Hmong Come in From the Cold
Several thousand Laotian Hmong, U.S. allies during the Vietnam War, are ready to surrender after decades of being pursued by Pathet Lao government.
Up to 4,000 ethnic Hmong, remnants of a U.S.-backed anti-communist guerrilla army in the Laotian jungles during the Vietnam War, are ready to surrender after 30 years on the run, a U.S. activist said on Thursday. Ex-California police officer Ed Szendrey, who was detained at the weekend by the Laotian communist government for helping 173 women, children and elderly people give themselves up, said many more Hmong were waiting to come in from the cold. “We’ve had indications that there are nearly three to four thousand ready to surrender,” Szendrey told a news conference in the Thai capital after his deportation from the landlocked southeast Asian nation as a “trouble-maker.”
Human rights groups and Hmong refugees say the Pathet Lao communists, who seized power in Laos in 1975 in the closing stages of the Vietnam War, have prosecuted a war for decades against the Hmong as punishment for their alliance with the United States. Publication in the past two years of photographs of malnourished, wounded and disfigured Hmong fighters and their families, who were abandoned by the U.S. after the Vietnam War, have corroborated those claims.
With assurances of aid from Washington and the United Nations, but no official diplomatic support, [Szendrey] organized a daring midnight rendezvous with the group of 173 refugees by a road near the Xaisomboun “Special Zone,” a region off-limits to foreigners. “It was a very emotional time when the men turned the women and children over to us,” Szendrey said. “They had to leave swiftly.” Shortly after dawn, the rag-tag group made its way from the trees to a nearby village, where they were welcomed with open arms by residents and officials with offers of food and water, Szendrey said.
If the initial group were well treated, and he could get word through to the 15,000 Hmong still believed to be hiding in the dense jungle, Szendrey said thousands more were ready to give themselves up. However, soldiers arrived and the refugees were taken away. State media say they are being cared for in a village near the northeast town of Phonsavanh. There is no independent verification of their condition.
Szendrey, his wife and two U.S.-Hmong activists were then arrested on their way back to the capital, Vientiane. One of the Hmong-Americans is still in custody. A Laotian Foreign Ministry spokesman said the U.S. group had been deported for interfering in a government scheme to move Hmong villagers into larger, centralized communities to give them with better access to food, water and electricity.
What the Szendreys did was noble and brave but it’s hardly surprising that the Laotian government considers them criminals; they’re outsiders interfering in matters of state.
It’s a shame, however, that it has taken decades for the United States to supply even tacit aid for the Hmong. While being a defeated enemy of the United States can be quite rewarding– postwar Germany, Japan, and Italy and modern-day Iraq and Afghanistan have received billions in aide–being an ally in a cause we have given up on can be quite deadly, as the Iraqi Kurds and Laotian Hmong learned the hard way.