The Hmong and the CIA

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Sukree Sukplang / Reuters

Asylum seekers ride a Thai military truck out of Ban Huay Nam Khao camp, northeast of Bangkok. More than 4,000 Hmong are being are being forcibly repatriated to Laos, where they say they will face government persecution

On Dec. 28, Thailand's military packed more than 4,000 Hmong asylum seekers into trucks and drove them from refugee camps to neighboring Laos, a single-party state that's been accused of persecuting the Hmong since they backed U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. Thailand maintains that Hmong living illegally in Thailand are economic migrants, not political refugees in need of international protection — but the decision to forcibly repatriate them drew international condemnation. Human Rights Watch called the expulsion "appalling," while the U.S. State Department argued that the refugees deserved to be protected from threats they faced in their homeland.

The incident is the latest step in a decades-old dance involving Laos' communists, the Hmong and the U.S. In the lead-up to the Vietnam War, North Vietnam carved a maze of transportation routes through the jungles of Laos, creating a crucial supply link later known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Laos was in the middle of a civil war between the Royal Lao government and the communist Pathet Lao. Seeking to disrupt the North's supply routes, the Americans enlisted the help of the Royal Lao government's highest-ranking Hmong leader, Vang Pao. He welcomed American guns, money and expertise, assembling thousands of Hmong fighters from the hills. Together, they would tackle a common enemy, the communists.

The partnership worked — to a point. Vang Pao's troops gained a reputation for being fierce jungle fighters who rescued downed U.S. aircrews, gathered military intelligence and fought the communists to a stalemate. The effort was for many years the CIA's largest covert operation, until the agency funded the mujahedin against the Soviets in Afghanistan. In 1969, Richard Helms, director of the CIA, told President Richard Nixon that Vang Pao had 39,000 troops engaged in active fighting. But casualties were so bad, he wrote, that Vang Pao's forces were using teenagers as young as 13 to fill their lines. This massive effort was hidden from the American public for years. It became known as the secret war, and the Hmong mercenaries as the secret army.

After Saigon fell, America abandoned the secret army, and in 1975, as many as 10,000 Hmong were slaughtered at the hands of the ascendant Pathet Lao, according to Roger Warner, an author who is researching a book on Vang Pao. Others fled to neighboring Thailand and the U.S., where about 100,000 were eventually resettled. It was not until 1997 that Washington officially acknowledged the valor of the Hmong soldiers. A small stone with a copper plaque was placed in their honor between the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame in Arlington National Cemetery.

The plaque has done little to resolve the Hmong's plight in Southeast Asia. Thousands live in poverty in Thailand, and a few armed bands still live in the Laotian highlands, refusing to surrender to the government of Laos. Earlier this month, there were signs that the conflict might be easing: Vang Pao, now 80 and living in California, said he wanted to return home and help reconcile the Hmong and the Communist government in Vientiane. But officials reportedly replied that they'd welcome him back by executing him. It's no wonder Thailand's Hmong refugees are worried that the rulers of their homeland still hold a grudge.