Why did the U.S. turn on Hmong resistance Gen. Vang Pao?
By Jeffrey Brody, JEFFREY BRODY is a professor of communications at Cal State Fullerton.
June 18, 2007, From the Los Angeles Times, Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
I FIRST MET Gen. Vang Pao about 20 years ago, when he was traveling across the United States raising money for Hmong resistance fighters in Laos.
Pao, who headed the CIA's secret army in Laos during the Vietnam War, was soliciting funds from Hmong communities during traditional New Year's celebrations. He and his followers boasted of their successful ongoing attacks, displaying scrapbooks and videotapes of jungle fighters, blown-up vehicles and dead bodies.
I was a reporter then, and congressional and State Department officials I interviewed were well aware of Pao's activities. "I don't think the Hmong have a chance," former Rep. Robert Dornan told me in 1986. "But when people want to fight against repression, you have to help them."
Apparently not any more.
Pao and nine others were arrested June 4, charged with plotting to buy $9.8 million worth of armaments — including missiles, mines and machine guns (an 11th suspect was arrested later). The weapons allegedly were going to be smuggled through Thailand and used to launch a coup against the communist government of Laos, which has controlled the country since the Pathet Lao victory in 1975.
There's nothing new in the Hmong's determination to fight the people who run Laos. A hill tribe that didn't trade crossbows for rifles until the early 1960s, they allied themselves with the CIA against the Pathet Lao movement during the Vietnam War. Causalities were high; the Hmong lost about 30,000 troops, about 10% of the tribe's population. Many were forced to flee their homeland at war's end, and today about 275,000 Hmong live in the United States, mainly in California's Central Valley and Minnesota.
Pao, a charismatic speaker with ramrod straight military posture, was one of several Asian refugee leaders who continued to vow that they would overthrow the communist regimes in their home countries. Pao's allegiance to the United States and its anti-communist ideals cannot be understated. He fought with the French against the Pathet Lao as far back as 1954.
In light of the general's open and ongoing activities since he came to the United States in exile 32 years ago, it seems bizarre — and hypocritical — that the federal government would launch an undercover operation to ensnare him now. U.S. officials have surely been aware of his activities for decades. But for some reason, Pao, now elderly and on heart medication, has shifted from being a resistance fighter to a terrorist in the eyes of federal authorities.
Has the U.S. government lost its institutional memory and forgotten that Pao was the CIA's man in Laos for nearly 15 years? It was former CIA Director William Colby who called him fearless and "an absolutely splendid leader." Or can it be that the 77-year-old former general is no longer useful now that the United States has full diplomatic and trade relations with Laos, and U.S. political concerns have shifted from Southeast Asia to the Middle East?
The sting operation, codenamed Operation Tarnished Eagle, involved an undercover agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms posing as an arms broker. The charges center on the purchase of the weapons, rather than organizing a resistance army, but the two go hand in hand. Federal officials said no arms were delivered — so Pao's group stands largely accused of wanting what they have always wanted: the means to supply and run a guerrilla army in Laos.
Still, given that the Hmong fighters failed to hold on to their territory in Laos back when they had the support of the U.S. military, a successful coup launched from Pao's home in Westminster seems highly unlikely. Federal agents seized only $170,000 in cash, not even a down payment on $9.8 million. Was this plot the general's last hurrah? Or was there not much of a plot at all?
Some in the Hmong American community have grown deeply skeptical of the general — particularly his continual fundraising for a resistance that appears to be a lot of talk but little action. Still, Pao remains a warrior in the eyes of his people. His arrest, in an ironic way, will add to his legend and bolster his credibility in the Hmong community.
But for the U.S., this arrest is shameful. The CIA could have discreetly told Pao to stop his plotting and fundraising 20 years ago. Or 10. Instead, he got Operation Tarnished Eagle. The Hmong sacrificed their lives and lost their homeland fighting alongside the Americans. Locking up their aging general is a final, contemptible act of betrayal.