Monday, September 28, 2009
By Brian McCartan
BANGKOK - A United States Justice Department decision this month to drop charges against former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) collaborator Vang Pao clears the 79-year-old ethnic Hmong leader from a possible terrorism trial in an alleged plot to overthrow the Lao government.
However, a new indictment issued by a California court against a dozen men - 11 of them ethnic Hmong and a former US Special Forces officer during the Vietnam War - raises new questions about connections between anti-government insurgents in Laos and their ethnic brethren in the US.
The new indictment claims a dozen men - including 10 mentioned in the previous dropped charge - violated the Neutrality Act by giving money, weapons and material support to Hmong rebels in Laos, who have continued their resistance against the Lao government since the Vietnam War. The indictment also contains new charges, including conspiracy to receive and transport explosives through interstate and foreign commerce.
Hmong supporters of Vang Pao and many of his former CIA handlers say the federal government's case lacks substance and reads like the plot of an action movie. The case stems from a tip received by investigators in 2006 by a man the US government termed a "defense contractor", but whose main vocation seems to be selling potions he claims cures chronic diseases, including cancer.
The tip sparked an investigation in 2007 by a federal anti-terror task force in Sacramento, California, which it claimed was a US$26 million plot to overthrow the Lao government.
Vang Pao's arrest, however, sparked at least one mass protest among the Hmong community in the US. Because Vang Pao is not included in the new case, it is not expected to draw as much media and public attention. US Attorney Lawrence G Brown of the Eastern District of California, said the charges against Vang Pao had been dropped "based on the totality of the evidence in the case".
In a court motion, Brown wrote, "The government believes, as a discretionary matter, that continued prosecution of defendant Vang Pao is no longer warranted." And in a news release, he said prosecutors could drop charges for a variety of reasons, including vaguely "other consequences if the person is convicted".
Some believe the decision to drop the case was prompted by a realization that continued prosecution of Vang Pao in court could be embarrassing for the US, particularly as Washington bids to forge closer ties to the Lao government. The US re-established full diplomatic relations with Laos in 1992 and granted it Normal Trade Relations (NTR) status in 2004. A bilateral trade agreement entered into force in February 2005 and the two sides exchanged military attaches in 2008.
In June, US President Barack Obama removed Laos and Cambodia from a blacklist that limited government support for companies doing business in both countries. The move was intended to open the way for more US investment in both countries by allowing American companies to apply for financing through the Export-Import Bank of the United States for working capital guarantees, export credit insurance and loan guarantees.
Laos does not represent a large or high purchasing power market for US companies. American exports to Laos were a mere US$18 million last year, while Lao exports to the US tallied $42 million. United States trade with Thailand and Vietnam, in comparison, amounted to $30 billion and $15 billion respectively. At the same time, the US is keen to counterbalance China's rising influence in the region, including in Laos.
Chinese companies have recently moved into Laos in a big way, with Beijing widely recognized as Laos' biggest economic patron. China has financed the construction of major roads, including the recently completed Route 3 linking China and Thailand through northwest Laos, and other high-profile projects such as the National Cultural Hall in downtown Vientiane and the main stadium for the biennial Southeast Asian Games to be held in the capital city in December.
United States economic initiatives and aid packages grew from $4.5 million over the three-year period spanning 2005-2007 to $18 million last year, according to US State Department figures. However, lingering Lao perceptions of US meddling, both through its assistance to the Royal Lao government during the 1950s-1970s and its perceived support for a continuing Hmong resistance, have hampered a faster expansion in diplomatic and commercial ties.
Former ally, current liability
General Vang Pao's ethnic Hmong rebels were a key component in a CIA-led strategy to prevent a communist takeover of Laos from 1961-1973. In what has become known as the Secret War, Hmong guerrillas interdicted supply convoys, called in air strikes and rescued downed American fliers. Vang Pao's troops suffered heavy casualties in what eventually proved to be a futile effort in repelling communist forces.
Vang Pao and many of his key followers were evacuated in 1975 and over the years tens of thousands of Hmong fled the country for refugee camps in neighboring Thailand, from which most were eventually resettled in the US. Other Hmong chose to remain in Laos to maintain their remote camps in a little known or noticed resistance movement that continues to this day.
For many of the 200,000 Hmong now living in the US, the war has still not ended. Their relatives who never surrendered are still being hunted and killed by the Lao military. Media reports have revealed that groups of men, women and children survive on roots, leaves and whatever animals can be trapped in the jungle while they maintain their hit-and-run resistance.
Through satellite phones received as gifts from relatives in America, they contact their kin in Minneapolis, Milwaukee or Sacramento to tell them of Lao military attacks and their desperate attempts to defend themselves with decrepit Vietnam-era weapons. Support for the so-called "jungle Hmong" began in the 1980s when Hmong began raising money in their own communities to support the resistance in Laos.
Although the assistance violated US law - and the Hmong did little to hide what they were doing - the Justice Department was uninterested in cracking down on a group that were former allies involved in a country that apparently held little geostrategic consequence to US interests. Hmong fundraisers and supporters apparently grew bolder in the absence of US government or law enforcement agency pressure.
According to government documents released as part of the prosecution, Vietnam War veteran Harrison Jack was initially interested in procuring 500 AK-47 assault rifles for Hmong still hiding in the Lao jungle. Attorneys for the accused allege that the sting operation represented entrapment and was conceived by a federal undercover agent who played on the Hmong's hopes to one day return to a more democratic Laos. They have noted that no weapons were purchased and only a fraction of the money for the purchase had been raised.
The biggest losers in the court room drama are the several thousand Hmong refugees languishing in the Huay Nam Khao refugee camp in Thailand's Petchabun province. Another 158 Hmong are incarcerated in an immigration detention center in the Thai border town of Nong Khai, across the Mekong River from the Lao capital of Vientiane. Members of the second group were recognized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as persons of concern in 2005-2006.
Although several countries, including the Netherlands, Australia, Canada and the US, have said that they are willing to accept the refugees, Thailand has yet to allow them to leave for resettlement. The Lao government claims they must first be returned to Laos before they can travel to any third country. The refugees say they fear for their safety from Lao authorities if they are repatriated, a claim backed by several human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
The Lao government clearly would like to see the refugee problem disappear before the start of the Southeast Asian Games in December. The US government claims it is pressing the Thai and Lao authorities for a transparent screening process, monitoring and guarantees of protection for returned refugees. There have been several congressional and embassy visits to the Lao government's repatriation site and the refugee camp in Thailand.
Critics say Washington is only paying lip service to the problem and that officials have done little to raise publicity over the issue, as they have done for refugees on Thailand's border with Myanmar. With Vang Pao removed from the indictment in the alleged plot to overthrow the Lao government, the US government has removed the one defendant who could attract sufficient attention to the US's shoddy treatment of its former allies after they have outlived their usefulness.
At the same time, the US gains credence with the Lao regime that it is finally acting to end Hmong-American support for anti-government resistance and pave the way for closer ties to a country that is once again strategically important in the US's new contest against China for regional influence.
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached at email@example.com.