In the early 1960s, policymakers in Washington expressed fear that the Vietnam War would spill over into neighboring countries. In Laos, a country that had been declared neutral, the CIA’s Special Activities Division was tasked with subverting the rise of communist elements like Pathet Lao, which were backed by the North Vietnamese Army (NVA). This was accomplished by recruiting and arming the Hmong people, an indigenous group living for the most part in Laos, in an effort to destabilize the Lao communists.
The CIA’s campaigns of covert activity and subversion in hot spots of ideological tension during the Cold War have been well-documented. However, as the scars of battle have faded over time in some of the world’s other proxy arenas of the Cold War era, the effect of the “secret war” waged in Laos are still being felt by participants to the conflict nearly four decades after the United States left.
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As soon as the U.S. pulled its troops out of Vietnam, the NVA overran the Kingdom of Laos and Pathet Lao took control of the country. Not only were casualties among the Hmong during hostilities very high – some estimates show that as many as 100,000 ethnic Hmong may have been killed – but, almost immediately, the Hmong people were singled out for retaliation. The subsequent persecution and killing of entire ethnic Hmong communities resulted in near-genocidal conditions and led to a mass exodus of Hmong people across the Mekong River into Thailand.
The Hmong refugee situation across the border remains a particularly delicate issue today. Refugees have been detained in squalid U.N. settlements that have been decried by human rights organizations.
Successive Thai governments have indicated that they don’t want to deal with the Hmong refugees and have tried to coerce the Hmong exile community to return to Laos by mistreating them in the settlement camps. According to Human Rights Watch, “Thai authorities restricted all of the refugees to two small cells, deprived them of adequate light, separated parents from their children, denied them mosquito nets and clean clothing, and cut off access to clean water and proper sanitation facilities.”
When Hmong refugees refuse to return voluntarily to Laos, the Thai government has reportedly forcibly repatriated them, as was seen in a case last week that garnered some mainstream attention. Ka Yang, a refuge-seeking Hmong who had already been offered asylum in several Western countries, was involuntarily sent back to Laos. This, according to human rights advocates, is a violation of international law.
The U.N. Convention relating to the Status of Refugees was drawn up before the Laotian Civil War, but clearly with groups such as the Hmong in mind. Article 31 of the convention states: “The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened.”
Neither Thailand nor Laos are parties to the convention. Therefore, these two countries aren’t officially in violation of international law. However, violations of minority rights shouldn’t be ignored or, worse, exacerbated due to the negligence of governments where indigenous groups like the Hmong have sought sanctuary. There should be a moral responsibility to look after such refugees and, so far, Thailand hasn’t lived up to that standard.