Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Laos: A Cry to Heaven in the Land of a Million Elephants

Mee Moua Vang, with family in front of their makeshift home, near Vang Vieng, Laos. Her message to the world, "My husband and two older daughters were killed by the communists while foraging for food. My daughter Blee was attacked by the communists where her guts were sticking out and I was unable to help her so she died. I miss her very much. I am desperately suffering here with no help. I ask you to come in and save us. Bring us food."
Photo by Roger Aronold, WPN - June 28, 2006

“Often we do not realize the consequences of our actions until it is too late.”

Laos: a beautiful mountainous country rich in biodiversity located deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Once so famous for its countless herds of elephants that it was called ‘Prathet Lane Xane’ (the Land of a Million Elephants). Home to the Lao, Yao (Mien), Khammu (Khmu), and Hmong: ethnic groups and tribes with histories rich in traditions and culture and struggles for survival that go back millennia.

Laos is also the tiny dirt-poor country that suffered the tragedies and atrocities of modern-day warfare during the 20th Century unlike any other land, except for its neighbor Vietnam. Civil wars, invasions, the opium trade, and a landscape littered with millions of tons of UXO (unexploded ordnance) 35 years after the end of the Vietnam and Laos wars.

“The United States military dropped more than 2.5 million tons of ordnance on Laos during the Vietnam War, more than the total used against Germany and Japan in World War II. An estimated 10 million unexploded submunitions or “bomblets” remain scattered across the country, killing approximately 200 Laotians per year. Since 1973, 5,700 Laotians have been killed and 5,600 injured by unexploded ordnance.”

Source: Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress
‘Laos: Background and U.S. Relations’ by Thomas Lum, November 22, 2004.
Download (PDF)

The country is ruled by the Pathet Lao, the Communist military regime who defeated the Royal Lao Government established after the end of French colonization. Laos endured a fiercely fought civil war from 1962-1975, where military forces and intelligence agencies from many countries including North and South Vietnam, the U.S.A., and Thailand were involved in what is commonly referred to by military historians as the CIA’s Secret War.

But this post is not about a war from more than three decades ago; instead it is about the plight of several small groups of people still hiding in those inhospitable mountain jungles of Laos for the past 33 years who are at the verge of extinction. These desperate and hopeless people are mainly from the Hmong hill tribes, some of which were former fighters and soldiers in the Laotian civil war more than 30 years ago, and food and shelter and time is running out fast for them and their families. These people are being hunted down like animals by government soldiers, the Pathet Lao forces with the assistance of the Vietnamese military, and this is their story.

Latest News Update on the Hmong hill people from Al Jazeera Network

While viewing news programs this past weekend I came across a report on Al Jazeera English network about the “Lost Tribes: Secret Army of the CIA”. The award-winning British journalist Tony Birtley and his cameraman traveled to Laos to meet secretly with Hmong who had been living deep in the Laotian jungles, constantly on the run and fleeing for their lives since the end of the Vietnam and Laos’ wars.

The half hour video report shows Birtley arriving in a mountain village filled mainly with women and children, joined by old men and boys shouldering outdated M-16’s and AK-47’s. Almost all of the villagers are in rags and some of the children are naked, many people suffering from gunshot and shrapnel wounds, some with poorly treated injuries from landmines and mortars, no medicines, their eyes and bellies showing the tell-tale signs of severe malnutrition and near starvation. Their eyes showed something else: naked fear and terror and an almost total resignation that death was near, very near.

It took me a while to understand what I was watching, and then it struck me that these were the legendary fierce jungle fighters of the Vietnam War era, the Hmong. Some of the older men in the report had fought alongside American Special Forces in a CIA-supervised not-so-secret conflict in Laos from 1961-1973. I had thought for years that these fighters were long dead, killed in combat and/or murdered during imprisonment and “re-education” by victorious Pathet Lao and Vietnamese forces more than 30 years ago. But there they were, alive, and with their wives and children and grandchildren all hiding in the jungle___ destitute, starving, afraid, and hunted like animals to this very day. I was devastated as I watched them beg for help, for mercy, for a way out of their never-ending nightmare___ crying and wailing at the feet of a British journalist, calling him “Father” as if he were some god come to save them. Their tears and wailing was heart-wrenching to hear and watch. These were human beings making a desperate cry to Heaven for mercy and for help.

Their story is complex and it is long, so I have provided below an excerpt from reporter Tony Birtley’s journal kept during his sojourn to the jungles of Laos, including the links to the 3-part video report at Al Jazeera’s channel. I have also included at the end of this post a long list of additional news articles and resources about Laos and the Hmong people.

I must break this article (blog post) down into 2-3 parts, so please read the article(s) and view the video reports while I work on the 2nd part of this story.


Village leader, Bila Shoua Her (center), holding an old American M-79 grendade launcher and surrounded by former Hmong fighters from the CIA's Secret Army,near Vang Vieng, Laos. Most of the men are from the surrounding CIA Lima Sites 363, 319, 90, and 74. The CIA established remote jungle landing strips in Laos called Lima Sites to provide aerial supply to their Secret Army. Ironically the Loa communist government now uses Lima Site 363 to supply its troops and to attack Bila Shoua Her and his men.
Photo by Roger Arnold, WPN - July 03, 2006

Tony Birtley’s field report Laos ‘Lost Tribes’ in Plea for Help' at
March 13, 2008

The dead of night - a rendezvous on a dirt road on the fringe of a dense jungle.

I couldn't see the faces of my guides, but I could see their guns and I could feel the apprehension as they ushered me into the undergrowth and the start of what would turn out to be an unforgettable journey.

There were six of them, all ethnic Hmong; a rugged, tough people used to harsh conditions. But a people, I was soon to discover, living in fear.

We hurried into the forest - not easy in the dark - down a steep slope, across a narrow bamboo bridge over a fast-flowing river, and then upwards.

When we talked it was in a whisper; when we walked we tried not to create noise. And we tried to avoid the danger, which they told me was all around.

The danger comes from the Laos army. They are everywhere, the guides told me and ambushes are common.

In the dark, with the occasional use of a torch, we weaved our way through the undergrowth.

The darkness creates fear and apprehension but it is also strangely comforting: if you cannot see the soldiers, then it is equally hard for them to see you.

The first five hours was straight up, no deviations, and no track. Sometimes clambering for something to hold and pull myself up, other times it was all I could do to stop from falling backwards.

No such exhaustion for the Hmong; this kind of hike was normal in this hilly highland terrain of northern Laos.

Five hours and numerous stops later we reached the peak of the hill and a chance to sleep for a few hours.

We walked for another two hours beneath the dense jungle canopy, then stopped for food.

The "food" was a plant root similar to a yam, tasting like dried potato and something I came to dread in the coming days.

After two days we reached our destination, Zu, meaning village in Hmong. Not so much a village, more a gathering of bamboo shacks. But the sight which greeted me could only have come from a Hollywood movie script.

Men, women and children were on their knees, hands together as in prayer. And there were tears, floods of tears.

I was the first outsider, the first Westerner, and the first foreigner they had seen in 32 years. For some it was the first time ever. Some of the weeping men cradled guns and had grenades on their belts.

I didn't realise it then but my visit had taken on a significance I was not prepared for.

A Hmong man with a video camera filmed me. A woman dressed in traditional colourful Hmong clothes paused her sobbing and looked at me.

"Oh father, we are just widows. Our husbands, wives and children are lost. We are poverty stricken, please help us. We have no one to guide us," she said.

Everyone was shouting out. Four young men were performing a welcome dance. A young fighter, grenade launcher on his back, grenades around his waste, played an out of tune guitar.

It was hard to grasp how desperate these people were, hard to understand the drama of the welcome, the depth of their hopelessness.

This would all become clearer in the coming days – more days than I intended to stay.

The group's tears and groans continued. I felt uncomfortable putting my camera close to them to record their desperation, but realised that the world had to see this - it was the whole point of making such a journey.

End excerpt___
Laos ‘Lost Tribe’ in Plea for Help at Al Jazeera – English website.

End Part 1 ‘A Cry to Heaven in the Land of a Million Elephants’ - Part 2 coming soon

Related articles and additional resources

Al Jazeera News Network – English
Laos ‘Lost Tribe’ in Plea for Help, 03/13/08
The Lost Tribes of Laos, 03/07/08
Laos denies Hmong persecution, 03/14/08
Out of the Jungle, 03/07/08

The Lost Tribe – Secret Army of the CIA by Tony Birtley, 03/10/08
The Lost Tribe program video @
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Al Jazeera News – 101 East program
Hmong Tribes, 09/13/07
Host Veronica Pedrosa interviews representatives from the Hmong International Human Rights Watch, UNHCR, and the Government of Thailand.
Hmong Tribes program video @
Part 1, Part 2

International Herald Tribune
A desperate life for survivors of the Secret War in Laos by Thomas Fuller, 12/17/07
Note: see interviews with Hmong war veteran Xang Yang and video and photo essays by Thomas Fuller

New York Times
Old U.S. Allies, Still Hiding in Laos by Thomas Fuller, 12/17/07
Note: same feature article as appears in the International Herald Tribune
Arrest Uncovers Divide in Hmong-Americans by Monica Davey, 06/14/07
Note: article about the arrest of war veteran General Vang Pao for conspiracy to purchase arms for the overthrow of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic
New York Times – Topics - Laos

The Digital Journalist magazine - Dispatches
Laos: Still a Secret War by Roger Arnold, October 2006
Still a Secret War Part 2 by Roger Arnold, August 2007
Still a Secret War video @ YouTube – narrated by Roger Arnold for WPN – personal website of the photojournalist Roger Arnold
Photo essay gallery – CIA Secret Army
Also see related articles and resources about the Hmong people of Laos

Rebecca Sommer – documentary filmmaker and activist – website for Hmong news, documentary films, and reports
Hunted Like Animals’, a groundbreaking documentary film by Rebecca Sommer about the persecution of Hmong and Lao tribes in the jungles of Laos. for the Amnesty International Film Festival Asia (TIME magazine online)
Welcome to the Jungle by Andrew Perrin, 04/28/03
Welcome to the Jungle photo essay
The Hmong Road Home, 08/24/07
The Last Battle of Vietnam, 03/02/07
(The aftermath of Agent Orange and dioxin poisoning in Vietnam)

ABC News
Hmong Refugees Fear Returning to Laos, 05/20/07
In Laos, Prized Elephants are in Decline, 03/16/08
Chinese Influx Stirs Age-Old Hatred in Myanmar, 03/12/08

The Washington Post
Hmong Refugees Fear Returning to Laos, 05/20/07

Frontpage Magazine
The Two Faces of Communist Laos by Michael Benge, 02/28/08

IPS – Inter Press Service news agency
Thailand/Laos: Hmong refugees starve to resist deportation, 08/19/07

Australian National University – Research School of Asian and Pacific Studies
New Madala (blog):
Slow rescue from Laos’ lethal harvest, 11/30/07
Note: this article reviews the highly-acclaimed documentary film ‘
Bomb Harvest

The Nation (Bangkok)
Concern over rough treatment of Hmong refugees, 12/06/06
(Thai newspaper reports on harsh treatment of Hmong refugees from Laos held in a Thai government Immigration Detention Center)

Civil and human rights groups working on behalf of the Hmong people

Hmong International Human Rights Watch
U.S.-based human rights advocacy group – official website of organization dedicated to bringing the plight of veterans of U.S. Secret War in Laos to the attention of the American people and the U.S. Congress

Center for Public Policy Analysis
Thailand, Laos Crisis:
Human Rights Concerns in Laos and Thailand (Congressional hearings in Washington D.C.), 02/11/08
Lao, Hmong Human Rights Forum to Discuss Plight of 8,000 Refugees, 09/28/07

Amesty International
LPDR: Hiding in the Jungle, Hmong Under Threat, 03/27/07
Human Rights Forgotten: The Hmong people, 05/25/04
Interview with documentary filmmaker Ruhi Hamid

Human Rights Watch – News
Thailand: Stop Deportation of Hmong Refugees to Laos, 12/12/06

News, history and culture information about Laos and the Hmong
People of Laos, Hmong, Lao, Khammu (Khmu), Yao (Mien)
Laotian Civil War, Air America

Center for Hmong Studies – Concordia University (St. Paul, MN. USA)

Personal website of Dr. Gary Yia Lee, Hmong Anthropolgist and Historian
Center for Lao Studies (San Francisco, CA. USA)
Refugees from Laos: historical background and causes by Dr. Gary Yia Lee

Hmong Studies Internet Resource Center
Hmong Studies Journal online (Hmong website based in the U.S.A.)

North by North East (an eco-tourism company specializing on Laos)
Laos History in brief
The Hmong: Legend and History Part 1 and Part 2 by J.G. Learned

UCLA International Institute – Center for Southeast Asian Studies
Hmong: An Endangered People by Rashaan Meneses, 07/07/04

IMCA – Project InForm
Hmong in Transition by Sheila Pinkel

Radio Free Asia – English edition
Radio Free Asia blog - Unplugged

New York Times – Topics - Laos

Voice of America News
EU Delegation Visits Hmong Village in Vangvieng District, 03/12/08
Laos’ news and features archive

U.S. Department of State
Country background brief - Laos
Profile for U.S. Ambassador to Laso Ravic R. Huso
U.S. Embassy in Vientiane, Laos – official website
Laos Embassy in Washington D.C. – official website

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency
CIA World Factbook - Laos

CIA - Center for the Study of Intelligence Library

Supporting the Secret War: CIA Air Operations in Laos (1955-1974) by Professor William H. Leary (University of Georgia Dept. of History)

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Koluki said...

Interesting title. Will come back later to read the text properly.
In the meantime, Happy Easter!

BRE said...

Thanks Koluki for the Easter greetings. Actually, I took the idea for the title from "Cry to Heaven" written by Anne Rice in 1982, a brilliant historical novel about "the castrati" set in 18th Century Rome, Venice, and Naples.

The Hmong people featured in these reports are presumably animist or Bhuddist, therefore "heaven" would have a different meaning for them than for people of Christian, Judaeic or Islamic faiths. Bhuddists believe in many heavens all of which are part of Samsara (see Bhuddist cosmology, the Six Realms).

These desperate Hmong tribes trapped and being hunted down in the highland jungles of Laos are obviously living in a type of Hell. I hope that someone or something can come to their rescue, soon.