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216th Meeting – Tuesday, December 11th  2001

'The Laotian Hmong in the United States'

A talk by Khun Pongkaset Suwannakoon

Summary of the talk: Khun Pongkaset commenced his talk with a chronology of significant events in contemporary Laos history. He began with the Dien Bien Phu incident on May 8th 1954. After this incident Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia became independent under a treaty with France.

Fearing that the communist's aggression in Indochina would eventually turn the Domino Theory into reality, the South-East Asian Treaty (for mutual defence) and the Pacific Charter were signed in Manila, Philippines, by the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Thailand, the Philippines, Britain and France. The treaties established SEATO, the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation, with its headquarters in Bangkok, Thailand.

On August 5th 1960, following an army coup led by Captain Kong Le, Prince Savanna Phouma was appointed as the head of the Laos government. However, in December that year, the right-wing Gen. Phoumi Nosawan, with the help of the Thai government, drove Kong Le and the communists out of Vientiane.

While retreating northwards, the Soviet representative met with Kong Le and offered help with air-drops of supplies. With the support of the communist Pathet Laos, the Soviets and the North Vietnamese Army (NVA), Kong Le pushed the Hmong people, under the leadership of Vang Pao, out of their Xieng Khoung homeland. The Hmong retreated to Ban Po Dong but not for long because the NVA started to shell them again.

Vang Pao was forced to move his people out of Ban Po Dong and relocate them in the Pha Khao Valley. Shortly after their relocation, the Americans arrived to ask Vang Pao for Hmong support in the fight against the communist invaders. In return for Hmong assistance, America would provide arms, training and food.

In June 1961, the US government began to arm the Hmong and Vang Pao's secret army grew to around 18,000 men; each being paid an average of 10 cents a day. In December 1961, Vang Pao moved his headquarters to Long Tieng, which then became the Laos capital until the mid 70's.

In September 1969, with the help of the US, the Hmong army began an offensive against the NVA and the Pathet Laos forces on the Plain de Jars. The battle went on until February 1970 when the communist forces recaptured the Plain de Jars, threatening Long Tieng, the Hmong capital. In February 1973, the government of Laos and the Pathet Laos signed a cease-fire agreement in Vientiane and the US bombing in Laos ended. South Vietnam and Cambodia fell in April 1975. One month later, fighting broke out between Gen. Vang Pao's army and the NVA but the US refused to help the Hmong with air-support. In May 1975, Long Tieng fell and 50,000 Hmong began the first exodus to Thailand. The second influx of approximately 100,000 Hmong refugees did not occur until 1977 when their political leader Touby Lyfong died mysteriously in a Seminar camp. At about the same time, the ex-King Savang Vathana along with Queen Khamboui and Crown Prince Say Vongsavang were apprehended and incarcerated in Seminar camp No.1 in Northern Laos. The crown prince died on May 2nd 1978, and the king eleven days later. The cause of death of both the crown prince and the king was starvation. The queen died on December 12th 1981.

Some Hmong refugees stayed in refugee camps for 16 years. Eventually, most were resettled in France and the United States. Since the closing of the refugee camps in 1995, thousands of the refugees have returned to Laos. A few thousand still remain in Thailand. At present, a total of 169,423 Hmong are in the US; 65,095 in California, 41,800 in Minnesota, 33,791 in Wisconsin and the rest scattered in small numbers in every other state except Wyoming. The first groups of Hmong had a difficult time surviving because they couldn't speak English. Also, being animist they had problems carrying out their traditional rituals and ceremonies. Today, many Hmong are well educated. A few hundred have under-graduate and post-graduate degrees. The older Hmong are still hoping to return to Laos, if and when it ever becomes a free democratic country. The younger immigrant Hmong and the US born Hmong are well adjusted to their American life style but they have no knowledge of their homeland other than what their elders tell them.

The Hmong army in Laos played a major role in fighting communist aggression. The Hmong fought against the communist invaders and were instrumental in halting their assault at the Mekong River. Surf in on one of the Hmong web sites and you're sure to see this poignant reminder of the Laotian Hmong's relatively unsung role in the history of South-East Asia, "Do you know someone who is still alive today because of the Hmong?"