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The Two Faces of Communist Laos By: Michael Benge
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, February 28, 2008


There are two faces of Laos.  One is the eco-tourism guided tour for backpackers with cheap hostels and an abundance of ganja (marijuana), coupled with the more expensive, more modernized Vientiane intent on luring western investors.  The second is the insular Laos, behind a bamboo curtain, where the xenophobic, Pathet Lao communists (Lao People's Revolutionary Party), with apparent aid from the Vietnamese communists, are intent on annihilating an ethnic group of people -- the Hmong.

During the Vietnam War, the US conducted a “Secret War” in Laos arming the Hmong tribesmen and using them to interdict North Vietnamese soldiers and supplies being infiltrated into South Vietnam.  Although it’s been more than 30 years since the end of that war, the Laotian communists, with help from the Vietnamese communists, are waging a “Second Secret War” in Laos in an attempt to annihilate the remnant US allies -- Hmong veterans and their families -- who are hiding in the jungle.  

On May 9, 1975, in the Pathet Lao newspaper, the Lao People's Revolutionary Party announced its policy toward the Hmong and proclaimed it would hunt down the "American collaborators" and their families, "to the last root." They will be "butchered like wild animals."  Even though the Vietnam War ended over 30 years ago, in the “Second Secret War,” Hmong infants and young men and women are being killed in Laos for the purported “sins of their fathers and grandfathers;” a handful of aged fighters who sided with the U.S. in the 1960s.”  

According to the Voice of America, a Pathet Lao military official in the northern province of Luangprabang said that for the past year, government troops who kill a Hmong fighter have been promised automatic grass-roots Communist Party membership, a one-step promotion, and a reward of six million kip (U.S. $600) for every "enemy" killed.  The “shoot to kill” policy has become an "open secret," and apply to the region extending from lower Luangprabang to Xiengkkhouang and the northern part of Vientiane province, where the majority of the Hmong are thought to be hiding.

Hidden behind a bamboo curtain of South East Asian tranquility, communist Laos like communist North Korea uses food and medicine as weapons of war; a vile crime against humanity.  Amnesty International and others have condemned the Lao communists for their systematic campaign of using “starvation as a weapon of war against civilians."  Starvation of detainees in the gulags scattered throughout the country has also been reported.  Food, medicine and other relief goods offered by international NGOs are routinely turned down by the Lao communists who claim that there is neither starvation in Laos nor problems with the Hmong.  There are more prisons in Laos than schools.

While news of the genocide in Dafur is a daily dish for the major news media, and a favorite pastime for some rich and famous in Hollywood, the genocide in Laos has by and large gone unreported. However last December 17th, the New York Times surprised everyone with a huge front page story with color photos, “Old U.S. Allies, Still Hiding in Laos” telling of the “Second Secret War” in Laos and the genocide against the Hmong.    

The jungle in which the Hmong are suspected of hiding is being sprayed with a defoliant similar to Agent Orange in order to deprive them of the wild yams and jungle vegetables.  The spray also kills or drives off the birds and other wildlife the Hmong rely upon to survive.  It is suspected that the chemicals and planes and helicopters used for spraying are being provided by Vietnam.  If so, this is the epitome of hypocrisy since the U.S. is paying the Vietnam to clean up Agent Orange sites, and the Vietnamese communists are seeking retribution for its citizens suspected of suffering from the effects of this chemical.  Pathways leading farms and villages suspected of being sympathetic to the Hmong’s plight and providing food are mined resulting in a countless number of mainly innocent women and children being blown up, maimed and killed.

A unit of the Vietnamese intelligence service has been reported in Nong Tang, Phou Kout district (formerly Muong Soui) using telephone signal detectors to track communications between Hmong in order to pinpoint the exact locations of the groups for attacks by Pathet Lao troops.

In 1977, the Vietnamese and the Lao communists signed a treaty of “Friendship and Special Cooperation,” similar to those Russia forced upon neighboring countries after invading and occupying them to form the Soviet Union.  This treaty guarantees Hanoi’s guardianship of Laos, and legalized the resettlement of more than 100,000 troops already stationed in Laos.  It also allowed their families to join the soldiers and all were given Laotian citizenship and land.  The treaty also allows the Vietnamese to place “technicians” at every level of the civilian government apparatus, religious and cultural organizations, and the military.  This stealth-neocolonization by Vietnam poses an even much graver threat to central control by Laotians than their perceived threat of foreign-managed investment and eco-tourism, NGOs, and missionary activities. 

There are two US military humanitarian assistance programs in Laos – destroying unexploded ordinance and searching for MIA remains; however, progress in the latter is extremely slow.  This should come as no surprise since over 85% of the MIAs in Laos were lost in territory that was 100% under the control of the North Vietnamese.  Despite the ongoing horrible atrocities against our former Hmong allies by the Lao communists, the US Ambassador announced during his confirmation hearing last May that he would seek ways to increase “building military to military ties” with the communist Pathet Lao.  Go figure!

There is an entrenched official fear of the growing foreign influence in the country, particularly in remote rural areas, and the Lao security agencies are extremely suspicious of the Lao/Hmong diaspora, whom they suspect are on missions to document and expose human rights abuses and genocide, and promote democracy.

In July 2007, secret police in Phousavan, Laos arrested three Hmong-American citizens who had gone there to pursue business interests.  For a short time they were detained in Phnthong Prison, but they disappeared, and it is thought that they may be detained in the North of Laos near the border with Vietnam.  Among others, Laotian-Americans Michael Vang and Houa Ly were arrested several years ago and haven’t been heard from since. 

Operators of small local businesses with foreign links are under strict supervision of their activities and threatened with expulsion.  Recently, Sompawn Khantisouk, who in partnership with an American businessman ran the famous eco-tourism Boat-Landing resort, was abducted by Laotian secret police and “disappeared.”  His American partner quickly left the country.  When the American Ambassador inquires about these missing Americans, the Lao government denies any knowledge of them and personnel from the American Embassy are not allowed to further investigate. 

On January 31, the Center for Public Policy Analysis organized a Congressional Forum and Policy Briefing that was attended by a large number of Congressional legislative staff, American and Laotian Human Rights groups, and experts on the Hmong, such as Dr. Jane Hamilton-Merritt, Lao/Hmong scholar and author of the award winning book Tragic Mountains: the Hmong, the Americans and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992.

Reports of horrific crimes against humanity were presented at the briefing including gang rapes of Hmong women, young and old, by Pathet Lao soldiers to terrorize and humiliate their families.  Some were so brutally raped that they could no longer walk upright.  Those that are not later killed, and become pregnant, their babies are taken from them after birth to be raised Nazi-like as “children of the state.”  Other reports presented were of Hmong women being impaled on sharpened bamboo stakes through their vagina to their sternum.  Copies of photographs were passed around of young children who had been eviscerated in front of their terrorized families that were forced to watch the children die slowly in excruciating pain.  These reports, as well as that of massacres and killing of women and children, have been verified by credible journalists and International Human Rights organizations such as Amnesty International and renowned photojournalist Roger Arnold.

Equally shameful is the treatment by agents of the Untied States Government of one of this country’s most loyal allies, General Vang Pao, the leader of the Hmong army in the US' "Secret War" in Laos.  In June last year, Federal law enforcement agents in California arrested General Vang Pao and eight others on charges of masterminding a plot to overthrow the Lao government.  After fighting the Vietnamese and Pathet Lao communist in the jungles of Laos for over a decade with full military support from the United States, General Vang Pao knows very well that it would be futile and fatal to attempt to overthrow the Lao government.  Nevertheless; it must be excruciatingly painful for him to know he is helpless while his people are being butchered like wild animals, while the US government that he and his people valiantly served does little or nothing about it.

Those who know General Vang Pao believe that the government's case against him is one of entrapment in order to discredit and humiliate him.  Unfortunately for the General no one involved in the plot, other than him, had a name with enough recognition to satisfy the aggressive publicity seeking federal agents and prosecutors.  It is likely no one involved on the side of the US Government was even alive when General Vang Pao stood with the US to try to stop the expansion of communism in SE Asia.  This is the thanks the General receives for his friendship and the sacrifice of his people. One can only image the pain and bewilderment this proud man now feels, confined by his health to a wheelchair and confined as a prisoner to his own home by a government he believed in and supported.

Dr. Jane Hamilton-Merritt attended the latest portion of the General’s trial.  Much of the prosecution’s case is based on taped recordings of an informant’s alleged conversations with the General.  However, the defense lawyer had independent experts transcribe the tapes, and debunked government claims of what had transpired during the conversations with the General at a restaurant that amounted to no more than comments regarding the soup they were eating.  Due to the General’s health, he is confined to a wheel chair.  In July, he was released on bail, but remains under house arrest and under the stipulation that he cannot talk with anyone, including his immediate family, without first receiving permission from the court.  The trial continues.               

With the revelations of a Vang Pao's alleged plot, the paranoid security authorities in Laos have used this to as an excuse clamp down even harder on anyone who might be seen as sympathetic to the Hmong.   Recently, the vice governor of Luang Nam Tha was reported as saying, "we are still fighting the revolution, not against the enemy's bombs and guns, but the Americans and the Christians are still our enemies."

Estimates as high as 20,000 Hmong veterans and their families are thought to still be hiding in the jungle, mostly in Northern Laos; however, the actual number will never be known.  According to Doctors Without Borders, among a group of 7,800 Hmong refugees that recently arrived in Phetchanbun Province, Thailand, 181 had fresh gunshot and shrapnel wounds.  

US eyewitnesses have described Hmong coming out of hiding in the jungles of Laos as "desperate," with big-bellied children with untreated injuries, and weaker people being carried on the backs of others -- some starving, others naked.  Once they turn themselves in, no one knows what happens to them, they simply disappear; perhaps into the extensive gulag system to starve to death.

Thailand has been threatening to send 8,000 Hmong refugees back to Laos to face further repression, gulags, or death from the communist Pathet Lao; however, some think this threat was a gambit by high-ranking Thai military officers to pressure the State Department to ease up on their travel ban to the U.S. put in place as a result of the recent coup d'état.  Morally, the Thai government will bear the responsibility for these people if they are forcibly sent back and killed or sent one of the many gulags in Laos to starve.  Perhaps with the recent elections, the political situation will stabilize, and the US government will intervene and stop their deportation and allow them to come to the US.

While the vast majority of the country's lowlanders are Buddhist, Christianity has made inroads among the highland people. The problem complicated by the fact that Hmong Christians fleeing persecution in Vietnam are flocking to Laos – from the frying pan into the fire.  At least thirteen Christian Hmong were falsely accused of stirring rebel dissent and murdered by authorities in Laos over the past month according to an August 7 report from Compass Direct.  The report also stated that 200 other Hmong Christians in the village of Sai Jerern have been arrested and imprisoned.  They strongly denied any association with anti-government forces.

Only a very small number of NGOs (non-government agencies) are allowed operate in Laos, and these are under very tight restriction in where they can operate and what activities they can conduct.  NGOs suspected of promoting Christianity, human rights, democracy, and community organization are expelled.  International Human Rights groups, such as Amnesty International, and benign refugee assistance groups such as the United Nations UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are not allowed to operate in Laos or in Vietnam.    

Laos faces a conundrum on how to balance a market-driven rapid economic growth while maintaining strict social controls.  AsiaTimes reports that the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party has arrived at a crucial crossroads and the direction pursued will likely make or break its still tentative economic reform experiment. Clearly there are still elements in the party who are reluctant to change their repressive ways, accept new social and economic realities and move the country forward. 

Some legislative leaders on Capitol Hill have written letters to the Secretary of State and to the King of Thailand pleading the case of the Hmong.  But the real question is, will the US and other Western governments continue to acquiesce to the rampant brutality of the communist Lao government and their genocide against the Hmong (just “business as usual” and human rights be damned); or will the US accept the moral responsibility that it bears for its former Hmong allies and intervene in their behalf to plead their plight and expose this genocide before the United Nations.

As it seems to be becoming more frequent with the United States’ indigenous allies, the thanks the Hmong receive for their trust and loyalty is abandonment by a government with a sound bite mentality and even a smaller dose of honor.


Michael Benge spent 11 years in Vietnam as a Foreign Service Officer, including five years as a Prisoner of war-- 1968-73 and is a student of South East Asian Politics. He is very active in advocating for human rights and religious freedom and has written extensively on these subjects.


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