American Odyssey

They fled terror in Laos after secretly aiding American forces in the Vietnam War. Now 200,000 Hmong prosper-and struggle-in the United States

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Moua’s persistence and capacity for hard work would carry her a long way in a culture whose leaders traditionally have been neither female nor young. She graduated from BrownUniversity in 1992 and went on to earn a law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1997. By her early 30s, Moua had become a prominent Democratic Party activist and a fundraiser for the late U.S. senator Paul Wellstone. In January 2002, Moua won office in a by-election held after a state senator was elected mayor of St. Paul; she was reelected that fall by a district that is more than 80 percent non-Hmong. Today she travels the nation talking about how the United States finally gave the Hmong a fair shot at opportunity.

Some would say it was the least America could do.

As the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam deepened, CIA agents recruited Hmong villagers into a “secret army” in Laos, a force of some 30,000 at its peak that was called on to gather intelligence, rescue downed American pilots and fight communist troops in the fiercely contested borderland between Vietnam and Laos. As many as 20,000 Hmong soldiers died during the Vietnam War. Hmong civilians, who numbered about 300,000 before the war, perished by the tens of thousands. Their sacrifice was virtually unknown to most Americans until 1997, when efforts by Hmong veterans and their advocates resulted in the installation at Arlington National Cemetery of a commemorative plaque. “In memory of the Hmong and Lao combat veterans and their American advisors who served freedom’s cause in Southeast Asia,” reads the memorial, one of a handful honoring foreign soldiers in the cemetery. “Their patriotic valor and loyalty in the defense of liberty and democracy will never be forgotten.”

Moua’s father, Chao Tao Moua, was 16 when he was recruited in 1965 by the CIA to work as a medic. For the next ten years, he served with U.S. forces in Laos, setting up remote clinics to treat Hmong villagers and injured American airmen. Then, in 1975, several months after U.S. forces abruptly withdrew from Vietnam in April, victorious Laotian communists (the Pathet Lao) officially seized control of their country. Mee Moua’s father and other members of the CIAbacked secret Laotian army knew they were marked men. “One night, some villagers told my father that the Pathet Lao were coming and were looking for whomever worked with the Americans,” she says. “He knew he was on their list.” Chao Tao Moua, his wife, Vang Thao Moua, 5-year-old daughter Mee and infant Mang, later named Mike, fled in the middle of the night from their village in the Xieng Khouang Province. They were among the fortunate who managed to cross the Mekong River into Thailand. Thousands of Hmong died at the hands of the Pathet Lao in the aftermath of the war. “In 1975, the current communist government came to power,” says Jane Hamilton-Merritt, author of Tragic Mountains, a history of the Vietnam-era conflict in Laos. “It announced publicly that it intended to ‘wipe out’ the Hmong who had allied themselves with the Royal Lao Government and the United States and therefore opposed the communist Pathet Lao soldiers and the North Vietnamese military forces operating in Laos. . . . Wiping out the targeted Hmong began in earnest in early 1976 and continues in 2004.”

The Hmong in Laos may be considered the last victims of the Vietnam War. Today, as many as 17,000 of them who fled into the jungle 30 years ago are said to remain in hiding, fearing for their lives and conducting sporadic guerrilla incursions against the still-communist Laotian government. Reports suggest that hundreds of Hmong have recently begun to emerge from the jungle, lured by the prospect of amnesty. Douglas Hartwick, U.S. ambassador to Laos, says that his goal has been to “reconcile Hmong insurgents and the Lao government.” However, many of those who have left their mountain redoubts have reportedly met with retaliation instead, perhaps facing imprisonment or execution. The Laotian government denies this. Hartwick says only: “We have been unable to substantiate these reports or repudiate them.”

Additionally, perhaps 30,000 Hmong remain in limbo across the border in Thailand, consigned over the decades to refugee camps. Some of them, unwilling to abandon relatives remaining in Laos, refused to depart for the United States in the 1970s. In December 2003, the United States agreed to accept up to 15,000 Hmong from a rural Thailand camp for resettlement. They began arriving in July.

Although there are Hmong-Americans who do return regularly to Laos, relations between the Hmong-American community and Laos are strained. As it happens, Vang’s house in St. Paul was torched five months after his father had called for normal trade relations with the Laotian government and its president, Khamtai Siphandon, and negotiating an end to the 30-year-long jungle warfare. The U.S. State Department currently advocates normal trade relations with Laos. In September 2003, the two countries took an important step when they signed a trade agreement. It is awaiting Congressional approval.

The hmong diaspora of the 1970s evolved against the dark backdrop of trauma and terror that unfolded during the 1960s in their homeland. When that first wave of Hmong refugees reached the United States, their poverty was often compounded by the Hmong tradition of large families. The U.S. resettlement policy also created hardships. It required that refugees be dispersed throughout the nation, to prevent any one municipality from being overburdened. But the effect was to break apart families and fragment the 18 or so traditional clans that form the social backbone of the Hmong community. Not only do clans provide each individual with a family name—Moua, Vang, Thao, Yang, for example—they also provide support and guidance, especially in times of need.

Large Hmong populations settled in California and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where social services were well funded and jobs were said to exist. Today, Minnesota’s Twin Cities are called the “Hmong capital of the United States.” In one of the latest waves of migration, more and more Hmong have settled in a part of the nation that they say reminds them of home: North Carolina.

This past january in Hickory, North Carolina, Mee Moua and her husband, Yee Chang, a journalist turned real estate agent, sat at a makeshift banquet table in the living room of an officer of the United Hmong Association of North Carolina. They were eating an American Hmong fusion breakfast of doughnuts and spicy soup, and were joined by more than a dozen Hmong residents of the Hickory-Morganton area in the foothills of the Piedmont plateau. This area, many Hmong say, reminds them of the highlands of Laos.


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