Sunday, January 16, 2011
TO HIS followers, General Vang Pao was “the earth and the sky”, a natural-born leader of the mountain-dwelling Hmong tribes of Laos who fought with the Americans during the Vietnam war. When the Pathet Lao seized power in 1975, Vang Pao led his people into exile in America, where he died on January 6th, aged 81. He never set foot again in his native Laos.
Mr Vang’s guerrilla army, backed and financed by the CIA and opium sales, was a vital cog in the American war machine. His men attacked Communist forces along the Ho Chi Minh trail that snaked through north-east Laos, and rescued downed American bomber pilots. Some 35,000 Hmong died in battle.
Vang Pao’s war was a secret one; Laos was officially neutral. That stopped neither North Vietnam’s Communists nor the Americans nor Mr Vang. Leading his troops into battle, he was badly wounded. Yet he found time to marry several wives and was said to have fathered at least 20 children.
The Hmong picked the losing side in a conflict that spilled over into civil war in Laos. After Communist victory in 1975, tens of thousands of Hmong fled overland into Thailand, and then California and Minnesota. Vang Pao leant on his network of former spooks, soldiers and diplomats to twist arms in Washington, DC, and win help for his kinsmen.
Rag-tag Hmong rebels remain in the remote jungles of Laos. For Vang Pao, it was unfinished business. In old age he may have dreamed of a comeback. In 2007 American prosecutors accused him of plotting the overthrow of the Lao government by recruiting mercenaries to seize the capital. The charges were later dropped, and the whole case then collapsed. Asked last week about his death, Laos said it had no comment. Its Communist rulers have other matters to attend to. On January 11th Laos opened its first stock exchange. Times have changed.