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 chilling response 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.