Beyond Clint Eastwood: Tribal Justice for the Hmong by Roger Warner

Friday, March 27, 2009

January 8th, 2009

Director-actor Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Gran Torino, is the gritty story of an old racist (played by Eastwood) and what he does when Asians from an obscure immigrant group, the Hmong, move in next door. An inner-city gang tries to get the neighbor’s teenage son to steal Eastwood’s prize car, a Ford Gran Torino. The old coot bonds with his Hmong neighbors, but the gang keeps making trouble, and Clint takes justice into his own hands – with a rifle, a pistol, and bare-knuckled moral outrage.

It’s a good Hollywood movie about vengeance and justice, an updated Dirty Harry. But in the real world, there are 200,000 Hmong in this country, and although they face a serious and deep crisis they don’t need an old white vigilante to save them. They need help from their government, and they aren’t getting it.

The Hmong are a tribe from the mountains of Laos, in Southeast Asia. They fought for the C.I.A. in a little-known sideshow to the Vietnam war. For a people that didn’t even use the wheel in their old country, the Hmong have done phenomenally well as immigrants to America. A solid Hmong-American middle class – soldiers, lawyers, accountants, chicken farmers, store owners and college students – far outnumbers the urban hoodlums. What haunts Hmong-Americans as an ethnic group is that the war they left behind in Laos has never entirely ended. And what frustrates them is that the U.S. government, while occasionally pretending to care, has made the problem worse instead of solving it.

A third of a century after the U.S. armed forces pulled out of Southeast Asia, Laotian soldiers of the old-line communist regime still hunt and kill men, women, and children belonging to the last few Hmong resistance bands. The leaders of the resistance bands were all trained by the C.I.A. when they were young. Most of them are grandfathers now. They have satellite phones, gifts from their American relatives. From remote jungle mountainsides, they call family members in Minnesota, or Wisconsin, or California, and forlornly ask when the U.S. military is going to come back and save them from their enemies.

This poignant leftover conflict in Laos has also spawned subsidiary conflicts in two other countries. Thousands of Hmong have fled from Laos to next-door Thailand, but the Thai government is forcibly repatriating them. And in the U.S. itself, the Justice Department has brought terrorism charges against a group of Hmong-Americans for allegedly planning to overthrow the Laotian regime. What’s going on? Why are Hmong – generally likable and industrious people – getting in so much trouble?

While the Hmong are famous for their stubbornness, and a few of them are real troublemakers, most of the harm done to them has come from national governments. The Lao People’s Democratic Republic, one of the last communist regimes in the world, tops the list, followed by the government of Thailand. But the U.S. government also plays a huge unacknowledged role in perpetuating this tribal crisis.

When I visited the U.S. embassy in Laos in August 2008, for example, the staffers there told me they were deeply concerned about human rights violations against the Hmong. But it turned out they weren’t keeping track of Hmong resistance factions systematically, nor had they mapped out any strategies for ending this decades-long conflict through negotiations with the Lao regime. In fact, the embassy people eventually admitted that their proudest achievement was an exchange of military attachĂ©s with the Lao regime. This new program will allow the U.S. government to aid the Lao army – the same force that is hunting the C.I.A.-trained resistance leaders. That’s right: The U.S. government has not only abandoned its old tribal allies but is helping those who are trying to kill them. It’s hard to see how a reputation for this kind of betrayal can help us recruit new tribal allies in our current wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The same kind of State Department doublespeak can be heard in Thailand, the country that is sending Hmong refugees back to Laos in violation of international law. When I visited the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, a diplomat working in an elegant, high-ceilinged office told me that human rights for the Hmong was terribly important to him, both personally and professionally . In fact, he said, he’d heard from a lot of congressmen about it. But he also admitted that he’d spent several days with the Thai general directly in charge of the repatriations without raising the subject of the Hmong even once. And why not? “Because he’s not at the same level,” the embassy official said. In other words, rank and protocol were more important to this diplomat than rolling up his sleeves and protecting the Hmong refugees he’d promised congressmen he would help.

To see the practical effects of this State Department neglect I visited Hmong refugees in a detention center in Nong Khai, Thailand. The 150 refugees there are the remnants from two resistance bands that stayed loyal to their old U.S. mentors and stayed on the run for more than thirty years before fleeing Laos for Thailand. They showed me their bullet scars. Their stories checked out. Now these refugees sleep like sardines on a floor of a windowless cell and are let outdoors two hours a day. They are going half-crazy from the confinement and from fear of being tortured when they are returned to Laos. Perhaps if the U.S. embassy officials lived on “the same level” as the Hmong in this detention center they’d try a little harder to improve conditions.

The State Department’s unwillingness to help the Hmong of Laos has set off a curious and self-perpetuating cycle. Historically, the cycle began when Hmong started arriving as refugees in the U.S. thirty years ago: Because the U.S. government wasn’t doing anything to stop the violence against Hmong in Laos, Hmong-Americans matter-of-factly undertook their own ethnic self-defense. Beginning in the 1980s, they raised money in their own communities and sent it to the resistance in Laos along with a few Hmong-Americans to help with the fighting. All of this violated U.S. laws, but the Justice Department didn’t crack down, because the Hmong were old allies, and because American interests weren’t being hurt, or so it seemed.

As time went by without U.S. law enforcement pressure, or any meaningful contact from the federal government, however, the Hmong-American support network grew bolder and less scrupulous. Fundraisers developed sticky fingers and lived off the money they collected. Hmong-Americans factions competed for the loyalties of resistance factions, promising U.S. military help that would never arrive. A succession of white Americans – Lawrence of Arabia wannabees, and military veterans suffering from “lost honor” syndrome – joined the Hmong cause, made promises, then drifted away. And Hmong-Americans started paying fees to smugglers so their relatives could enter Thai refugee camps, in hopes of free rides to America. Nobody was telling the Hmong-Americans they couldn’t. They were like investment bankers and mortgage brokers – under-regulated and opportunistic.

By the beginning of this decade, it was hard to tell how much of the Hmong resistance in Laos and the Hmong refugee influx to Thailand was indigenous and legitimate, and how much was being bought and paid for by Hmong exiles in America. Hmong-Americans funding had enlarged the Hmong phenomenon in Southeast Asia, and this made the State Department’s task of dealing with the Hmong overseas even more difficult. The cycle of futility was complete. Nobody was in charge, and nobody was getting what they wanted, not even the Hmong-Americans, because after all, their relatives were still being hunted down and shot in the mountains of Laos.

By 2007, after repeated offensives by the Laotian army, the Hmong resistance in the mountains of Laos was down to its last thousand or so members, most of them women and children. It had no offensive capability and controlled only a few villages in the boondocks. Resistance leaders spoke openly of wanting to surrender, if only their safety could be guaranteed. But in June 2007, when Justice Department finally acted, it didn’t have their interests in mind.

In Sacramento California, a federal anti-terror task force that needed to justify its existence and couldn’t find any al Qaeda sleeper cells to bust helped create an improbable $26 million plot to overthrow the entire country of Laos. The undercover agent in the case tried to lure nine Hmong-Americans and one U.S. military veteran – a Lawrence of Arabia wannabe named Harrison Jack – into signing up with the plot. (The case is known as U.S. vs. Harrison Jack et. al.) Though the defendants never committed to the plot, the prosecution is seeking multiple life sentences for those who nibbled at the bait.This poorly-timed and sloppy attempt at government entrapment has so outraged retired CIA operatives who worked with the Hmong in Laos long ago that these spooks have promised to testify for the defense if the case goes to trial. That’s right – the C.I.A. versus the Justice Department in a terrorism trial. Convictions seem unlikely, but the case has already had an international effect. The U.S. Justice Department’s branding the Hmong with the “terrorist” label has hardened the resolve of the governments of Laos and Thailand to get rid of their Hmong problem once and for all. It has given these governments yet another excuse to treat tribesmen there as sub-humans, to be hunted down or repatriated at whim. And so the Hmong crisis goes around and around, with nobody in charge.

Back to the new Clint Eastwood film, Gran Torino. Movies are satisfying because they distill broad social trends into small, tight human dramas. A family is threatened. A neighbor responds. We are wired to appreciate those neat, concise stories. The real-life Hmong crisis is much bigger and messier. It cannot be solved Hollywood style by an old white guy with a gun, even a cool old white guy like Clint Eastwood. But in real life, there is a son of tribesman – a Kenyan tribesman – who could bring justice to the Hmong, or at least give it an honest try.

The Obama administration has a lot on its plate, but it could certainly diminish and probably end the Hmong crisis if it chose. Basically, it could offer the Laotian government a deal: The U.S. government would guarantee an end to Hmong-American meddling in exchange for Laos’ guarantee that the last Hmong resistance forces could surrender peacefully – without punishment, under the watchful eyes of international monitors. And the most deserving Hmong refugees in Thailand could be resettled in western countries that have already expressed interest in taking them in.

Would this work? Well, it sure wouldn’t hurt to try. Conditions for an overall settlement are better now than they have been in the last thirty years. So let’s hope President Obama can hit the re-set button. Start fresh, with new thinking. If he and his national security council could knock sense into the State Department and Department of Justice, and get these bureaucracies to work together on a sensible peacemongering policy, this leftover insurgency, which is in nobody’s interests, could be brought to a peaceful end.


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