Tuesday, December 29, 2009
It is one of the world’s most obscure places, a landlocked jungle where communist guerrillas and US special forces fought a “secret war” during the doomed struggle against communism in Indo-China. Forty years on the fate of the Hmong, key participants in that struggle in Laos, remains unresolved.
As the Thai Government has begun to repatriate more than 4,000 Hmong refugees, an extraordinary court drama has been unfolding in California. It features exiled insurgents, mercenaries, a US military officer-turned-arms broker and a plot to topple one of Asia’s last remaining communist dictatorships.
Prosecutors in California have charged nine people with conspiring to overthrow the Government of Laos. The arrests put the US authorities in the ironic position of leaping to the defence of communist leaders whom they spent 13 years, and many lives, fighting to destroy.
The members of the group are accused of raising funds to form and equip a mercenary army in violation of the Neutrality Act, which forbids American citizens from plotting against countries with which the US is at peace. The plot was discovered by an officer of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who posed as an arms dealer offering to sell them automatic rifles, anti-tank weapons, Stinger surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled and Claymore grenades, and plastic explosives.
Chief among those arrested was General Vang Pao, 77, a leader-in-exile of the Hmong and a former protégé of the US in the secret war between 1962 and 1975. Among his community General Vang is regarded as a hero — after vehement protest charges against him were dropped in September.
According to prosecutors, the plotters had dispatched spies to the Lao capital, Vientiane, and taken photographs of government buildings and the historic Royal Palace, which they allegedly planned to destroy with explosives.
The American accused of acting as a middleman for the arms deal is Lieutenant-Colonel Harrison Jack, a former US soldier and member of the California National Guard, who served as a covert operative in South-East Asia during the Vietnam War.