Guest column: U.S. policy failure had hand in Hmong refugee crisis

Friday, January 29, 2010

Hmong-Americans in Green Bay are suffering because of the recent mass forced return of their loved ones from refugee camps in Thailand back to Laos over the holidays. Tragically, with the help of Washington bureaucrats, America once again has helped betray many of its former Hmong allies who served with U.S. clandestine and military forces during the Vietnam War.
More than 4,700 Hmong were forced by the Thai Army back to Laos, where they had fled political and religious persecution. Journalists from "The Age" in Australia have now discovered that many Hmong returnees are being held in secret razor-wire ringed camps far from the "Potemkin Village" model, propaganda camps Laos shows to foreign visitors.

Key U.S. diplomats have chosen to ignore overwhelming evidence of human rights abuses against the Hmong people, including horrific attacks by the Lao military on civilians and dissidents, and instead stressed promoting free trade with the one-party, communist regime in Laos. Tragically, these officials, including the current U.S. ambassador to Laos, Ravic Huso, helped facilitate the forced repatriation policy, despite opposition by key members of Congress as well as human rights and refugee organizations.

Huso has encouraged the return of Hmong refugees from Thailand to Laos despite concerns raised by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Doctors Without Borders (MSF). He has repeatedly ignored human rights violations against the Hmong in Laos and returnees from Thailand, who have disappeared or have been imprisoned, tortured or killed at the hands of Lao military forces in recent years.

After repeated State Department stonewalling and mixed messages on this plight of the Hmong refugees, nine senators including U.S. Sens. Russell Feingold, D-Middleton, Herb Kohl, D-Milwaukee, and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., sent a letter on Dec. 17 directly to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit urging him to halt the forced return of the Hmong to Laos.

On Christmas Eve, the State Department finally issued a long-overdue public statement urging Thailand to cease the forced return of the Hmong. It lacked teeth. The Thai Army and Prime Minister Abhisit ignored the State Department appeal. It was too little, too late.

Clearly, the State Department's public message to Thailand should have been articulated at a higher level, much sooner, to seek to reverse this policy failure and help save the Hmong from forced repatriation to Laos.

Philip Smith is executive director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis in Washington, D.C. E-mail


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