Thursday, July 15, 2010
The unhappy fate of the Hmong
FOREIGN dignitaries in black limos are a common sight in Washington, DC. Rarely though do they hail from Laos, a tiny, landlocked country that was caught up in America’s ill-fated Indochina War. Laos’s foreign minister, Thongloun Sisoulith, who met his counterpart, Hillary Clinton, on July 13th, is the most senior Lao official to visit since 1975, when Communist forces seized power. The two countries restored full diplomatic ties in 1992, but the war still casts a shadow. Unexploded ordnance, dropped by the Americans, remains scattered over the Lao countryside.
Another niggling concern is the fate of 4,689 ethnic Hmong who were forcibly sent back to Laos by Thailand in December. During the war the CIA recruited the Hmong as anti-Communist fighters. Many fled the country after 1975, ending up as refugees in America, Thailand and elsewhere. In 2004-05 America accepted 14,000 Hmong who had been living at a Thai temple. The latest group, which had been stuck in Thai army camps, was less fortunate. Thai officials, calling them economic migrants, blocked most from applying for sanctuary via the United Nations’ refugee agency, UNHCR. And although 158 of them did get somehow get UN refugee status, pending resettlement by America and others, they were deported anyway.
Foreign governments pressed Laos for access to the returned refugees, who were packed off to resettlement villages. In March visitors were flown by helicopter to one village for a carefully staged visit. Handpicked Hmong told diplomats that they preferred to stay in Laos and had been “misled” into seeking refugee status. But when others went off script, pleading for help in getting to the West, the visitors were bundled away. Some of these Hmong have since fled from the village, presumably for the border. In response, a curfew has been imposed, a human-rights monitor reports from Bangkok, the Thai capital.
Laos denies that the Hmong, one of dozens of minority groups, face any ill treatment. But they have reason to be worried. Hmong traditionally farm upland areas where the CIA set up clandestine operating bases during the war and, incredibly, 35 years later, tiny pockets of Hmong fighters are still battling the Lao army. It is unclear how many, if any, of the latest deportees are related to these ragtag rebels. But with such uncertainty, international law forbids the forced return of people to a country where they fear persecution.
Sadly, it is not the first time that Thailand has flouted such rules. It has turned away Myanmar’s minorities, including Muslim Rohingya boat people who in 2009 were pushed back to sea, where hundreds probably drowned. Army officers claimed that the Rohingya were a security threat and had links to a Muslim-led insurgency in the south. They gave no evidence and, despite a promise by the Thai prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, there has been no inquiry.
Thailand’s expulsion of the Hmong drew sharp criticism from American, UN and European Union officials. But it has done wonders for relations between Thailand and Laos. The Obama administration tries to claim that America’s influence in the region is not waning. Mrs Clinton is expected at a summit of the Association of South-East Asian Nations next week in Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. But shoddy treatment of minorities by Thailand, long an American ally, bodes ill for others hoping for help from the superpower. Nor is it an encouraging sign for Thailand itself. “There was a time when they wouldn’t do this, when the rule of law meant something,” sighs a Western diplomat in Bangkok.