Hmong family longs for reunion

Monday, June 15, 2009

Chungsou Her of Wausau looks through photos of his cousin Cheng Leng Her and his family. Chungsou Her has been working to bring the young family to America. (Keith Uhlig/Wausau Daily Herald)

Cheng Leng Her, from left, daughter Foua Seng Her, wife, Yee Xiong Her, and younger daughter, Kang Chang Her, are now living in a refugee camp in northern Thailand. (Contributed photo)

While Cheng Leng Her and his family languish in a refugee camp in northern Thailand, their relatives in Wausau hold out hope that they soon will be able to join them here.

Cheng Leng Her, his wife and two daughters are among the "leftover" Hmong refugees in Thailand.

They are people without a country.

Cheng Leng Her was left behind as his father and mother, Wang Yee Her and Mee Yang, and his siblings immigrated to the United States in 2004 from Wat Tham Krabok. He and his family now are part of a group of about 5,000 Hmong living at Huai Nam Khao camp in Thailand's Phetchabun province.

The U.S. government in 2004 opened the door only to Tham Krabok refugees who had registered with the Thai government. When the registration was taking place, Cheng Leng Her was six hours away, planting crops, and for all practical purposes was incapable of signing up.

Since then, he and his family have lived illegally in Thailand, surviving with the help of money sent to him from relatives in the United States. His cousin, Chungsou Her of Wausau, is one of those relatives. Chungsou Her sponsored Wang Yee Her and Mee Yang in their move to Wausau.

Cheng Leng Her is only in his 30s, but he and his young family are being swept along in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Cheng Leng Her's father fought against communism in The Secret War as part of a Hmong army led by Gen. Vang Pao and backed by the United States. When the U.S. government pulled its troops out of Vietnam, it also pulled support of the Hmong army, and Hmong resistance against Laotian communists crumbled. Thousands, including Wang Yee Her and his family, fled to Thailand.

They first lived in United Nations refugee camps. When those closed, many held out hope that the political situation in Laos would change and they could return to their homelands. The Buddhist temple Tham Krabok gave those holdouts a haven. When Tham Krabok was closed, the current group of refugees was set up in Phetchabun.

Brutal conditions

Now Chungsou Her believes there might be a chance for Cheng Leng Her to come to the United States.

Cheng Leng Her, who has a cell phone, recently called Chungsou Her and said Thai authorities are asking for papers and registering the people in the camp.

"He gave me a Thai official's number," Chungsou Her said. "He told me that, 'you as a sponsor should give him a call.'"

That official told Chungsou Her that the Thai government is sorting through the Nam Khao refugees. "He told me to put all documents together, because they (Thai officials) will propose to the United Nations to get people out of there," Chungsou Her said.

If so, that's a departure from how the Thai government has handled this refugee situation so far, said Phillip Smith, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis, a Washington think tank that focuses on human rights issues in Southeast Asia.

The Thai government's policy was to send the Hmong refugees back to Laos, a part of an overall political strategy to strengthen ties with Laos, Smith said. The Thai government itself, however, has seen incredible political instability, and new leaders might be softening that policy.

Conditions in the camp have been brutal. Smith said the Thai military, which is overseeing Huai Nam Khao, has withheld food and water in an attempt to force the Hmong refugees to sign documents that would allow repatriation to Laos.

Those and other heavy-handed tactics have led Doctors Without Borders, a nongovernmental agency providing food, water and medical care to the refugees, to pull out of the camp.

"We can no longer work in a camp where the military uses arbitrary imprisonment of influential leaders to pressure refugees into a 'voluntary' return to Laos, and forces our patients to pass through military checkpoints to access our medical clinic," said Gilles Isard, head of the Doctors Without Borders mission in Thailand.

Reunion hope

Chungsou Her said he has contacted the office of U.S. Rep. David Obey, D-Wausau, to enlist his help, but staffers there did not have encouraging news.

"They checked with the State Department," Chungsou Her said, "and told me that as far as Thailand, there are no programs (to bring the Hmong to the United States.)"

Chungsou Her's hope is based more on faith than anything else. Chungsou Her, who owns Wausau's Phou Bia Oriental Market with his wife, Mai T. Her, points to a cassette tape that sits on his

shelves. Its songs were recorded by Cheng Leng Her before Tham Krabok closed.

One of the songs he sang on the tape foretold that Cheng Leng Her would "fall behind" and be separated from family, Chungsou Her said. But the song's lyrics also predict that the family will come together.

"I think, in the end, we're going to meet again," Chungsou Her said.


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