Thursday, January 6, 2011
Legendary Hmong General Vang Pao surrounded by his interpreter and security personnel during a recent visit to Sacramento. The leader of the CIA's secret Hmong guerrilla army during Vietnam War, the general, addressed local Hmong at the Sacramento Lao Family Community Center, Friday, February 6, 2004.
Gen. Vang Pao, an iconic figure in the Hmong community and a key U.S. ally during the Vietnam War, died today in Clovis.
Vang, 81, was admitted to Clovis Community Medical Center on Dec. 26. Vang apparently was admitted shortly after making his annual appearance at the Hmong International New Year event at the Fresno Fairgrounds.
Charlie Waters, a friend and veterans advocate in Fresno, said Vang was suffering from pneumonia and an ongoing heart problem.
Vang is revered by many as a father figure and leader who helped bring and settle the Hmong community into American life.
But he also has been controversial -- federal authorities in 2007 charged him and 10 others with conspiring to violently overthrow communist Laos. Charges against Vang were dropped in 2009.
Yet the arrest galvanized Hmong Americans who saw Vang as symbolizing the fight for public acknowledgment of the Hmong role in the war and the liberation of those still living in Laotian jungle.
The central San Joaquin Valley has one of the largest Hmong populations in the country. Many Hmong -- some of whom fought beside American soldiers during the Vietnam War -- came here after fleeing Laos.
It was conflict that paved a path to prominence for Vang, viewed by some as a king and others as George Washington of the Hmong.
Born in December 1929 to farmers in a Laotian village, he became a teenage translator for French paratroopers fighting the Japanese in Laos during World War II.
Vang was selected to train at a French officers' school in Vietnam and became a commissioned officer in the French army. Laotian leaders made Vang a general, even though the Hmong were a small ethnic minority in the country.
In 1961, Vang was recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency to lead a secret army of Hmong soldiers against Laotian communists and their North Vietnamese counterparts using routes through Laos to supply their troops.
When the war ended and U.S. forces pulled out of Vietnam, communists in Laos persecuted the Hmong. More than 300,000 Laotian refugees -- most of them Hmong -- began a treacherous journey to reach Thai refugee camps.
Under CIA orders, Vang was flown from his mountaintop headquarters in May 1975. He lived in Montana before moving to Orange County -- which had a growing Southeast Asian population -- and took a leadership role in the resettlement of his people.
In 1977, Vang established the Lao Family Community organization to provide social services nationwide. The nonprofit helps refugees learn English and basic life skills.
That, and wartime memories, helped build a foundation for Vang's influence here.
Tony Vang, a Fresno Unified School District trustee, remembers Vang Pao visiting his village when he was a boy. The general also helped pay for Tony Vang -- whose father and three brothers fought and died in the war -- to attend a high school in Hawaii in the early 1970s.
"We lost a great leader, a person who cared deeply about his people and dedicated his entire life to serving them," Vang said.
Over time, however, Vang lost some credibility for failing to deliver on a promise to return to Laos as a liberator. His reputation also was tarnished by controversy that dogged some organizations related to Vang or family members.
A few years ago, for example, the nonprofit Vang Pao Foundation in Minnesota agreed to go out of business and pay restitution. That move settled charges that included operating without a board of directors and soliciting money to buy land for low-income housing without using the funds for that purpose.
Then in 2007, federal authorities charged Vang and others with planning to violently overthrow the communist government of Laos. He spent six weeks in jail before being released on bail.
His arrest sparked rallies in Fresno and Sacramento among Hmong who saw it as a betrayal by the U.S. government. It also underlined Vang's standing in that community.
In late 2009, Vang said he planned to return to Laos -- saying it was time for reconciliation so that thousands of Hmong trapped in the jungle and refugee camps could be liberated.
But that trip was quickly cancelled after the communist regime announced that Vang would be executed as a Vietnam War criminal if he returned to Laos.
Vang reportedly had six wives in Laos, where polygamy was practiced by some Hmong. Family members have said that he has about 20 children.