Monday, April 19, 2010
Foreign press access to Laos is notoriously rare, so when the government invited AFP I was itching to go.
But as our rickety Russian-made helicopter touched down in a remote corner of the People's Democratic Republic, the diplomats and journalists on board knew this was no ordinary press trip.
We were there for a "tour" of a village housing thousands of ethnic Hmong people who were recently kicked out of Thailand, despite fears they would face persecution on their return for fighting in a CIA-backed "secret army" when the Vietnam War spread to Laos.
When Thailand forcibly repatriated around 4,500 Hmong asylum-seekers in December, insisting they were illegal economic immigrants, the move infuriated the international community. The UN had recognised 158 as refugees, and was never allowed to assess if the rest needed protection.
Laos denied that outside access to the group would be difficult, but three months later the few visits permitted to foreign observers had been carefully stage-managed and far from the "free and unfettered access" that rights groups and embassies demanded.
So it was with much scepticism that I accepted the invitation, aware the Laotian regime would do all it could to show that the group were well-treated and glad to be back.
Diplomats I asked thought it was at least a step in the right direction, but activists seemed less convinced.
"It'll be a dog and pony show," a rights worker in Bangkok warned me.
We had just two hours on the ground, most of which was spent in a village hall, where officials told us of grand plans to develop the apparently-contented community.
But a few brave Hmong spotted a rare chance to tell us otherwise.
"I want to go to another country," said one woman (via a diplomat who thankfully could translate) while others tearfully tried to explain their plight as we were ushered away.
Sensing they were losing control, our chaperones lost their cool.
"Everybody get out!" yelled the previously calm and collected foreign ministry spokesman, after pulling me away from the crowd.
So we left without a tour of the village, but a chance to remind outsiders that so long as decent access to these Hmong is still forbidden, they should not be forgotten.