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Hmong Forced Repatriation: Back to an Uncertain Future

New America Media, Commentary, Mai Der Vang Posted: Dec 31, 2009

FRESNO, Calif. -- Some Hmong believe that the rain brings bad news. When it rains during a funeral, it means that the deceased did not wish to go. If it rains during a wedding, the marriage may fail.

I wonder if it is simply coincidence that on Monday, when the rain descended and dark clouds hung heavy over Fresno, Calif., where one of the largest Hmong communities resides, more than 4,000 Hmong on the other side of the world were forcibly repatriated from Thailand to communist Laos. They were transported in caravans of covered trucks stretching across the Mekong River. Many of these Hmong had fled Laos in search of a better life and because they feared persecution from the Lao government for having allied with the United States in a war that ended more than three decades ago.

As a young Hmong American, it was heartbreaking to receive news that the repatriation finally occurred. It's difficult to imagine that since 2005, these Hmong had lingered in Thailand's poverty-ridden camp at Huay Nam Khao. They are dubbed the "leftovers" those who did not make the cut to come to America when the main camp at Wat Tham Krabok shut down in 2004.

Since then, Thailand has made constant threats of sending the Hmong back, and even repatriated small groups on several occasions. But on Monday, to the world's disbelief, and despite opposition from the United Nations, the U.S. government, and international human rights groups, more than 4,000 remaining Hmong were sent back to Laos.

The Thai government claims that these repatriated Hmong are economic migrants, and are therefore ineligible for asylum in their country. Most disturbing is that the 158 Hmong who qualified as refugees by the UN received the same treatment, and were removed just like the others.

But a look at the historical and political implications behind the fiasco indicates that perhaps Thailand should not have to shoulder the entire blame. The United States must share the responsibility, namely because of its faulty partnership with the Hmong during the Secret War, when tens of thousands of Laotian natives, most of whom were Hmong, were recruited by the CIA to fight communism in Laos under the leadership of General Vang Pao.

In 1975, when the United States could no longer afford the war in Vietnam, it abandoned many of these native guerrillas who then had to fend for themselves. It would not surprise longtime observers if there were former guerrilla fighters among others repatriated on Monday.

Among those repatriated, it has been speculated, are those who had the chance to resettle in a third country during the 1980s, but chose to stay behind because they could not part with their beloved homeland. Now their children, who had no choice, share the same fate.

But according to Lao media reports, the Lao government says that it has built houses for the repatriated Hmong, and that other social services, such as food, education, employment, transportation, and financial assistance, would be provided to assist with the transition.

This situation, which began so chaotically, cannot end so simply by sending them back and handing out services, especially from a government that previously had persecuted them. Some would like to think the Lao government has changed its tune, but honestly, no one knows for sure what will happen to these people upon their arrival in Laos.

There are approximately 5,000 to 8,000 Hmong who are reportedly still hiding in the jungles of Laos and have been there ever since 1975, using antiquated guns salvaged from the war to defend themselves. The Lao government has accused these guerrillas of committing acts of terrorism, but Amnesty International reports that these Hmong have suffered continuous violations of their human rights, from chemical warfare to massacres and mutilations.

In light of their plight, it's hard to believe that the repatriated Hmong will receive kindness in Laos. Will they be persecuted as traitors? Will they be treated as social outcasts? Or will they survive by assimilating into mainstream Lao culture, thus leaving behind their Hmong identities?

The repatriation occurred one week after General Vang Pao, who had been living in exile for 35 years, announced that he would visit Laos on Jan. 10, 2010 for an event at the newly constructed Friendship Bridge between Thailand and Laos. The news of his historic return to Laos comes almost four months after the federal government dropped his 2007 charges for attempting to overthrow the Lao government.

These events are no coincidence; Vang Pao's return must be connected to the repatriated Hmong. Perhaps he is preparing to make peace with Laos in order to insure the safety of the Hmong people.

Yet it's outrageous that after all these decades, so much suffering and mistrust remain as permanent repercussions of the war. The Hmong, rejected by Thailand yet fearing retribution in Laos, have been displaced to the point of no longer knowing what home even means. Still, there is no definitive support from the UN or the United States -- even though these Hmong are invisible remnants of a failed American war.

The rainy weather in Fresno, where those of us Hmong who were lucky enough to escape repatriation now call home, seems to reflect our angst and sadness as our counterparts across the world are sent back to an uncertain future.

Related Articles:

Gen. Vang Pao's Release Momentous for Young Hmong Americans

A Bright Hmong Future After Vang Pao

Hmong in Alaska

Drowning Burmese Refugees in Thailand Is Bad Karma

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