.
"The U.S. has a new president who promised that he would make human rights a priority. Let's hope this administration will do the right thing," said T. Kumar, Amnesty International's advocacy director for Asia and the Pacific.
Two years ago, Kumar's organization detailed the Laotian government's political and military suppression of the Hmong as well as its efforts to starve the Hmong in remote areas.
Kumar accused the United States of being a "silent partner" in the abuse against the Hmong because it had paid little attention to their plight.
Hmong groups, including Green Bay's Lao Human Rights Council, said they want Obama to honor what they say is the United States' obligation to aid an ethnic minority, that to its peril, aided the Central Intelligence Agency and American troops during the Vietnam conflict.
The Hmong were largely left on their own to face the backlash from the Laotian government when the United States withdrew from Southeast Asia.
Thousands of Hmong left Laos and went to neighboring Thailand for refuge. Many of those unable to leave Laos face a brutal government, said Vaughn Vang director of the Lao Human Rights Council. "We are greatly concerned about the atrocities taking place against our people in Laos," he said.
But Vaughn Vang echoed others' concerns about several thousand Hmong refugees being held at the Ban Huay Nam Khao camp in Phetchabun, Thailand. The Thai government has said it will return 5,000 refugees to their homeland of Laos. The government considers the Hmong to be illegal immigrants and not political refugees, Vaughn Vang and other Hmong supporters said.
Hmong refugees "do not want to go back to the country that hunted them, that killed them," Vaughn Vang said.
Human rights groups say the Thais are sending Hmong back to a country where the communist government is intent on harassing, imprisoning or killing the Hmong.
Several speakers choked with emotion and wiped away tears as they talked about phone calls from Hmong who want to leave Laos or Thailand for Europe or the United States.
College students talked about the debt they owe relatives who fought with American troops and gave them safe and secure lives in the United States. They said they feel a duty to aid Hmong who have been left behind.
Soua Pha, an 18-year-old University of Wisconsin-Madison student, spoke for her cousin Me Vang, whose father aided U.S. soldiers.
The cousin grew up in the Laotian jungles trying to avoid government soldiers searching for Hmong and escaped to a Thai detention camp.
The cousin wants to join his brother in California, but remains in limbo in Thailand, where Pha said he's been mistreated."
The Vietnam War separated many Hmong families and reunification is rare," she said. "We are here today as university students and our goal is to save our people."