Jungle orphans

Thailand plans to deport all Hmong refugees in the country to Laos by year-end. *Nick Harvey* reports on the precarious position of the Hmong people, both inside Laos and in the bleak refugee camps of Thailand.

The family of a five-year-old killed during a raid by the Lao People's Army mourn at the child's grave. Thousands of Hmong, who fought or collaborated with the CIA until communists took over the country in 1975, remain hidden in the jungles of Laos.

Tomas van Houtryve / Panos

‘It’s been like one long, terrible bad dream,’ says Zhong Yang, 49 (not his real name). ‘We have suffered enough for a thousand lifetimes and still there seems no end to it.’

For over three decades the Lao Hmong (pronounced ‘Mong’) have faced continuous persecution from Lao Government forces as retribution for the support they gave the US during the ‘Secret War’ in the 1960s and 70s. In 1961, the CIA began recruiting Lao Hmong to attack enemy supply lines, rescue downed pilots and protect American military installations as part of the fight to rid the region of communism. After communist forces took control of Laos in 1975 many Hmong were forced to flee to Thailand or move into remote mountain areas where some remain to this day.

‘This is a key part of US history which most Americans know nothing about,’ says Roger Arnold, a photojournalist who spent time with the Hmong in the Lao jungle. ‘I was just blown away that these people could be still hiding in the mountains, remnants from the Vietnam War 35 years earlier.’

Reports from Laos suggest those who helped the CIA, and anyone related to them, are still routinely arrested, intimidated and murdered by Lao Government forces. Although figures are hard to verify, Hmong activists estimate that every year hundreds of Hmong go missing inside Laos.

‘Those who are left are still being hunted down by the Lao military and the soldiers are getting smarter,’ says Kue Xiong, President of the Hmong Lao Human Rights Council. ‘They don’t just go in guns blazing anymore, they wait for them to come out to get food and they ambush them; or they make sure they can’t get food so they simply starve to death.’

According to the Lao Government, more than 450,000 Hmong live in Laos – a landlocked communist republic sandwiched between Vietnam and Thailand – constituting eight per cent of its population. But negative portrayals in the completely government-owned media means many ordinary Laotians are suspicious and fearful of the Hmong.

‘They make trouble in all corners of the country,’ says Chan, a guesthouse owner in Laos’ capital, Vientiane. ‘They attack buses, rob and even kill people. I don’t know why they do these things because the Government gives them lots of opportunities.’

This fear and hostility leads not only to fewer options for the Hmong in terms of education and employment in Laos but also to outright attacks on them by the Lao military. Many are forced to cross into Thailand. While Thailand has allowed the resettlement of over 100,000 Hmong in the past, mainly to the US, the strengthening of political and economic relations between Thailand and Laos has meant that since 2004 they’ve been reluctant to help resettle any more. Instead the policy has been to ‘voluntarily repatriate’ the Hmong back to Laos. But some Hmong claim they suffered threats, beatings and intimidation until they agreed to return.

‘Everyday they’re telling the Hmong refugees that they’re not going to get resettled; they must either go back or stay and rot in the camps,’ says Joe Davy, a leading Hmong activist. ‘They lock up the leaders, cut the water supply, withhold food, tricks like this to break their spirit. It’s definitely not ‘voluntary’ in the way you and I would understand the word.’

Back to Laos

International law dictates that no refugee should be forced back to a country where ‘his or her life or freedom could be threatened.’1 But Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Since 2007, over 2,000 Hmong have been sent back to Laos by Thai authorities, many claiming to have been returned against their will. Around 4,000 remain warehoused in Thailand in the Huay Nam Khao camp in Phetchabun province, 250 kilometres north of Bangkok. Thailand has recently stepped up its efforts to repatriate the Hmong from Huay Nam Khao, aiming to have them all sent back to Laos by the end of the year. Many believe this harsh policy is due to pressure on Thailand from the Lao Government which is keen to get the issue cleared up before it hosts the 25th Southeast Asian Games in December 2009.

‘Laos is trying hard to legitimate itself in the international community,’ says Joe Davy. ‘The Hmong are a black mark that they want to wash away before the spotlight falls on them during the Games.’

With Thailand and Laos forbidding any independent observers from monitoring the repatriation, activists are seriously concerned about the lack of transparency.

‘No embassies, journalists or NGOs are allowed to witness the repatriations so it’s difficult to know what’s happening,’ says Rebecca Sommer, director of the film Hunted Like Animals which documents the struggles of the Hmong in the mountain areas of Laos. ‘What we do know is many are simply disappearing; we suspect they are being imprisoned, tortured and executed.’

On 5 December 2005, 26 young Hmong refugees (21 girls and 5 boys) were forcibly sent back to Laos after Thai soldiers captured them outside their camp in Phetchabun. A Hmong Christian missionary had taken them on a day trip. Nothing was heard of these adolescents until Amnesty International began a campaign in 2007 demanding to know their whereabouts. Initially the Lao Government denied holding them, but later that year the girls suddenly turned up and were filmed by Lao authorities (later displayed on YouTube) happily reuniting with family members. But shortly after these scenes 12 of the girls managed to escape back to Thailand. They recounted stories of horrific treatment by the Lao prison guards including daily torture, beatings and repeated group rape.

Hmong activists fear there could be mass suicides if Thailand goes ahead with its plan to send them all back to Laos by the end of the year

‘They made us listen to a recording of the boys,’ one of the girls recalls. ‘You could hear each boy being beaten. They asked, “Were you going to Xieng Kouang? Were you going to the market to take the money from the Americans?” The boy was just crying, saying “Yes, yes, yes”.’

Despite stories such as these regularly being reported by returnees, those involved in the repatriation process on both the Thai and Lao sides insist those going back are all simply economic migrants who have nothing to fear.

‘It’s like this with the Hmong, you give them a little bit and they try to take a lot,’ said a Thai immigration official who did not want to be named. ‘The Hmong have seen that other Hmong managed to get resettled in 2004 so they’ve flooded across trying to do the same. I’m very suspicious of their claims of persecution in Laos. I really don’t think that’s the case.’

Hmong activists don’t deny that there are a large number of Hmong migrants who have no connection to those who fought for the Americans and are trying their luck to get resettled in a third country. But the absence of any viable screening processes by the Thai authorities means they have no way of distinguishing between these so-called ‘economic migrants’ and the hundreds of genuine refugees who are given no choice but to return to potential imprisonment and execution in Laos.

‘It’s like sending a child back to be looked after by a molesting uncle just because they’re still related,’ says Joe Davy. ‘It’s complete madness to think they’ll all be ok when they go back.’

Mental health concerns

Hmong activists fear there could be mass suicides if Thailand goes ahead with its plan to send them all back to Laos by the end of the year. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has recently expressed extreme concern about the mental health of those living in the camps. They say the trauma many have faced in the past is exacerbating their perceptions of the future.

‘If we go back it will be like hell for us,’ said one refugee. ‘I would rather kill myself and all my family than let them send us back.’

While there may be uncertainty over the status of some of the refugees in the camps, the same can’t be said for the Hmong locked up in an Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) in Nong Khai in the North of Thailand. Since December 2006, 158 Hmong, mostly women and children, have been held in what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) describes as ‘inhumane’ conditions, despite all holding valid refugee certificates. Films documenting their suffering in the Lao jungle, as well as the bullet wound scars which many carry, leave little doubt that their fear of return is genuine. But not wanting to upset Lao authorities, the Thai Government has refused to let them leave their small, mosquito-infested cells – despite Canada, the US, the Netherlands and Australia all offering them resettlement places.

‘Every day is misery in here,’ said a refugee inside Nong Khai IDC. ‘Each day I wake up I just want to die.’

In January 2007, Thai officials aided an attempt by Lao authorities to forcibly repatriate the Hmong at Nong Khai, even allowing the Lao forces to use tear gas. The operation was only called off after some of the Hmong barricaded themselves and threatened mass suicide. Since then pressure has been mounting on Thailand to resolve the situation at Nong Khai. In April, the famously loose-tongued Thai foreign minister, Kasit Piromya, announced after talks with Hillary Clinton that Thailand would finally allow them to resettle to Canada, Australia and New Zealand/Aotearoa. But the joy of Hmong detainees and activists soon turned to anger when they were told they’d first have to return to Laos before they could be moved to a third country.

‘They won’t resettle them after they return to Laos,’ says filmmaker Rebecca Sommer. ‘The burden will be elegantly taken off Thailand’s shoulders and Laos will say everyone is happy and no-one wants to leave the country ever again.’

A young Hmong girl from the Nong Khai refugee camp in northern Thailand: ‘Each day is misery here.’

Photo by: Nick Harvey.

An alien world

For Hmong who’ve resettled in the US since the end of the conflict in Southeast Asia, it has been difficult to make the shift from an agrarian lifestyle – a life of animism and opium farming, sacrifices and rituals – to life in the achievement-orientated, industrial West.

‘America’s an alien world to us and every family has had its problems getting to grips with the culture, especially the language,’ says Laura Xiong, executive director of Hmong International Human Rights Watch, based in Nebraska.

‘Unemployment is also a big problem in our community and it’s even worse since the economic downturn. But we all pull together and we get through, we are very close in that way.’

The relatively high crime rates amongst young Hmong men in the US have led some to believe they are having a more difficult time settling into American life than Hmong women. This idea is touched on in the recent film, Gran Torino, in which Clint Eastwood plays a racist Korean War veteran who reluctantly helps out a Hmong family that is being terrorized by a Hmong street gang. In one scene Eastwood’s character asks a Hmong girl, Sue, why she seems smarter than her brother. ‘Hmong girls over here fit in better,’ she tells him. ‘Hmong girls go to college and Hmong boys go to jail.’

The film has received mixed reviews from the Hmong in America with some believing it perpetuates negative stereotypes.

‘It’s been criticized by some in the Hmong community because we’re not all the way the film portrays us,’ says Laura Xiong. ‘But personally I like it, it gives a good message about working together as cultures to overcome difficulties.’

In May, thousands of Hmong gathered in Sacramento, California, to protest what they saw as the unfair trial of General Vang Pao, leader of the Lao forces in the ‘Secret War’ and whom many Hmong still see as their leader. On 4 June 2007, 250 federal agents raided homes and offices across California in what they dramatically called ‘Operation Tarnished Eagle’ arresting Vang Pao and 10 others. They are accused of violating the US Neutrality Act by allegedly trying to purchase machine guns, grenades and stinger missiles to overthrow the communist government of Laos. If he’s found guilty, Vang Pao, 79, could spend the rest of his life in prison. The defence are pushing for the case to be dismissed due to entrapment and ‘outrageous government conduct’ – the plot they’re being tried for was initially proposed by an undercover federal agent posing as an arms dealer. Although many believe the case won’t stand up in court, Vang Pao’s treatment has led many Hmong to feel they’ve been let down by the US.

‘The fact that Vang Pao has been targeted is a real slap in the face for the Hmong,’ says Joe Davy. ‘This trial and everything leading up to it fits with US policy towards the Hmong at the moment.’

The US has accepted tens of thousands of Hmong since the end of the Vietnam War – the last census nine years ago counted over 185,000 people of Hmong ancestry living in the country. But many Hmong activists believe the US’s recent reluctance to put pressure on the Thai and Lao authorities to resolve matters for the remaining Hmong is due to its political and business interests in the region.

‘America is more concerned about healing the old wounds between themselves and Vietnam and Laos,’ says Rebecca Sommer. ‘Now it’s all about business, the stock market and having allies in the region to contain the threat of China. The Hmong come way down on the list.’

This has left some Hmong facing an uncertain future in southeast Asia, feeling betrayed and abandoned.

‘We helped the Americans and we don’t know why they won’t help us anymore,’ says Zhong Yang. ‘We see the US as our father and we are its children. We feel like orphans who’ve been left behind to die.’

Nick Harvey is a freelance journalist from Northampton (England) now based in Bangkok.

Hmong Timeline

2700 BC Hmong, or ‘Miao’, originally inhabit Yellow River Valley in northeast China.

1854-73 ‘Miao Rebellion’ in Guizhou, China, leads to persecution and mass exodus of Hmong to the mountains of present day Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.  

1893 The French colonize Laos and establish a protectorate.

1947 Laos Constitution recognizes Hmong people as part of the Lao nation.

1954 French defeated at Dien Bien Phu in northwest Vietnam. Laos gains full independence as a constitutional monarchy and joins the UN. Civil war breaks out between Royalists and Pathet Lao Communists.

1961-73 The ‘Secret War’ in Laos, part of the US's broader war against communist forces in southeast Asia, goes into full swing. Hmong, led by General Vang Pao, recruited to fight the Pathet Lao, ally of the North Vietnamese. Laos subject to extensive aerial bombing by the US. It’s estimated that more bombs dropped on Laos than were used during the whole of World War Two.

1964 Vang Pao made General of the Royal Lao Army.

1973 (January) The Paris Peace Accords are signed. The US agrees to end its involvement in the Vietnam War.

1975 (April) Saigon falls to North Vietnamese forces. Pathet Lao take control of Laos, forcing many Hmong to flee to Thailand.

1975 (May) Birth of Hmong resistance movement led by Sayshoua Yang. Insurgents live in the jungles of Laos supported by Hmong in Thailand and overseas.

1975 (July) General Vang Pao leaves Thailand for the US. First Hmong migrate to America and France.

1975-97 100,000 Hmong resettled in the US. 

1992-95 10,000 Hmong refugees escape from refugee camps to Thai Buddhist temple ‘Wat Tham Krabok’ and Hmong villages in northern Thailand rather than be repatriated to Laos.

1995 Thai refugee camps closed. Thousands of Hmong are returned to Laos despite continuing reports of torture and persecution.

1997 (May) After over 20 years of denial, the US under the Clinton Administration acknowledges its role in the ‘Secret War’ in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s.

2003 (December) US agrees to accept 15,000 Hmong refugees from Wat Tham Krabok camp in Thailand.

2004 New wave of Lao Hmong flee to Thailand to join those at Wat Tham Krabok awaiting resettlement. Many are moved to Huay Nam Khao camp in Phetchabun province in the North of Thailand.

2006 (November) 194 Hmong (152 from Laos and 42 from Vietnam) are rounded up in Bangkok despite most having been awarded refugee status by UNHCR. Hmong from Vietnam are resettled in the US. Lao Hmong are transferred to Nong Khai detention centre in the north of Thailand where they remain to this day.

2007 (June) General Vang Pao and 10 others are arrested in the US for allegedly plotting to overthrow the communist government of Laos.

2008 (June) Approximately 5,000 refugees march from refugee camp in Phetchabun to raise awareness of their plight. Thai military stop the demonstrators several kilometres from the camp. More than 800 refugees forcibly repatriated to Laos.

2009 (January) Thai Government announces its intention to send all Hmong refugees back to Laos by the end of the year.

2009 (May) Trial of Vang Pao and co-defendants in the US put forward to October.

2009 (June) Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the sole international presence in Huay Nam Khao camp, withdraws, citing restrictions by Thai authorities. MSF publicly appeals for Thai and Lao governments to stop forced repatriation of Hmong refugees.