Recently, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Laos Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith met in Washington for the highest-level talks between the two countries since the end of the Vietnam War. For the U.S., the meeting was part of a strategy to re-engage with Asia, while Laos hoped the D.C. visit would boost trade. After years of frosty relations following America's carpet bombing of Laos in the 1960s and '70s, the meeting was overall a symbolic break with the past.
Improved relations with the U.S. would surely benefit most citizens of Laos though not everyone is so upbeat about the possibility. Meeting TIME at a secret location in Thailand, a Laotian Hmong refugee who recently escaped a repatriation camp in Laos says the Washington exchange will do nothing to help thousands of Hmong still being persecuted in Laos. "They are only talking about imports and exports, not how to help Hmong people who once supported America," says Pao Chang (an alias used for security).
During the Vietnam War, the CIA enlisted more than 60,000 Hmong from the Royal Lao Army to form a secret army to disrupt Communist supply lines and rescue American pilots. Fierce mercenaries, the Hmong acted as an effective counter to North Vietnam's growing support base in Laos. When the Communists won and the CIA left, a handful of senior Hmong were flown out, but the majority remaining faced Communist retribution for siding with America. The Pathet Lao publicly announced they would wipe out the Hmong, and attacks intensified. Some Hmong groups fled deep into the jungle where more than 3,000 continue to live to this day while the rest sought asylum in Thailand, where they remained until recently.
On Dec. 28, 2009, Pao Chang and more than 4,000 other Hmong asylum seekers in Thailand were rounded up by local Thai authorities and forcibly sent back to Laos. "We based these actions on our immigration law, which considers them to be illegal migrants, so they were dealt with accordingly," Panitan Wattanayagorn, spokesman for the Thai Prime Minister, told TIME. Only six years earlier, Thai authorities had helped resettle 14,000 Hmong refugees in the U.S. The Thai about-face on its Hmong population sparked an international furor, with countries including the U.S. and Australia condemning Thailand for refusing to protect the minority group. Although Thailand never signed the United Nations Convention on Refugees, the U.N. was outraged that the government had sent back unwilling refugees. "To proceed would not only endanger the protection of the refugees but set a very grave international example," said the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), António Guterres, at the time.
Even more troubling for the United Nations were the 158 Hmong refugees being held in the Nong Kai immigration detention center, who had been granted refugee status and invited to resettle by the U.S., the Netherlands, Australia and Canada. "We were ready to leave," says Pao Chang, showing his family's acceptance letter from a third country along with tickets for a flight out. "Then Thai authorities came to us on the day and just said, 'No, you can't go. We have an agreement with Laos that no Hmong are to leave Thailand.' " Asked for comment, Wattanayagorn said the move came only after "Laos had assured Thailand the returning Hmong would not face persecution."
Thailand's involvement in the U.S.'s "secret war" in Cambodia and Laos is often overlooked. Allied with the U.S. against the Communists in Laos and Vietnam, the Thai military trained many of the senior Hmong leaders. Times have clearly changed. Thailand is now Laos's No. 1 foreign investor, and according to Joe Davy, a Hmong advocate, deporting the Hmong is just another example of political fence mending following years of border conflict. "The main reason Thailand sent them back was pressure from Laos, which has always accused Thailand of harboring elements of the Hmong resistance," Davy says.
After a series of multilateral meetings in December 2009, the Laotian government agreed that the 158 registered refugees could resettle elsewhere on the condition that they spend 30 days in Laos. "They told us if we were still not happy in Laos, we could leave, but it was just a trick," says Pao Chang. A few days later, says Pao Chang, Thai soldiers forced him onto a bus and took him to Laos, where authorities ordered him not to tell foreigners he wanted to leave. He says he was then sent to a repatriation camp, where armed guards many of whom had fought against the ragtag groups of Hmong fighters who remain in the jungle kept his family under 24-hour surveillance. Pao Chang says he was given a "flimsy house and a tiny plot of bad farmland." Says Pao Chang with tears in his eyes: "The conditions were unbearable. There were no schools and only two nurses for thousands of people."
To ease the international community's concerns, Laotian authorities organized two official visits for foreign diplomats. During one visit, Pao Chang says, a senior commander gave him a script ordering him to tell diplomats he was being looked after and had no desire to move. Those who refused to abide by the script were denied day passes to leave the camps. After unknown assailants burned down camp farmland, Pao Chang decided he had to escape. "If I stayed, they eventually would have found a way to kill me," he says.
Pao Chang escaped the camp, traveling through Laos at night without identification, and illegally crossed the Mekong River. Chang says, "If the authorities would have caught me, I would have been executed." The future of Pao Chang and other families in Thailand who have followed remains unclear. He has papers from the UNHCR certifying his refugee status, but he has little faith he will be protected. "Last time I showed this paper to Thailand, they hit me on the head," Pao Chang says.
Wattanayagorn says that if caught, returning Hmong asylum seekers would be treated as illegal immigrants and sent back to Laos regardless of U.N. documents. According to Kraisak Choonhavan, MP of the Democrat Party, Thailand has never signed an international refugee treaty, so it is not bound by UNHCR rules. But even Choonhavan didn't know why Thailand wasn't letting the Hmong families invited by third countries leave. "There is something strange going on here," he says.