Monday, July 20, 2009
Hmong who had entrusted General Vang Pao with their lives in Laos continued to follow his orders here, relying on him to resolve disputes and solve an array of problems. “For the past 35 years in this country the Hmong communities have been calling me constantly about education, health, social services, employment and just about every aspect of life here,” Vang said.
WESTMINSTER -- "The General," now 79, no longer commands battalions of Hmong guerrilla fighters or the fawning attention of U.S. lawmakers and heads of state.
For years, Gen. Vang Pao has made his headquarters in a ranch-style home on an Orange County cul-de-sac. It's a world away from Long Chieng, the secret CIA base in the mountains of northern Laos known as "Spook Heaven," where he lived from 1963 to 1975, waging war on Lao and Vietnamese communists with his jungle army of Hmong and Iu Mien warriors.
The face of Hmong people worldwide holds court here on his beige sofa, his brown eyes still shooting fire, his will and wits unblunted by a barrage of health and legal problems.
His former patron, the U.S. government, charged him and 10 others in June 2007 with plotting the violent overthrow of their old enemy, communist Laos. After a six-month undercover investigation known as Operation Tarnished Eagle, more than 200 federal agents and police fanned out to arrest Vang and 10 other suspects.
The federal indictment filed in Sacramento accuses them of conspiracy to "kill, kidnap and maim" by financing a mercenary force armed with AK-47s, Stinger and anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, Claymore mines and other explosives.
The co-conspirators allegedly commissioned one of the suspects, Fresno businessman David Dang Vang, to draft "Operation Popcorn (Political Opposition Party's Coup Operation to Rescue the Nation)." The 18-page blueprint outlines how Laos could be transformed into an American-style democracy.
The group, according to federal court documents, had no weapons or soldiers of its own -- the alleged co-conspirators were offered a menu of munitions and mercenaries at a Sacramento Thai restaurant by an undercover Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent posing as an arms dealer with CIA connections.
If convicted, Vang could die in prison, an ignominious end for the man former CIA officers have called the greatest general of the Vietnam War.
And yet Vang's profile has never been higher in the Hmong community.
His arrest has rallied an army of Hmong Americans. Vang has become the emblem of a Hmong civil rights movement fighting for public acknowledgment of the Hmong role in the Vietnam War and liberation of those still living in the jungles of Laos.
"It's not just about a human being that brought us over to America; it's a whole social justice movement," said Louansee Moua, 33, chief of staff to San Jose City Council Member Madison Nguyen. "People are going to rallies because they want the Hmong to be recognized for what they've done for the country."
This past May, in the biggest demonstration ever at Sacramento's federal courthouse, 8,000 Hmong marched from the Capitol chanting, "Free Vang Pao." The general, flanked by security guards, was treated like a rock star as he made his way through the arcade of American flags and outstretched arms.
That shining moment of validation reinvigorated Vang, who has battled diabetes, heart problems, cataracts and a growing belief among young Hmong that his time had passed.
"I feel great for all their support," Vang said in his living room, framed by photos of his glory days in Laos. "But since 1944, all I've been doing is helping my people progress forward in life, whether it's finding food to eat, or education.
"Now we're able to stand with other people at their height, and achieve and succeed beyond my wildest dreams."
Hmong left in lurch
On a weekday morning last month, Vang engaged The Sacramento Bee in a spirited three-hour conversation in Hmong, French and English. Vang's lawyers would not let him talk about his legal case or the politics of Laos. Instead, he passionately recounted the evolution of his people from farmers to freedom fighters, illiterate hill people who crossed mountains, rivers and oceans to be reborn in the United States.
The "King of the Hmong," as Vang is called by veterans, learned how to lead from his father, Neng Chu Vang, a county leader from Nong Het, Laos.
Vang's dad sent him to school from ages 10 to 15, when the Japanese invaded Indochina -- the French colonial peninsula that includes modern-day Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam -- and the French turned him into a soldier.
In 1960, President John F. Kennedy feared Laos would be the first domino to fall to the communists and authorized the CIA to recruit Hmong jungle fighters. About 25,000 were shaped into Special Guerilla Units, and over the next 15 years the CIA armed an additional 95,000 Hmong partisans with rifles and machine guns, Vang said.
Vang said the Hmong were given three objectives: to disrupt communist troops and supplies moving from North to South Vietnam; to save downed U.S. pilots; and to protect strategic U.S. installations in Laos and South Vietnam.
In 1973, the United States withdrew its planes and special forces officers from Laos, and the Hmong were left to fend for themselves against superior communist forces. By the end of the war, Hmong guerrillas had suffered 35,000 casualties.
When Laos fell in May 1975, U.S. aircraft evacuated Vang and 2,500 of the Hmong and Iu Mien guerrillas living in and around Long Chieng. Vang was resettled on a Montana ranch before moving to Orange County.
Left behind were thousands of Hmong freedom fighters and their families, who fled into the jungles with communist forces at their heels. Many were shot to death. Others drowned trying to cross the Mekong River into Thailand. Those who made it spent years behind barbed wire in Thai refugee camps.
Since the war's end, about 250,000 Hmong have been given refugee status in the United States. Most settled in poor neighborhoods in Fresno, Sacramento, Merced and St. Paul, Minn.
Soldiers and farmers by tradition, many were ill-equipped for American urban life.
To help his people cope, Vang established a chain of Lao Family Community centers in Sacramento and nearly a dozen other cities. The centers offered English and citizenship classes and provided Hmong social workers.
Hmong who had entrusted "The General" with their lives in Laos continued to follow his orders here.
"For the past 35 years in this country, the Hmong communities have been calling me constantly about education, health, social services, employment and just about every aspect of life here," Vang said.
Dreams of return fade
Vang has put on a few pounds and is on a restricted diet because of his health problems, but he still speaks with volume and clarity. He says he gets about three hours of sleep and does his clearest thinking at 5 a.m.
He has 25 children from several wives -- in Laos, Hmong men of status often had multiple wives and married their relatives' widows. He jokes that he can't keep track of his grandchildren, though he still knows the names of all his commanders.
The general retains the moral authority he earned as a warrior. Many at the Sacramento rally brandished the classic photo of the handsome, supremely confident young major general in his Royal Lao Army uniform circa 1965.
That Vang Pao -- who Hmong believed possessed a tiger's spirit that protected him from bullets -- hangs in thousands of Hmong American homes, just as Catholics hang pictures of President John F. Kennedy.
Louansee Moua remembers her parents' generation literally buying into Vang's promises of reconquering Laos someday. Thousands of Hmong Americans would buy promissory notes from Vang's organization in exchange for promises of commissions or political appointments in the new, free Laos.