Editorial: Vang Pao's death means loss, change for area Hmong

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The death last week of Laotian Army General Vang Pao is a great loss for Hmong Americans and marks the end of an era for this country's Southeast Asian refugees.

Pao, 81, died Thursday in Clovis, Calif., from pneumonia.

The charismatic leader was revered by tens of thousands of Hmong people who fled to the U.S. following the Vietnam War. He gained prominence first as part of the Royal Lao Army and later as head of a CIA-backed secret army, leading Hmong guerrillas against communists during the Vietnam War. Postwar, his reputation grew as he helped Hmong refugees resettle in the United States.

Many of the thousands of Hmong who live in Northeastern Wisconsin are mourning his death.

Staryoung Thao, executive director of the United Hmong & Asian American Community Center in Green Bay, told the Green Bay Press-Gazette he was sad to hear the news. He said Pao's passing would be "a turning point" for his people.

"It's a great loss to the Hmong community. It is a sad time for everyone," Thao on Tuesday told a member of the Press-Gazette editorial board. "… He had been considered one of the greatest leaders within the Hmong community, from postwar, (for) many generations, until now."

The Hmong community center, 401 Ninth St., on Sunday held a candlelight vigil to remember Pao. Between 200 and 300 people came to pay their respects, many weeping as they touched the leader's photograph, said Wa Yia Thao, the center's elected president.

Staryoung Thao estimates there are between 5,000 and 6,000 people with Hmong ethnic background — either those who migrated or who were born here — living in Brown County.

Though beloved by Hmong communities around the nation, Pao also was a controversial figure. Accounts surfaced that while he was a military leader, he had ordered executions of political prisoners and even of some of his followers, in addition to rumors that he helped finance his army through the opium trade.

In 2007, he and 10 others were indicted on federal charges for allegedly plotting to overthrow the communist government of Laos, a violation of the federal Neutrality Act. The charges against him were dropped in 2009.

The indictment in 2007 was enough to stop an effort in Madison to name an elementary school after Pao.

Still, Pao's legacy of fighting for the rights of his people cannot be denied. Among his accomplishments is his establishment of the Lao Family Community organization, which provides social services nationwide. The nonprofit group teaches English and basic life skills to refugees.

"We don't know that we will have anyone like him," said Wa Yia Thao, "or that we will have someone … who will replace him. The Hmong feel there will be no one who will be able to do as much as General Vang Pao."


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