The CIA’s ‘Secret War’

Friday, February 25, 2011

Decades after US forces exited the Vietnam War the remnants of a CIA-backed force of Lao villagers still live in fear in the jungle.

In a clearing deep inside the Laotian jungle, a group of Hmong fall to the groundand beg me for help as soon asthey see me. Chor Her, a skinny man wearing torn camouflage, is the only one toremain standing. He salutes before joining the others on the muddy ground.

‘We have no food, every day we have to run, we are being hunted like animals,’ says one elderly woman,weeping. The young children surrounding her are also crying—I’m told it’s the first time they’ve seen a foreigner. Indeed, these people have been largely cut off from the outside world since the Vietnam War.

Back then, the Hmong were fighters—secret fighters in a 15-year covert US operation backed by the CIA. Now they are forced to constantly run for their lives in a country whose government doesn’t officially acknowledge they exist.

‘The Americans gave us weapons and told us to shoot the enemy,’ says Chor Her, waving a battered CIA-issued M79 in the air. ‘Then they left us and we’ve been slowly dying here ever since…When the Lao Army kills one of our men, they feel as though they’ve killed an American in revenge for us helping them during the war.’

Almost before he has finished his sentence, another man jumps into the conversation, pleading for food and medicine. ‘We are human beings, so why does the world turna deafear and blind eye tous?’ he asks.

As the Vietnam War raged,Washington noticed that communist forces had spilled over into Laos. In response, the Americans launchedwhat was later called a secret war. At the time, Laos had been declared ‘neutral,’ but with a growing communist presence, the CIA saw it as the next front in the conflict. A handful of CIA agents were flown in to build on existing tensions between the Hmong and the Laotian government, led by the communist Pathet Lao.

‘They were better than anyone else around, every step they took was up or down so they could move a lot faster than the enemy,’ says Bill Lair, a legendary CIA agent who headed the agency’s paramilitary operations in Laos. ‘They needed a leader and Vang Pao seemed like the most suitable man for the job.’

Vang Pao, or ‘the General,’ was selected for his charisma and leadership skills,honed when the Hmong had previously allied with the French against North Vietnamese forces. With the help of the CIA, he reportedly trained and armed more than 60,000 Hmong fighters. While the Americans set up a major military airport in Northern Laos, the Hmong were in charge of disrupting communist supply lines and rescuing downed pilots.

It has been estimated that the Hmong lost nearly 100,000 people during this secret operation. As the war progressed, and with casualties quickly mounting, Vang Pao and his CIA backers eventually had to turn to the use of child soldiers to keep up the resistance efforts.

‘An American and a Thai man came into my school and I was taken away to military training,’ says Bou Than, a former Hmong soldier. Still only 13 years-old, the war was raging around him in the Laotian jungle. He was poached from a classroom and shipped straight off for military training.

‘I saw many of my school friends die in those jungles to help American forces,’ he says. ‘Kids as young as eight were being used.’

It’s rumored that at one point, Vang Pao said he wanted to cease all military operations with the CIA over concerns that the enormous loss of life could ultimately lead to the Hmong communities being wiped out altogether. Regardless of his intentions, though, the Hmong involvement continued—as did the casualties.

Soaring heroin sales were perhaps one thing that persuaded him to keep going. Before the Americans arrived, opium smoking was a cultural norm in the region and was prevalent throughoutthe Hmong highlands. US planes gave the Hmong the opportunity to do something they hadn’t previously—transport and sell large quantities of the drug, including to US soldiers.

There has been a great deal of debate since over the exact details of the operation, based on testimony given by CIA agents who were there at the time. But one thing is clear—there was a busy opium trade operating in the region, andthe agency appears to have turned a blind eye.

A number of CIA officers have claimed since that, fearing their operation could be embarrassingly exposed, they decided to give Vang Pao his own local airline, Xieng Kouang airlines, as part of a compromise following his demands for control of all of the agency’s planes.

Much of the opium that was produced is said to have ended up in the hands of American GIs on the frontlines, leading to a dramatic rise in the number of overdoses among soldiers. Yet despite this obvious drawback, those involved in the operation appear to have felt there was little they could do as the profits were, in effect, also helping to fund the war effort.

‘Opium grew everywhere in our highlands,’ says Tho Ther, a former Hmong soldier who now resides in the United States. ‘We smoked it openly, but it was only when the Americans came that our leaders began to sell it.’

‘We were losing countless male children for the CIA’s war and needed to pay to keep the villagers happy,’ he adds. ‘Otherwise they would have changed sides to save their men from joining our army.’

But it still wasn’t enough. The communist forces continued to grow in strength and advanced towards the CIA bases despite Washington’s best efforts—and $2 million a day spent carpet bombing Laos—to stop them. Accepting defeat, the Americans eventually fled, taking a handful of Hmong leaders, including Vang Pao.

With the Americans out of the picture, the Pathet Lao moved to try to wipe out the remaining Hmong elements that had worked with the CIA. But while thousands perished in aerial attacks on Hmong settlements—spurring a mass exodus to Thailand—the rest fled deeper into the jungle, where many remain today, still hoping the United States will return to save them.

Funeral for a Father

Earlier this month, thousands of mourners gathered in California for Vang Pao’s funeral. While an average Hmong usually receives a three-day funeral, owing to his stature among exiled Hmong, Vang Pao was given a six-day ceremony. While his critics have suggested his decision to support foreign forces led to his people suffering unnecessarily, the numbers attending the funeral demonstrated the loyalty he still inspired, with thousands of supporters flocking from locations as far away as France and Thailand to bid farewell to the symbolic head of a troubled people.

‘We call him “father.” He was always our leader and never turned his back on us, until his very last day,’ says Meng Lee, who attended the service.

In what turned out to be his final effort to secure some kind of lasting peace for his people, Vang Pao last year surprised followers by announcing a planned visit to Laos to meet government officials. The plan, revealed at a Hmong New Year dinner, was for him to make a peace deal with his former enemy on the Thai-Laotian border. Once peace had been agreed, Vang Pao planned to travel into Laos to assist the jungle Hmong. He hoped that those left in the jungle could then join repatriated refugees from Thailand on specially designated farmland, free from persecution.

But the Laotian government didn’t share this vision. In response to the proposal, Laos’ foreign minister is quoted as having said: ‘If he comes to Laos soon he must submit to the death sentence.’ The trip was cancelled.

The chillingresponse wasn’t entirely surprising—the Laotian government remains bitter over the role Vang Pao played in the Vietnam War. Ironically, then, the death of the would-be peacemaker might actually benefit the Hmong people, leaving space for a younger generation of ‘untainted’ leaders better able to avoid direct conflict with Vientiane. Still, the prospects for a breakthrough anytime soon seem remote.

No Foreign Friends?

Despite being home to more than 250,000 Hmong refugees, the United States has done little to try to resolve the ongoing tensions. In a recent meeting between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Lao’s foreign minister in Washington, no mention seems to have been made of the persecuted Hmong.

The same can be said for Thailand, which allowed the forced repatriation of 4000 Hmong despite having trained many of Vang Pao’s forces. Thailand now also tops the list of Laos’ foreign investors.

Meanwhile, the Lao People’s Army continues to hunt down the remainder of the once formidable Hmong force. Always on the run, they have no time to harvest rice, so they survive largely by eating bugs and tree roots. Some of those who have surrendered in the past have returned to the jungle with stories of torture and rape. Without any form of foreign assistance, it seems likely most will eventually be found by the Army.

Shortly after Vang Pao’s death, speaking over a phone smuggled in by Hmong-American activists, Chor Fer says his group is struggling.

‘We’ve lost our father and don’t know what to do, we just keep running with nowhere to go,’ he says over a crackling line. ‘Every one of us wants to put an end to the war, but we know what will happen if we surrender. The communists will kill us.’

William Lloyd-George is a freelance journalist based on the Thai-Burma border. His work has appeared in TIME, The Independent, Bangkok Post, Afternposten, Irrawaddy and Global Post among others.



High school student designs Hmong-inspired clothing line

Lincoln High School senior Kang Chu Thao holds up her favorite of the pieces of clothing she has designed that will be part of a fashion show Saturday afternoon at Lincoln. Also shown are other pieces Thao made, as well as some traditional Hmong clothing that will be part of the show. (Sue Pischke/HTR)

MANITOWOC — Kang Chu Thao has wanted to work in the fashion industry since she was a little girl. Now a senior at Lincoln High School, she has taken a big step in that direction by designing a line of clothing that combines Hmong influences "with a modern twist."

The 18-year-old will showcase her designs at a fashion show she's putting on at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in the auditorium at Lincoln High School, 1433 S. Eighth St. Doors open at 3 p.m. The show will last 30 to 40 minutes, and refreshments will be served afterward.

Admission is one gently used article of clothing to be donated to the Manitowoc County Domestic Violence Center.

Thao said she hopes members of the public will attend her show.

"I worked really hard to try to get this out to the public," she said, referring to flyers made and distributed with the help of a friend.

Independent study
Lincoln doesn't offer classes in fashion design, Thao said, so she applied to do an independent study course. The class involved designing and sewing clothing and planning the fashion show.

"I made 10 pieces of my own," Thao said.

Some she made "from scratch," and for others, she employed the strategy of "recycle, reuse and redesign," meaning she bought items at thrift shops and remade them.

Her fashion show also will feature 10 pieces of traditional Hmong clothing. All of those are from her own collection, purchased or made by her mother.

"They're very special to me," she said, and they're also her inspiration for the clothing she designed.
Combining cultures

Thao described the clothing she made as having "more of a sophisticated look." The designs are simple, and she incorporates Hmong symbols and patterns and traditional Hmong colors, which are vibrant and "neon."
Fashion designers use elements of other cultures, such as African-American, Japanese and Chinese, in their designs, but none of the major designers incorporate a Hmong influence, according to Thao.

Pursuing that "fresh idea" is what she wants to do as a career. She plans to attend the University of Wisconsin-Stout with a double major in merchandising and design.

"It's just all really about finding myself and knowing how to share my culture with the rest of the world," she said

Thao's parents came to the United States from a refugee camp in Thailand in 1992. Their customs and culture were lost, Thao said, and she won't be able to fully experience her culture. She has felt it would be easier to be of one culture or the other, but now she has found a way to connect them through fashion.

"Creating and showcasing the clothing that I've created enables me to share my Hmong culture with my community," she said.

Thao said she wants to use her artistic ability to improve her community by sharing the Hmong culture.

Selecting models
Thao put out flyers seeking fellow Lincoln students to serve as models for her fashion show. She met individually with those interested, because she was looking for more than just an interest in modeling. She approved all 19 who expressed interest.

Thao "absolutely, no doubt" will be successful in her career as a fashion designer, said art teacher Gloria Pivonka, one of two teachers overseeing the independent study project.

Pivonka said Thao's maturity level "contributed to bringing all this together," and she described her as "self-directed."

"From start to finish, she's done everything," Pivonka said, referring to handling all aspects of the project. "She's taken it to the professional level."
Cindy Hodgson: (920) 686-2966 or



Hmong: Celebrate CommUNITY: Fond Du Lac Gathers for Diversity Event.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Shou Herr from the Hmong community showed visitors some of the story quilts created by the Laotian people. The embroidery tells the story of the Hmong people's journey from Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.

Below is an article published by: Fond Du Lac Reporter

As Russian dancers twirled before a large crowd Saturday attending Celebrate CommUNITY, Ishmon Harris told of the event's origins.

It started, he said, in his living room in Fond du Lac back in the 1990s after his son was beat up by a gang of so-called "skinheads."

A grassroots group of citizens came together that day to see what could be done to encourage cultural acceptance in the community.

"We have come such a long way since then. People talk about the level of change. I witness daily affirmations that people in Fond du Lac are embracing diversity," he said.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the founding of United for Diversity, a group a volunteers from all walks of life who promote respect and education through maintaining pride of new generations and their heritage.

Saturday's fourth annual Celebrate CommUNITY drew an estimated 4,000 people to the Fond du Lac County Fairgrounds to enjoy cultural music and dance, ethnic foods and flavors, artisan crafts and activities.


About 30 different nationalities were represented at the event, with entertainment from a wide range of cultures: Polish, Scottish, Filipino, German, Cajun and more.

A member of the Brothertown Nation, Michael Pelky of Plymouth carried a flag for the welcoming ceremonies, which included the Brothertown Indians Drummers and words from Native American Elder Richard Welsh.

Pelky said his people are still struggling to gain tribal status. They first petitioned the government in 1980 to be recognized as an official Indian tribe.

"It's an honor to be here and an awesome feeling to know we are unique. It provides me with a sense of belonging," Pelky said. "We were the first tribe to gain citizen status in the U.S."

Shou Herr from the Hmong community showed visitors some of the story quilts created by the Laotian people. The embroidery tells the story of the Hmong people's journey from Laos, Vietnam and Thailand to America.

"We have about 75 Hmong families living in Fond du Lac. They chose to live here because it's a small, safe community," Herr said.



Refugees encounter series of challenges in Merced County

Thursday, February 17, 2011

SUN-STAR PHOTO BY MARCI STENBERG Dad Thay Vang sits with daughters Paliacha Vang, 5, and Kalia Vang, 3, bottom left, as Vang’s wife, Sheng Her, holds JeeMang Vang, 2. The couple, both Hmong, came to Merced almost five years ago from Thailand, where they lived in a refugee camp.

Tom Petty was wrong.

The rocker's classic song's lyrics, "You don't have to live like a refugee," didn't take into account some of the huddled masses who have landed in Merced.

Take Sheng Her. The 23-year-old gets $530 a month for herself and one child through Merced County Human Services Agency's Refugee Employment Social Services program. She and her husband, Thay Vang, 24, both Hmong, came to Merced almost five years ago from Thailand.

They lived in a refugee camp in Thailand, but the camp closed and they had two choices: return to Southeast Asia and face persecution from the Laotian government (which denies the charge) or travel to America, according to translator Vang Vang, who works at Merced Lao Family Community as a cultural broker in its mental health program.

The program receives federal funding that is designed to serve refugees who have been in the country for fewer than five years and who are receiving assistance from CalWorks, according to Nicole Pollack, refugee coordinator for Merced County.

CalWorks is the program that provides temporary financial assistance and employment-focused services to families with minors, according to its website.

The refugee assistance program, which received $14,500 for this fiscal year, helps a majority of Hmong and Laotian refugees. But those numbers have been dwindling in the past five years because the program is losing refugees who can't qualify once they go over the five-year limit.

Her is one of the people who won't get any financial aid after June of this year because of the five-year rule.

That's a cause of concern for her husband, Thay Vang, who says $530 is not enough for the family of five.

"Within the last five years our numbers have been dwindling for the Hmong or Laotian who originally came to Merced County," said Pollack, who is also the deputy director for the agency. "So they no longer qualify for the program that falls under CalWorks. But they do qualify for some programs from the Merced Lao Family Community."

There are 20 people taking part in the program. That number has fallen significantly from past years, when it served around 300 refugees, she said.

Pollack said the refugee program offers assimilation and acculturation into society, social service referrals such as access to medical care or counseling services, and helping refugees transition from public assistance into stable employment. In Merced County, that means partnering with Merced Lao Family Community, a nonprofit, which can provide the services and work directly with the families.

"They definitely have the cultural view and they have a linguistic capability and do a wonderful job with working with the refugee population," Pollack said.

However, Thay Vang, who used to be part of the refugee assistance program, decided to quit because he couldn't find a solid job opportunity. He said he would take any job offered, but it was hard to find the proper training through the program. He decided to attend Merced Adult School to learn how to read, write and learn how to use a computer.

"It is difficult, so we try to work with other agencies through contracts and that's why we chose Lao Family because they absolutely understand the difficulties they are facing," Pollack said.

And someday, once he does all that, Vang will gladly lose his place as a refugee.

Reporter Ameera Butt can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or



Ceremony ends six-day funeral for Hmong leader Gen. Vang Pao

Friday, February 11, 2011

FRESNO, Calif. Only a few hundred mourners remained in downtown Fresno on Wednesday morning, after an all-night blessing ceremony, to witness the final stage of a six-day funeral for revered Hmong leader Gen. Vang Pao.

The traditional Hmong funeral service at the Fresno Convention Center for Vang, who was a U.S. ally during the Vietnam War, ended quickly compared to the elaborate opening ceremony on Friday.

A single qeej player - a musician playing a Hmong bamboo wind instrument - and a woman wearing a traditional Hmong costume led Vang's casket down an aisle flanked by sobbing mourners.

People formed a line through the lobby and knelt as Vang's casket was wheeled to a white hearse.

A group of Hmong veterans saluted the casket outside. A military rifle salute sent loud bangs into the chilly air as mourners raced out of the convention center to get a last look at the general.

Vang, 81, died Jan. 6 in a nearby Clovis hospital of pneumonia.

Boua Xiong Lee, 60, and his wife, Kia Vang, 65, of Fresno attended each day of the funeral. They remained Wednesday after staying up all night to participate in the last of three Hmong funeral ceremonies known as the blessing ceremony.

"We're not tired," said Vang who had been at the funeral since 5 p.m. Tuesday. "We wanted to stay. We wanted to see him go then we'll go home."

Lee wiped away tears as he spoke about his love of the general. He was a 16-year-old soldier for Vang when both lived in Longcheng, the general's secret CIA headquarters during the Vietnam War.

"We love him," Xiong said through loud sobs. "Now that he's gone, we don't have anyone to stay here with us anymore."

After the short procession, mourners boarded 13 buses to Forest Lawn cemetery in the Southern California city of Glendale where Vang was to be buried Wednesday afternoon.

The Vang family had hoped the Pentagon would approve a request for Vang to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, but it was denied.

The decision was delivered on the first day of the funeral. The family appealed the decision on Tuesday and is waiting to hear if the decision will be overturned.

If the appeal is approved, the family would have Vang's body moved to Arlington, a family spokeswoman said.

Many of the out-of-town funeral mourners left Fresno early in the week, but California residents remained to watch Vang leave on his last journey.

Sacramento resident Meng Vang, 17, was happy to have the chance to attend the general's funeral over the last three days.

It was nicely decorated and professionally organized compared to typical Hmong funerals, Meng Vang said. The general did a lot of great things for the Hmong and was respected, which is why so many people felt they had to come to the funeral, he said.

"There won't ever be another day to see him," Vang said.



Claiming snub, Hmong bury Vang Pao in LA

Thursday, February 10, 2011

LOS ANGELES — Emotional and angry Hmong on Wednesday buried legendary general Vang Pao in California after failing to win a funeral with US military honors for the commander of the Vietnam War-era secret army.

Mourners in traditional costumes escorted Vang Pao's body to the Los Angeles area for a burial at a private cemetery after an elaborate six-day funeral in Fresno, the central California city home to a major Hmong community.

Vang Pao, who died of pneumonia at age 81 last month, led his hill people in Laos in a CIA-backed campaign against communist forces during the Vietnam War. Thousands of Hmong later fled to the United States speaking of persecution.

Hmong Americans appealed to bury Vang Pao as a hero in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington. The Pentagon said no, saying that the limited spaces at Arlington were reserved for US combat veterans.

Charlie Waters, a Korean war veteran who was a friend of Vang Pao, said he tried frantically until the last minute to seek President Barack Obama's intervention but could not get a response from the White House.

"This is just so sickening," Waters told AFP, saying that Vang Pao's widow "is just going crazy and the veterans are furious."

"They are asking, 'Why doesn't the United States love us? Why are we here?'" Waters said. "The family is lying on the floor, crying."

"It's breaking my heart," Waters said.

The Hmong community was divided on whether Vang Pao could be disinterred if Washington gave the green light for a funeral at Arlington.

But there were no signs of a change of heart. The Pentagon board that decided against Vang Pao's burial at Arlington said that its decision was unanimous.

Four members of Congress wrote to President Barack Obama urging him to reconsider the burial decision, saying that an Arlington funeral would mark "a solid step in the journey of Hmong recognition."

"Fighting shoulder to shoulder with American soldiers, many Hmong soldiers paid the ultimate sacrifice to our country. The United States owes them a debt of gratitude and their service should be appropriately honored," they said.

The letter was signed by Representatives Jim Costa and Dennis Cardoza, both Democrats from California; Representative Michael McCaul, a Republican from Texas, and Larry Kissell, a Democrat from North Carolina.

Vang Pao was buried at Forest Lawn, one of the most prominent private cemeteries in Los Angeles. Hmong leaders said the spot was selected at the last minute.

Situated near Hollywood studios, the cemetery is also the resting place of pop icon Michael Jackson along with screen legends Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable.

Vang Pao joined the military at a young age, receiving training from the French as he became the first Laotian general from the Hmong community, who then lived mostly by slash-and-burn agriculture in the hills.

US intelligence agents tapped Vang Pao when they sought a force in Laos to fight off North Vietnamese communists, who along with the United States had turned the neighboring country into an unwitting battleground.

Vang Pao became legendary for his organizational skills from his mountain post, guiding everything from US air strikes to medical supplies and managing a motley army of Hmong, lowland Lao and Thai mercenaries.

North Vietnam triumphed in 1975 by seizing Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, and communists afterward took over Laos. Vang Pao was sentenced to death in absentia and became the leader for some 250,000 Hmong who moved to the United States.

But Vang Pao remained a controversial figure. In 2007, he was arrested in California on charges of plotting to overthrow a foreign government after an undercover agent tried to sell him weapons at a Thai restaurant.

Prosecutors dropped their charges in 2009 and recently ended the case for all Hmong Americans over the case.



Vang mourners' presence a boon to business

Thousands of mourners gathering in Fresno since last week for the funeral of Gen. Vang Pao have been a boon to the local economy, business owners said Tuesday.

Restaurants, stores and hotels reported a noticeable spike in customers since the six-day funeral began Friday for the Hmong leader, who died Jan. 6 in a Clovis hospital at 81.

The funeral concludes this morning.

Sushi Hana, across the street from the Fresno Convention Center's New Exhibit Hall, the site of Vang's funeral, ran out of food and closed for lunch nearly an hour earlier than usual Friday, said Jin Hahm, who co-owns the restaurant with her husband, Jae Hahm.

The next day was even busier, she said.

Family appeals Vang Pao Arlington decision
"We've been here about 21/2 years and Saturday was the best sales day ever," she said.

Around the corner, Downtown Express, a
convenience store with a pizzeria, has seen an increase in business of 35% to 40% since Vang's funeral began, owner Anthony Halim said.

He usually shuts his doors about 6:30 p.m., but he kept his store open until 9 p.m. Friday, he said.

Halim, who took over the store's ownership in early January, opened on the weekend for the first time Saturday and Sunday, a move that proved to be profitable.

"There was a steady stream of customers," Halim said.

About two blocks from the Exhibit Hall, Holiday Inn was booked full Tuesday night, said Melanie Marquez, director of sales.

Normal occupancy is soft from December until the World Ag Expo in Tulare, she said. However, the hotel has been close to full since out-of-towners began arriving for Vang's funeral last week, she said.



Army denies Arlington burial for Hmong general

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Army has denied an Arlington National Cemetery burial for a former Laotian general who was a U.S. ally in the Vietnam War and a hero to the Hmong people, the Associated Press says.

The news comes as thousands of Lao and American veterans gathered in central California to begin the six-day funeral for Gen. Vang Pao, the Fresno Bee reports.

The AP confirms what the Sacramento Bee reported earlier today, citing a confidante and family friend of the general.

Former Hmong general Vang Pao in May 2000 at a ceremony at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., marking the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War in Laos. He died last week at 81.CAPTIONBy Luke Frazza, AFP/Getty ImagesVang Pao, who died last week at 81, led Hmong troops alongside CIA officers and U.S. Special Forces for about 15 years and was praised by Americans who served with him. But that wasn't sufficient to meet requirements of direct U.S. military service to be buried at Arlington.



A Final Farewell to Vang Pao

Monday, February 7, 2011

A must-see slideshow from the New York Times!



Weather doesn't ground Vang mourners

Mourners of Gen. Vang Pao said Sunday that bad weather, flight delays and international travel could not prevent them from flocking to Fresno to pay their final respects to their revered leader.

Some said they traveled from the Midwest, others said they came from half-way around the world to attend Vang's funeral, in its third day Sunday at the Fresno Convention Center's New Exhibit Hall.

"He was our father, our leader," Chongkai Vang, 67, who came to Fresno from his home in France, said through an interpreter. "He led us out of the jungle."

Some travelers to the six-day funeral in downtown Fresno had trouble getting out of airports in Chicago and Dallas because of the recent snowstorm that has blanketed much of the country, said Tou Vang of St. Paul, Minn.

Vang's flight schedule went smoothly, but he said he has spoken to many people whose journey to Fresno took longer than expected.

"Even if they had to stay two or three days in
Chicago or Dallas, they were willing to wait for the next flight out to get here," Vang said.

Mourners continued to pack the Convention Center on Sunday, for the funeral for Gen. Vang, a longtime U.S. ally during the Vietnam War. He died in a Clovis hospital on Jan 6 at age 81.

Chongkai Vang said he knew he had to come to Fresno for Gen. Vang's funeral. The day after learning of the general's death, Vang obtained his visa and made flight arrangements.

"I would not be satisfied unless I came to see him personally," he said.

Nhiacha Vang, 60, of Superior, Wis., who said he began fighting at 14 as a soldier in the Vietnam War, said he never thought twice about traveling to Fresno to honor the general.

Despite suffering nearly 30 war wounds, he said the fight for the Hmong community -- and for Gen. Vang -- was worth the sacrifice.

"He led us to this country," he said through an interpreter.

Yer and Maiker L. Yang, former Fresno residents, returned to the Valley for the funeral from their home in Des Moines, Iowa.

Yer Yang's father, Pao Yang, was a chef for the general in Laos in the late '60s and early '70s, he said.

Yang, 50, would see Vang occasionally over the years during his various appearances at Hmong events.

"He would still remember my name, who I was and everything," Yang said.

Maiker Yang, 49, said she would dedicate her life to Vang as her leader, king and savior.

"That's why I'm here today," she said. "He took us away from torture."



For a Hmong Hero, a Lavish Farewell

FRESNO, Calif. — If Vang Pao had died a simple farmer like so many other Hmong here, his funeral would have been an elaborate affair.

For three days, as Hmong custom has it, his family and friends would have mourned in high-pitched chants, feasted on freshly slaughtered beef and burned a giant pile of paper money to buy his soul into the spirit world.

But Gen. Vang Pao was no plain Hmong elder, and his death last month at age 81 has brought forth no ordinary grief. He is known to his people as the general, the hero of the Central Intelligence Agency’s long-ago secret war in the jungles of Laos, a man who was leaving behind 25 children, 68 grandchildren and an uprooted nation of Hmong refugees who regard him as something near a king.

So his funeral — six days and nights, with 10 cows slaughtered and stir-fried each day — has become a send-off for the ages.

It began last Friday, his body borne on a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of downtown Fresno, throngs of grieving Hmong lining the way. Scottish bagpipers played “The Green Hills of Tyrol” and two T-28 planes, the aircraft piloted by Hmong guerrilla fighters in the Vietnam War, flew overhead.

And the funeral rolled down a long red carpet through the weekend, as thousands more Hmong from across the country, and some from as far away as Thailand and France, strode into the convention center of this farming capital of California to say goodbye.

Many of the Hmong here — tens of thousands of tribal people who immigrated from Thai refugee camps in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s — wanted to see General Vang Pao buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors, befitting a man, they say, whose Hmong battalions saved the lives of many downed American pilots. On Friday, however, the Pentagon announced that it had denied the family’s request to waive the policy that restricts military burials at Arlington to American service members.

General Vang Pao’s family and friends said they were “very disappointed” by the decision. “The C.I.A. recruited Gen. Vang Pao in 1961 to lead a guerrilla force,” a statement read. “He fought in combat situations for 15 years. The covert war resulted in the death of 35,000 of the general’s men. We strongly believe the right thing to do is to honor his contributions to the United States.”

General Vang Pao was certainly given a hero’s farewell in Fresno. His body rested in a coffin made of wood, right down to its nails. Hmong custom holds that a single piece of metal, planted by a rival clan, can block the soul’s journey. His coffin was draped by a United States flag.

All through the cavernous hall, men in wide suits and women in ornately patterned home-sewn garments, their hats the color of eggplant, mourned and gossiped and drank and ate while their children and grandchildren snapped photos on their cellphones.

It was, in some respects, a state funeral for a people who, decades after landing in the United States as slash-and-burn farmers new to written language, could still see themselves as stateless.

“I have been crying for weeks,” said Youa Vang, a distant cousin of the general who buried her soldier husband almost 40 years ago in their Laotian mountain village.

“I worry that the Americans will treat us differently now that our father is gone,” she said. “Tell the Americans to still love us the same way.”

General Vang Pao died of pneumonia on Jan. 6, after celebrating Hmong New Year in Fresno. That it took a full month to stage the service spoke to its intricate pageantry and the general’s singular standing, but also to the rifts that simmer among the 18 Hmong clans over how to conduct their affairs in this land of exile.

In the end, clan leaders decided, a three-day service would not be sufficient. The shamans would need double that time to guide the general’s outsize soul back to his birthplace, the highlands of Laos.

If this was a traditional Hmong funeral, it came with plenty of modifications, said Lee Vang, a nephew of the general who helped organize the service.

There were 30 spiritual guides instead of one. The wood coffin was not like those usually favored by the Hmong: Orthodox Jewish models with the Star of David engraved on top. This coffin, the nephew said, had been planed and carved and flown in by a team of Hmong men from St. Paul.

As congressmen and state senators and retired C.I.A. agents filed in to deliver speeches and bow their heads, a scattering of old guerrilla fighters stood outside in the winter sun, puffing on Marlboro cigarettes.

Xa Chao Xiong, 63, was dressed in a camouflage uniform that came not from his years as a jungle warrior, but from a recent shopping spree at the local Army surplus store.

“I wear this uniform for my general,” he said through a translator. After 20 years in America, he apologized for not knowing English. “Today, I am a soldier again.”



Vang Pao family not pushing for Arlington

Sunday, February 6, 2011

FRESNO, Calif., Feb. 6 (UPI) -- Hmong Gen. Vang Pao's family is not asking he be buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, although his American comrades think he deserves the honor.

On the second day of Vang's traditional Hmong funeral in Fresno, Calif., Saturday his eldest son, Francois Chao Vang, told The Sacramento Bee his father "never expressed where he would like to be buried when he was alive."

"Maybe it's father's wish that he stay here in California, close to family," he said. "If he's there [Arlington] no one can go to see him."

Vang, who died Jan. 6, led a guerrilla army that fought alongside U.S. forces in Laos against the Communists from 1961 to 1975.

"He saved a lot of American lives," said veteran Gene Rossel.

Another veteran, Carlos L'Dera, called the Army's refusal to bury Vang at Arlington "outrageous," noting that some foreigners and non-combatants are resting there.

The Lao Veterans of America has asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to reconsider.

But, said Sisouk Vang, Pang's seventh son, the family and the venerated general's followers "shouldn't have to beg for it."

Vang probably will be buried in Forest Lawn, 45 minutes from his Westminster, Calif., home, said Francois Vang.



Hmong ask: Who will lead?

FRESNO – The death of Gen. Vang Pao leaves a void in the Hmong community worldwide, with many wondering who will advocate for expatriates and lead the fight for the thousands who still live in the jungles of Laos.

Now a leader, or group of leaders, is needed to help the Hmong community grow stronger, many say.

"We need leaders – not just one, but leaders – who can foster Hmong values and culture," said Christopher T. Vang, associate professor of education at California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock.

While Hmong culture traditionally is fragmented, Vang tapped his unique background to create a new, iconic leadership role in the community.

His military alliance with the United States during the Vietnam War was key; he later became a patriarch for refugees in America.

In recent years, his leadership role became one of a respected father who offered guidance on community issues. His death from pneumonia Jan. 6 in a Clovis hospital opens the door for a successor, if one emerges.

"People accepted (Vang's) role without question," Christopher Vang said. "But the next leader who will come out has to have some type of background that the community will be able to embrace."

Possible successors

No one names any potential leaders in the community, but some say there are people who could rise to the task. Some already have played high-profile roles. One is Paula Yang, a Hmong activist who organized rallies in support of Vang Pao when he was arrested in 2007 on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the Lao government. Charges were dropped against all defendants.

Some wonder if any of Vang Pao's sons will take his seat.

Whoever it is, the new Hmong leadership will have to find a way to bridge the gap between young and old and unite the divided clans, Christopher Vang said.

"I think when the time comes, they will emerge and say they had a vision or had an idea that can help to lead the Hmong," he said.

The central San Joaquin Valley has one of the largest Hmong populations in the country. Many Hmong settled here after fleeing Laos during the Vietnam War.

While some Hmong have achieved high accolades and community leadership positions, many still struggle with American life. Newly arrived Hmong immigrants face challenges finding jobs, learning English and living in poverty.

Those who have lived here for years now find it hard to maintain the culture while their children grow up speaking only English.

"We cannot let the culture go," Christopher Vang said.

Fresh approaches sought

Historically, Hmong leadership has been fractured.

The Hmong, an ethnic minority from Laos who were recruited by the CIA to fight during the Vietnam War, have depended on the 18 Clan organization, said Thomas S. Vang, author of "A History of the Hmong." The organization, made up of the 18 Hmong clans, was designed to provide social support, legal authority and economic security to Hmong families.

"The 18 Clan organization was originated by Vang Pao and it is very primitive and ineffective, not suitable to the modern society," said Thomas Vang in an e-mail before traveling to Fresno for the funeral. "It is an organization of tribes rather than a nation."

When there is a dispute, the clan leaders are called on to meet and discuss the problem before rendering a solution. Many times the clan organization merely offers support to fellow clan members.

The Hmong need to select a new leadership in a democratic way and maybe have a governing body of representatives different from the 18 Clan, Thomas Vang said.

Hmong community's future

Kong Her, an account executive at a Fresno radio station, agrees. Change is needed to keep the Hmong headed in the right direction, he said.

"We're going to have leaders in all different fields from medicine to social work, and education, but in terms of a central leader for the Hmong community, I think it's going to take an organization, like a board, who can elect a chairman that makes decisions on an honorable basis," Her said.

A critical part of a new leader's job would be to preserve Hmong culture and to embrace Western ideas about such things as democracy, education, technology and politics, some contend.

That also means including the youth and women into discussions that are important to the community, Christopher Vang said. "For 35 years we have left the younger generation alone," Vang said. "We need to include them into the community leadership role."

Mai Chou Thao, vice president of the Hmong Student Association at Fresno State, welcomes the chance for the youth voice to be heard in the community. She hopes whoever emerges as the new Hmong leader will be able to connect with young people.



Army denies request to bury Asian military leader in Arlington

The U.S. Army has denied a request that Major General Vang Pao, an ethnic Hmong military leader who supported the American effort in the Vietnam War, be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The decision came despite the support of four Democrats who asked military leaders to allow Pao to be buried in the Virginia cemetery, in recognition of his work with the U.S. military. Pao, 81, died on Jan. 6 from complications stemming from pneumonia.

In a letter sent last month to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, the lawmakers said Pao's support of American troops during the Vietnam War merited his inclusion in Arlington. Reps. Jim Costa (Calif.), Tim Holden (Pa.) and Dennis Cardoza (Calif.) signed on to the letter, and were joined by Madeleine Bordallo, Congress's delegate from Guam.

Pao led thousands of Hmong soldiers during a 15-year secret war sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency, supporting U.S. efforts to combat the People's Army of Vietnam, the lawmakers said.

Once communist forces seized control of Laos, Pao immigrated to the United States along with thousands of other Hmong, and became a visible leader of Hmongs living in America.

Since he served as a member of foreign military, Pao did not meet the normal criteria for an Arlington burial. His family had requested an exemption from that rule, in recognition of Pao's support of U.S. military efforts.

The Army said in a statement Friday that it had reviewed the Pao family request that he be buried at Arlington, and unanimously decided to not grant the exemption.

Family and friends reportedly plan to appeal the decision to the White House.



Mourners salute beloved Hmong leader

Thousands of mourners poured into downtown Fresno on Friday to remember Gen. Vang Pao, a U.S. ally in the Vietnam War and pillar in the American Hmong community.

Military veterans who served Vang in southeast Asia paraded through crowd-lined streets alongside family and friends dressed in traditional Hmong garb.

The procession, which led with Vang's casket in a horse-drawn carriage, marked the beginning of the six-day funeral.

Vang died at a Clovis hospital Jan. 6 at age 81.

"It felt as if the sun would never rise again ... as if we had lost ourselves," said Vang's son, Francois Chu Vang, addressing the almost entirely ethnic Hmong crowd gathered at the Fresno Convention and Entertainment Center for services Friday afternoon.

While tears welled in the eyes of many, the general's son urged Hmong Americans to continue pursuing his father's dream of strengthening their refugee community.

Vang led the Hmong to America from his native Laos -- where they were the ethnic minority -- after U.S. forces left Vietnam and the region fell to communism. Fresno became Vang's adopted home.

News that the general would not be buried with U.S. military elite at Arlington National Cemetery, which many local leaders had pushed for, dimmed Friday's pageantry.

Christina Her, a woman from Fresno who arched her neck to win views of the general's casket, said she wouldn't miss the chance to see and thank Vang one last time.

"He helped us get here," said Her, who fled Laos at 17 to avoid what she called the "killing of children" in her hometown. "I went back to my country this year, and I'm glad I came here."

Fou Phan drove from Sacramento to pay his respects. Fou, a veteran of the Lao Royal Army, recalled working with the general in the jungles of Laos to steer American B-52 bombers to North Vietnamese targets.

"He was a very intelligent leader," Fou said.

Friday's services included a speaking lineup of Lao royalty, onetime U.S. military leaders and state and local politicians. Many of Vang's children were in attendance.

White flower wreaths, portraits of the general and both Laotian and U.S. flags served as the backdrop.

In keeping with Hmong tradition, the services are scheduled to continue around the clock through Wednesday. The schedule includes more public condolences and private religious services.

Vang was recruited by the CIA in the 1960s to help fight communism in what has been dubbed the "secret war" in Laos.

"I knew what I needed to do was find Vang Pao," said former CIA agent Bill Lair, who spoke Friday about his mission in southeast Asia spearheading guerrilla operations during the Vietnam War. "The name of Vang Pao came up. They said he was a good fighter and a good person."

Lair said he ran arms to Vang and those under his command. The U.S.-backed force helped hold off the North Vietnamese threat, he said, at least for a time.

After coming to the United States, Vang remained a leader among Hmong Americans, becoming a staunch advocate for education and health care.

"He's the only one that represents our Hmong community here in the United States," said Kao Saecho, who traveled with friends and family from Sacramento for the services. "He knows our community. He knows the [American] politics."

Chad Kou Xiong came with his wife and seven kids from Stockton.

"He's our forefather," he said. "It's like watching a ceremony for a president."



Mourners to salute beloved Hmong leader Gen. Vang Pao in elaborate, six-day funeral ceremony

FRESNO, Calif. - Tens of thousands of mourners are flocking to central California this weekend to honor the late Gen. Vang Pao, a key Unites States ally in Vietnam who inspired unparalleled reverence among the ethnic Hmong he led in battle and later helped to resettle in far-flung communities across the globe.

Vang Pao, who commanded CIA-funded guerrillas in the jungles of Laos, died at age 81 on Jan. 6 near Fresno, where the Hmong community has spent weeks preparing an elaborate, six-day funeral service.

Friday morning, the casket containing the general's body was scheduled to travel by a horse-drawn carriage through the city's downtown, followed by a procession of hundreds of his relatives, bagpipers, drum majors and a color guard of Hmong veterans.

But whether the United States will allow the Southeast Asian hero to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery alongside American troops is uncertain, and hangs in the balance as this rural California city pays tribute to Vang Pao with a memorial "fit for a king."

"There will not be anyone like Father anymore because he was truly a godsend," said Chai Vang, one of the general's 32 children. "All we can do is unite the community and form partnerships around the world to carry out the work he began."

Fresno, a city of about half a million in the state's agricultural heartland, has pulled out all the stops for the ceremony, and local businesses are gearing up to supply travelers with food, sell them commemorative buttons and take part in the historic gathering of the clans.

Friday afternoon, Hmong spiritual guides and funeral specialists will burn incense, chant songs, and play bamboo wind instruments to lead Vang Pao's soul back to his childhood home in Longhay, Laos, where his spirit can don the placental jacket it will wear on its journey toward reincarnation.

On Saturday morning, his family will present chicken, rice, drinks and paper money for the general's voyage into the afterlife. His relatives will then cook and serve food to funeral guests, making hot meals of the animals sacrificed in his honor in tents outside the convention center.

Thong Chai, who manages a Hmong grocery store on Fresno's gritty east side, said his family has donated a whole pig to the general's family in recent weeks.

"The general is like a hero for us, and we've got to help his family because it's hard to provide all this food for everyone who's coming," he said, looking over the pallets of coconut juice and white gourd beverage he was preparing to send along.

For those who fought alongside the general in the Vietnam War and came to America thanks to his advocacy, Vang Pao's death leaves many issues unresolved.

Once Saigon fell, thousands of his soldiers languished in refugee camps in Thailand until they were granted refugee status in the U.S., including about 30,000 Laotians, Cambodians and Hmong who moved to Fresno.

Then, in 2007, Vang Pao and 11 others were accused of plotting to violently overthrow the communist government of Laos, sparking a 3 1/2 year legal battle that reverberated with the last echoes of the war. Vang Pao was dropped from the case in 2009, and federal prosecutors suddenly dismissed all remaining charges last month "in the interests of justice," only days after the general's passing.

Mai Der Vang, a Hmong-American writer in Fresno, said it wasn't until she studied the general's role in the war that she understood the immense cultural and economic changes her family had experienced.

"It really allowed me to see why my parents worked so hard to ensure that I had a good education," said Vang, 29. "This war still haunts our elders and is something that still brings back very sad memories for people, so all that is coming up now."

Bill Lair, who headed the CIA's paramilitary operations in Laos and recruited Vang Pao, was expected to attend, as were several other retired CIA agents and military officials.

California Reps. Jim Costa and Dennis Cardoza have requested an Arlington burial for Vang Pao, but have yet to receive a response.

The Army is handling the request as expeditiously as possible, Army spokesman Gary Tallman said Thursday.

Earlier this week, a phalanx of the general's former recruits lined up in their fatigues to lay a wreath of yellow daisies before Vang Pao's portrait, which lay against a solemn monument to Laotian veterans on the lawn before the county courthouse.

Most were well into their sixties, but the aging secret army still snapped to attention as their former commanders cried out in Hmong for them to salute in unison.

"We fought in the American war, and if we didn't join that war there might be thousands more Americans dead," said Col. Wangyee Vang, president of the nonprofit Lao Veterans of America. "General Vang Pao wished to be buried at Arlington and we hope the U.S. will grant him that honor."



Another take on “WTF” casting

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Casting roles has always been an issue in the film and theater industry. Controversy arose when Jennifer Hudson was casted to portray Winnie Mandela in “Winnie.” The casting of Zhang Ziyi, a Chinese actress, as a Japanese geisha in “Memoirs of a Geisha” provoked ire within Japan.

While Hmong-American writer Ka Vang’s reaction towards the casting of Korean-American Sun Mee Chomet as the Hmong-American character True in the play “WTF” may be deemed as an overreaction, her frustration is understandable.

It is most certainly true that not all Asians are the same, nor do they all look alike. As we have seen through these casting controversies, “looking” like the person who the actors/actresses are trying to portray is simply not enough.

Vang’s frustration stems from this argument. To be clear, the Hmong are still a marginalized and unknown group.

By casting non-Hmong actresses in Hmong roles, the Hmong community’s efforts in creating visibility and consciousness of their existence is completely shattered.

Clint Eastwood’s recent “Gran Torino” does a great job of casting Hmong-American actors and actresses in Hmong-American roles. Despite Eastwood’s inaccurate portrayal of the Hmong culture, other aspiring filmmakers and actors/actresses can see by this casting that going into the film industry is something that is achievable.

Vang does not seem to be demanding the replacement of Chomet, nor is she off base. She is arguing that if we do not give Hmong-Americans the chance to play themselves or the chance to play the lead roles at all, then the message is clear: Hmong-Americans are not worthy of such roles.

I certainly do not believe that it was Mu Performing Arts’s intention to marginalize of Hmong-American actors and relegate them to secondary or demeaning roles. However, this casting decision can be interpreted as such.

We must consider that the Hmong are still largely unknown — even on the campus with the most Hmong-American students in the entire nation. We are not as known as the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans or Filipinos.

It is only within this context that Vang’s frustration can be clearly understood. It is here, then, that we must reanalyze casting decisions when “looking” Asian-American is simply not good enough.



The Hmong and Others Mourn Vang Pao

After the CIA’s Special Activities Division in the country of Laos trained an ethnic group of people called the Hmong to fight, the group launched into a series of military engagements against both North Vietnam during the Vietnam War and communist leader Pathet Lao’s military. Tasked with the duty to help guard the primary military supply route called the Ho Chi Minh Trail and fight against the Communists in their own country (later to be known as the “Secret War”), the Hmong people did what they could with the help of the CIA during this period in the Cold War.

Things took a turn for the worse for the Hmong people after U.S. forces abandoned the Vietnam War, leaving countless South Vietnamese and Hmongs behind. Once Pathet Lao took power in Laos, government reprisals against the Hmong and other ’anti-communists’ raged without check. Often those who escaped bullets ran into “re-education” camps and the horrors of slave labor. Those who were fortunate enough to escape went into hiding in the mountains of Laos or neighboring Thailand. Later, some found their way to the United States or went to other countries through controversial repatriation.

Throughout the years, one man became the symbol of resistance, justice and nobleness for the oppressed and scattered Hmong and that man’s name was Vang Pao, a Hmong himself.

Vang Pao had become cruelly introduced to war at the tender age of 15 when he fought against invading Japanese soldiers in World War II.

Then a Major General of the Royal Lao Army, Vang Pao led Hmong guerillas in countless military and rescue operations that undoubtedly saved hundreds of American and Vietnamese lives. Many who fought with Pao described him as a charismatic military leader who could turn the tides of battle simply by being present. Vang Pao was declared by many as a true war hero and even former CIA Chief William Colby called him the “biggest hero” of the Vietnam War.

Hmong fighters training to use grenades.

Vang Pao (left)

To most of the world, Vang Pao and the Secret War are unfortunately not well-known, buried by the bigger picture of the Cold War, other pressing current events and in recent years, certain governments.

However, Vang Pao is venerated by most Hmong communities as the people’s hero, a “father” or “grandfather”. Yet, tragically for the Hmong people, Vang Pao died of pneumonia on the 6th of January, 2011.

Although Vang Pao was surrounded by allegations of a conspiracy to overthrow the Laos government and other things near his end, countless Hmong upheld him as both an innocent and courageous man who fought for Hmong and the world.

Vang Pao inspired thousands of Hmong in different generations in the United States by closely working with people to help the Hmong adapt to the American life. He encouraged education in all communities and told the people to “never forget” their dreams and rights.

Vang Pao helped many Hmong communities including one of the largest Hmong populations in present-day Fresno, California by assisting them learn English and by lowering down crime rates in the younger Hmong population.

As a people and those who still remember Vang Pao mourn him, efforts are being made to bury Vang Pao in the Arlington National Cemetery. U.S. veterans who remember Vang Pao or at least have heard of him and his deeds are backing up Pao’s family’s wishes to have him laid to rest in the Arlington National Cemetery. As of this time it is unknown whether or not Vang Pao will be buried in the cemetery but mourning still continues as traditional Hmong funeral rites draw near this week. More than 1,000 are expected to attend his funeral lasting from February 4th to February 9th in Fresno.

(Cover Photo: Gary Kazanjian/AP/File)



Vang Pao memorial at Courthouse Park today

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A memorial event for Gen. Vang Pao are scheduled for 11 a.m. today at the Hmong Veterans Monument in Courthouse Park in downtown Fresno.

A wreath-laying and veterans memorial ceremony highlight the event, organizers said.

Also, Dr. Khamphay Abbay, a former Royal Lao official who was an adviser to Vang during the Vietnam War and its aftermath, is among those expected to speak.