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.


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