Wednesday, January 6, 2010
All Khue Yang knew about his brother was that he was in "car number 494."
About a week ago, as one of several thousand refugees that represented the last Hmong asylum seekers still in Thailand, Khue Yang's brother was suddenly shipped back to Laos, the land he had once fought to keep from falling into communist hands in the 1970s.
He'd managed to keep a cell phone with him and, days later, called Khue Yang in St. Paul to let him know he was OK.
But others weren't. Thai soldiers, Khue Yang's brother told him, used Tasers, tear gas and sticks to get them into border-bound vehicles.
"Their heads would bleed, and they would just carry them and put them in the cars," Khue Yang said through a translator.
Khue Yang was one of about 300 area Hmong who converged on St. Paul's Lao Family Community Center on Tuesday to get some word — any word — about the thousands of refugees who had been forcibly repatriated. An overflowing parking lot and standing-room-only crowd included dozens of veterans in uniform, Twin Cities community activists and family members.
On Dec. 28, the last refugee camp of ethnic Hmong asylum seekers who allied with the U.S. during the Vietnam War was shut down in Pehetchabun, Thailand. Its roughly 4,500 Hmong were placed on military trucks and vehicles and shipped to the border and eventually taken into the Laotian town of Paksane.
Many Hmong, an ethnic minority from Laos' mountains, fought under the CIA to establish a pro-American government during the Vietnam War before the communist victory in 1975.
Since then, more than 300,000 Lao, mostly Hmong, fled to camps in Thailand. Most were repatriated to Laos or resettled in third countries. St. Paul has the largest Hmong population of any city in the United States — about 25,000.
When the camp closed last week, journalists and observers were kept miles away during the operation and have not been allowed near the village since. Thai military officials in charge of the operation said that no weapons were used and that the Hmong offered no resistance.
But that statement was widely disputed Tuesday. Hmong in the Twin Cities area who had heard from family members in Laos using hidden cell phones got a different story.
A couple hundred men were singled out, Khue Yang's brother told him. They were tied, separated from their families and put in cages.
"Some, they would tie their feet and hands for three days. ... No food," Khue Yang said.
The 79-year-old father-in-law of Victor Yang, of La Crosse, Wis., was in the camp. The "ex-CIA soldier," as many Hmong veterans call themselves, was terrified to go back.
"When he was forced back, he held his hands together to beg ... saying he doesn't want to go," Yang said through a translator. "But they tied his hands, threw him into a truck and sent him back." Thai soldiers also used tear gas during the operation, said Yang, adding that some of his younger relatives still couldn't see after several days.
Nhia Paul Moua, of Maplewood, hasn't been able to contact his brother since the day after his family's deportation. His 59-year-old brother had time that day to say only a few words from the new camp in Laos.
"Many ... who did not want to leave were beaten," Nhia Paul Moua said through a translator Tuesday. Others were Tased.
Nhia Paul Moua, like every family member interviewed Tuesday, had no idea where his relatives were headed next.
Of particular concern to the event's organizers and many attendees was another group of 158 Hmong also shipped to Paksane last week.
Hmong who had hidden from the Laotian government in the country's jungles until several years ago — already identified by the United Nations as "persons of concern" because of the higher chance of repercussions against them, and already approved for asylum — were shipped back to Laos with those in the larger camp.
"The United Nations now has a problem," said Sia Lo, a private attorney and activist based in St. Paul. "That sets a grave precedent for other refugees throughout the world on how the U.N. is going to deal with refugees."
The repatriation of those 158 was illegal, Sia Lo said, because of a tenet of international law known as the "Principle of Non Refoulement," which forbids the deportation of a refugee to a country where they would once again be persecuted.
"The problem with the law is the enforcement," Sia Lo added, noting that the United Nations has formally inquired on the status of the "persons of concern."
Tuesday's crowd appeared to agree with him. Its first raucous round of applause came when Sia Lo pounded his fist on a lectern set in front of an elevated picture of Hmong leader Gen. Vang Pao and told them, "The United Nations needs to do its job, because no one else knows what to do!"
The event was organized by the Hmong Diaspora Leadership Council, created in 2008 in part to support Vang Pao's efforts in Laos, according to secretary Mee Vang. It now represents multiple Hmong organizations, activists and clan leaders nationwide.
Tad Vezner can be reached at 651-228-5461.