A Bright Hmong Future After Vang Pao

Thursday, June 4, 2009

New America Media, Commentary, Mai Der Vang , Posted: Jun 04, 2009

FRESNO, Calif. -- Some Hmong believe that if you hang a photo of General Vang Pao in your home, it will bring you good luck and moral strength. Usually, they are very specific types of photos, the ones where he is dressed in his distinguished military attire and appears to be in his 30s. An iconic image that reflected his growing influence during the Vietnam War.

Now, in his 70s, Vang Pao inspired thousands of his countrymen to fight alongside U.S. soldiers in the so-called Secret War in Laos in the 1970s. Vang commanded the Secret Army, a highly effective CIA-trained and supported force that fought against the Pathet Lao and People’s Army of Vietnam.

Today marks two years since the general and 10 other Hmong men were arrested here on charges that they were attempting to buy arms to overthrow the communist Laotian government.

Under house arrest, Vang Pao and the other men have probably put their lives on hold since then. His supporters have probably done likewise, as they await the court’s decision.

The Sacramento hearing on May 11 this year brought no relief to the 8,000 or so supporters who congregated in a peaceful rally outside the courthouse. Judge Frank Damrell turned down a motion by the lead defense attorney to dismiss the case. The defense will make another attempt on October 5 to persuade the court to drop the charges.

Watching footage from that rally, I see throngs of Hmong people holding up those iconic images while chanting, “Free Vang Pao.” I see the faces of teary-eyed elders, and I hear the American voices of young Hmong protesters.

I recall how two years ago many Hmong experienced high levels of mental and emotional distress after hearing of Vang Pao’s arrest. The Fresno Bee reported the story of an 88-year-old Hmong man who had a fatal heart attack, which family members asserted was because he couldn’t cope with the arrest of the general.

To many, Vang Pao is seen as a savior, as someone who rescued many Hmong during the Vietnam War and will again save the Hmong in the future. It as is if their fate and that of their community are still in his hands.

I want to tell them to have hope as they endure this uncertain situation, but more importantly, to have hope in themselves, in their families, and in their own futures, with or without Vang Pao, no matter what the verdict.

I do not doubt Vang Pao’s leadership and the decades of military service he offered. He is one of the most influential figures in Hmong history. But he is only human. To place the fate of our entire community on his shoulders is perilous and unrealistic.

In these two years, I have come to realize that perhaps both groups of Vang Pao supporters -- those who are young and those who are old -- likely have different reasons for supporting him. I think many of his young supporters view his arrest as an injustice to the Hmong community. Some even say that had it not been for him, they would not be here in this country today. Many of them are content and want to be here.

In contrast, many of his older supporters follow him devoutly because they still maintain a hope that one day he will free Laos from the communist regime and once again become the savior of the Hmong. They have a deep desire for a homeland and to go back to their roots.

I find myself, as a Hmong American, trying to balance both points of view, even as I realize that there is a faction of Hmong who do not support him for different reasons.

Many Hmong anticipate a positive outcome from the trial, but what will happen if the outcome isn’t favorable? Could his conviction lead to long-term unrest among some of his most fervent followers? Or will life simply return to normal?

During the last year, life did return to normal for many. The momentum around his arrest that brought many Hmong together came to a standstill as people went back to dealing with the recession and foreclosures. Not much information was available about the court case. But the May 11 hearing seemed to re-energize the Hmong in Sacramento.

I wonder if Vang Pao has effectively instilled enough optimism in his supporters so they can continue prospering in their adopted land and move forward, even if he is found guilty. I wonder how many people have pondered this possibility.

I also question whether his supporters would embrace new leadership, if Vang Pao has a succession plan for continuing his legacy. Whatever happens, I hope his supporters are ready.

If they are, when people hang his photo in their homes, it won’t be just for luck. And the photo won’t be seen as a relic of the past. Rather, it will be seen as an iconic image of a man who used his influence to establish hope in the future of the Hmong community.


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