Laos pledges to take care of Hmong returnees

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Vientiane - Communist Laos repeated its vow to take care of 4,500 Hmong returnees until they can fend for themselves, but refused to allow the United Nations to interview them, state media and diplomatic sources said Tuesday.

Lao Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Phongsavath Boupha met with ambassadors from the European Union, US and Australia on January 15 to allay concerns about some 4,500 ethnic Hmong who were deported from neighbouring Thailand December 28, the Vientiane Times reported.

Phongsavath told the ambassadors that Hmong returnees would be able to live in villages of their own choice and the government had provided them with food, clothing and medicines on arrival in their homeland, the state mouthpiece reported.

'The government's long-term plan was to build a house for each family and allocate land for farming activities,' Phongsavath said.

The government has also pledged to supply the returnees with gravity-fed water systems, toilets, roads and schools, and to provide food until they are able to make their own living.

It has allowed foreign diplomats and three US congressmen to visit the Hmong resettlement camps, but has barred the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from interviewing the returnees.

The UNHCR expressed concern about 150 Hmong who were kept in Thailand's Nong Khai district for more than three years, which the agency classified as 'persons of concern' due to their past records as resistance fighters.

'The Lao do not consider these people to be political prisoners and they feel the UNHCR has made a big mistake in classifying them as such,' a Western diplomat who met with Phongsavath said.

Several Western countries have offered to accept members from that group of 150 for resettlement.

'The Lao have not ruled this out, but they want the returnees to have a chance to see whether they would prefer to stay in Laos before they consider resettlement,' the diplomat said.

The Hmong are an ethnic minority group that sided with the US military in its 'secret war' against communism in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s. Tens of thousands of Hmong fled to Thailand to after the communist forces took over Laos in 1975.

More than 100,000 Hmong were resettled in the US.

Thailand deported 4,508 Hmong, who had been living in refugee camps since 2004, last month as part of a policy to cooperate with Laos and stem the continuing Hmong migration.

Laos, one of the world's few remaining communist states, has been courting overseas Laotians to return home to invest in the country, one of the world's poorest.

The government's treatment of the Hmong returnees is deemed an important litmus test for the success of that campaign, Thai diplomats said.


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