Hmong ask: Who will lead?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

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.


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