Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Laos: A Cry to Heaven in the Land of a Million Elephants - Part 2

‘A Cry to Heaven in the Land of a Million Elephants’ - Part 2
Read Part 1 of this report series here)

I have to admit that despite all of the news this month about the uprising of the Tibetan people against repressive Chinese rule and all of the talk about boycotting the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the story out of Asia that I have been following is the plight of the Lao Hmong families trapped in the highland jungles of northern Laos and the thousands of Hmong refugees holdup in makeshift camps and detention centers in Thailand.

I couldn’t help but thinking as I read article after article about this humanitarian crisis that the threads of life and death for these families are in the hands of a few powerful political leaders in the region. Diligence in trying to get to the bottom of this important story has paid off. I think I can shed new light on why the brutal persecution of the Hmong along with other minority ethnic groups in Laos is taking place today with impunity. In addition to the excellent reporting by investigative journalists who have covered the story for Time Magazine, The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, and most recently at Aljazeera (see Part 1 of this post series) this is what I have been able to turn up with the help of the Internet.

History of the Conflict between the Pathet Lao and the Hmong

The conflict between the Hmong and the LPRP (
Lao People’s Revolutionary Party) goes back to the rise of the Pathet Lao in Laos (1961-62), a time when the country was struggling to establish a sovereign government after independence from France and the end of the 1st Indochina War. According to the master’s thesis “The Laos State and Hmong Relationship” by Dengnoi Reineke (Brown University, Department of International Studies, 2005):

Laos continues to be politically unstable. Specifically, it is the domestic situation that has been problematic for Laos’ economic, social and political development. City bombings by insurgent groups at local restaurants, tourist hotels and outside markets continue to serve as legitimate travel warnings against visiting the country issued by the US Embassy.

Although there have been reports of possibly various groups that are involved in these activities, the Hmong group has been the group highly suspected by the Lao government. Most reports and sources cite the Hmong insurgent groups as the main terrorists and speak of their arrests. These bomb threats and other forms of Hmong protests throughout the country’s history have largely been sparked by years of social, economic and political oppression. Presently, displaced by opium eradication programs which are heavily supported by the international community, the Hmong have found themselves aimlessly wandering into the cities of Laos.

Their poverty and presence are prominent in make-shift tin shacks illegally scattered all over on government land. Some of these shacks line along the Lao border with the Mekong River and obstruct views to Thailand, where thousands more Hmong expatriates from the Vietnam era and their families wait in exile for asylum abroad. Illiterate and unskilled, Hmong children and families are forced to take up menial, humiliating or dangerous jobs that pay almost nothing for a full twelve to sixteen hour work-day. Most Hmong are forced to adjust to make ends meet in their new environment that is steadily becoming more modernized.
Prior to 1975, the Lao government did not have any policies that specifically dealt with ethnic minority groups living in the country, “apart from directing them to resettle in the lowlands in order to adopt a less migratory mode of production” [Stuart-Fox 1982:208]. The state military was used to assist in this and other similar projects. The first attempt by the Pathet Lao to address Hmong displacement caused by the Vietnam War was in the 1976 Repatriation Act. So, far 1996 United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that about 30,000 Hmong refugees have been returned to Laos. In 1976, those who repatriated lived under strict government control, protecting them from outside enemy infiltration, “heavy agricultural taxation, and official control on family livestock” [Stuart-Fox 1982: 209]. During this time the Hmong remained in isolation though and access to medical supplies and education were non-existent under this program.
The resettled Hmong under this new regime were put through political indoctrination re-education programs and labor collectivization or “work cooperatives” were imposed upon them. Most resettled Hmong at the time were given official authority to cultivate opium, an economic sector which the Pathet Lao came to be one of the leading [suppliers] in the world market [Stuart-Fox 1982: 210].
Because of the Hmong’s involvement in the Vietnam War, in which they fought alongside the United States against the Pathet Lao and
Viet Minh soldiers, many Hmong fear for their lives. It has been suspected that the Pathet Lao has systemically persecuted and killed Hmong repatriates. It is also believed that the Pathet Lao, as a “pre-emptive” act, has also killed those Hmong suspected of possible insurgent activities, but these suspicions are not grounded on any evidence.

Many Hmong settled in the United States have been lobbying Congress, since late 1970s, to focus its attention on the Hmong people’s situation in Laos and violations of Hmong human rights. In 2005, one hundred Hmong-Americans living in Wisconsin “lobbied Congress…to draw attention to alleged human rights violations against ethnic Hmong.” The Hmong Americans have urged the United States to grant Hmong refugees asylum for their bravery in the war [Tumulty 2005]. Many Hmong, and many United States government officials, believe that the United States owes them this asylum.

Most of the Hmong refugees have lived in refugee camps since the mid 1970s. Since the year 2000 the Thai government and U.S. agencies have been forced to push the Hmong refugees back into Laos by gunpoint. The Hmong refuse to return, fearful of losing their lives to the Pathet Lao because of their allegiance to the American forces during the Vietnam War. According to medical and military [experts], these fears are not unfounded for these “experts claim that the ruling government of Laos has used Russian-made biochemical weapons against the Hmong…they are being forced to return to a nation that considers them less than human—to a fate of almost certain extermination” [LoBaido, 2000].

END excerpts___
Download the paper at
The Watson Institute of International Studies

A March 2007 press release for a new report by Amnesty International titled “
Hiding in the Jungle: Hmong under Threat” stated the following:

Thousands of men, women and children from the Hmong ethnic minority are living on the run from the military in Laos' mountainous jungle, according to a new report from Amnesty International. The Lao army continues to mount violent attacks on them, even though the jungle-dwellers' military capacity is all but depleted decades after some Hmong fought in the CIA-funded "Secret Army" in Laos during the Viet Nam war.The groups frequently move camp to evade the Lao military, who have attacked them with AK-47s and grenades both inside their camps and outside when they search for food. Large numbers of Hmong, including children, have scars and wounds from bullets and shrapnel. Fighting starvation, the groups spend 12-18 hours a day foraging for roots and husks. Children display the distended bellies and bleached hair of malnutrition. They have no access to healthcare, leaving the people open to diseases and infection from untreated wounds."The Hmong groups living in the jungle are destitute -- the Lao authorities have a responsibility to protect them, not least because of the children involved. Instead, their regular attacks mean the groups live in perpetual danger of their lives," said Natalie Hill, Deputy Asia Pacific Director at Amnesty International.
Despite numerous reports of killings and attacks by Lao security forces, Amnesty International is aware of only two cases that have been 'investigated' by the authorities -- and in both instances the authorities concluded the information about the attacks was fabricated and issued blanket denials. In one of the incidents, in April 2006, 17 children were among the 26 people who had been killed while foraging for food. Survivors said around 15-20 soldiers from the Lao People's Army had ambushed them with rocket-propelled grenades.One young woman named "Pakou" described how her family was captured in the jungle when she was 18. She was taken alone to a police post where she was locked in a room for a year with two other Hmong women. They were repeatedly gang-raped by the police and made to do housework. After a year "Pakou" managed to escape, traumatised, across the border to Thailand.
The Lao authorities refuse to allow human rights organisations unfettered access to areas of concern and only limited information is available about the fate of those Hmong who are deported back from Thailand or who choose to come down from the jungles to try to integrate into Lao society.In December 2006, 420 people emerged from the jungle in the north-eastern province of Xieng Khouang, apparently seeking to join mainstream society. Some 370 people had similarly left the jungle near the northern tourist town of Vang Vieng two months earlier. Nothing has been heard from either group since and Amnesty International is concerned for their safety."The Lao authorities must help any Hmong who want to move out of the jungle to reintegrate with mainstream society -- and they must allow UN bodies to monitor this process," said Natalie Hill.

END excerpts___

Read the full report Hiding in the Jungle: Hmong under Threat at the Amnesty International website.

Shifting Alliances Amid Economic Opportunity in Southeast Asia

Laos is a country that is “opening up to the world” after decades of rule by a secretive, repressive communist regime. Report after report tell of the progress made by the Lao government in recent years on economic reforms, attracting foreign investment and development aid, allowing more private ownership of small business, eradication of the opium trade, and increasing exports to the country’s neighbors Vietnam, Thailand, and China.

Tourism alone in Laos over the past 10 years has been increasing by as much as 30% per annum (1990 = 14,000 tourists, 2005 = 1.1 million tourists) bringing in much needed foreign currency revenue from US, European, and Asian visitors. Do an online search for “
Laos” in any of the major search engines and you will come up with a zillion links to tourism and travel sites.

As reported by the International Rivers foundation, Laos has more than 70 planned hydropower dam projects, ten of which have been completed or are in various stages of construction. These hydroelectric projects are being financed by governments, private investors, and international banks. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and companies and investors from Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, France, Norway, and Belgium are all in on the lucrative hydropower boom in Laos. This harnessing of the Laos’ abundant river power is helping the country to become a net exporter of electric power to its ASEAN neighbors such as Thailand. But that’s not all. Road infrastructure projects, timber, and mining are also in a boom stage in the Lao PDR.

Laos on Monday inaugurated the opening of an important
new 2-lane paved highway partially financed by the Chinese government. This new road which was once part of the old opium smuggling route is an important trade and travel link in the 1800 Km long “north-south economic corridor” linking Kunming, China to Bangkok, Thailand. Thomas Fuller writing for the International Herald Tribune describes the new highway in his report of March 30th:

A highway that binds China and its neighbors

Luang Namtha, Laos: The newly refurbished Route 3 that cuts through this remote town is an ordinary strip of pavement, the type of two-lane road you might find winding through the backwoods of Vermont or sunflower fields in the French provinces.

On Leusa, 70, who lives near the road, calls it "deluxe." As a young woman, she traded opium and tiger bones along the road, which was then nothing more than a horse trail.

On Monday, the prime ministers of Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam will officially inaugurate the former opium smuggling route as the final link of what they call the "north-south economic corridor," a network of roads linking the southern Chinese city of Kunming to Bangkok spanning 1,800 kilometers, or 1,100 miles.

The network, several sections of which were still unpaved as late as December, is a major milestone for China and its southern neighbors. The low-lying mountains here, the foothills of the Himalayas, served for centuries as a natural defensive boundary between Southeast Asian civilizations and the giant empire to the north. The road rarely follows a straight line as it meanders through terraced rice fields and tea plantations.

Today, those same Southeast Asian civilizations alternatively crave closer integration with that empire and fear its sway as an emerging economic giant. China, in turn, covets the land, markets and natural resources of one of Asia's least developed and most pristine regions.

END excerpts___

These are all good signs for the people of Laos. Who in their right mind would complain about economic and infrastructure improvements in this dirt poor country? Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was recently in the Lao capital Vientiane along with the PM’s of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar (Burma) attending the 3rd GMS Summit (Greater Mekong Sub-region). The Greater Mekong sub-region is a huge underdeveloped market made up of the six countries that share the Mekong River, a consumer market representing roughly 320 million people.

So there you have it. The Mekong River countries are in a period of potentially strong economic growth after decades of stagnation and political turmoil and war. The landlocked country of Laos (the Lao PDR) sits right at the center of the region’s surface transportation improvement program. In addition, Laos is abundant in natural resources such as timber, minerals, and a thousand rivers that can be harnessed for hydroelectric power generation. The country’s population is low (approx. 6.2 million people) in comparison to its size (roughly the size of the UK), and the Lao regime can pretty well do as it damn pleases without any pressure from its citizens, its ASEAN neighbors, or the international community. This is an (almost) perfect setup for maximum exploitation of life and limb if you ask me. The Hmong crisis is as about as worrisome as a tick on water buffalo’s rear-end for the regime in Vientiane. Or is it?

END Part 2____

Part 3 of “Laos: A Cry to Heaven in the Land of a Million Elephants” coming soon

Related articles and additional resources

Xinhaua News - Chinaview (People’s Republic of China)
3rd GMS Summit at Vientiane, Laos – March 30-31, 2008
Fact Sheet: Asian Development Bank and the Lao PDR
GMS Flagship Programs: North-South Economic Corridor (ADB)
Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) (official website of the People’s Republic of China)
Report on China’s Cooperation in the Greater Mekong Subregion Cooperation

U.S. Embassy in Vientiane, Laos
Ambassador’s press release on Normal Trade Relations, 12/15/04

Radio Free Asia (RFA)
U.S. Normalizes Trade Relations with Laos Amid Controversy, 12/10/04

Amnesty International – Asia Pacific - Laos
Laos: Destitute jungle dwellers living on the run from military, 03/23/07
AI Full Report:
Hiding in the Jungle: Hmong under Threat, 03/27/08
Laos: Military atrocities against Hmong children are war crimes, 09/13/04

Doctors without Borders (MSF)
Fearing a Forced Return: Lao Hmong refugees in Northern Thailand, 10/01/07
MSF Field News: Laos

International Herald Tribune
A highway that binds China and its neighbors by Thomas Fuller, 03/30/08
Video report: Coming around the mountain by Thomas Fuller, 03/30/08
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

New Mandala blog – new perspectives on mainland Southeast Asia

Elephants, forests, and power – 03/20/08
The Lao resettlement controversy, 12/03/07
Internal resettlement in Laos – a response, 12/14/07
More on the Chinese in northern Laos, 10/07/07
The Nam Tha dam project in Laos, 09/30/07
Vang Pao aftermath on the upper Mekong, 09/28/07
Stranger than fiction? (arrest in U.S. of Hmong leader General Vang Pao) – 06/05/07
New Mandala Tags: Focus on Laos

Imaging Our Mekong - Mekong Currents – a monthly column about the people living in the Greater Mekong Subregion
Creating a Mekong Community by Rosalia Sciortino - Jan 2005 issue

International Rivers – protecting rivers and the people who depend upon them
Laos hydroelectric dam projects

BBC News
Vietnam ‘hub for illegal timber’, 03/19/08
(Environmental groups report on growing illegal timber trade with Laos)
Borderlines report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA)

Heritage Foundation (a conservative U.S. think tank)
Enabling ASEAN’s Economic Vision, 01/29/08
2008 Index of Economic Freedom: Laos
Advancing Freedom in Burma, 01/15/08
China and ASEAN: Endangered American Primacy in Southeast Asia, 10/19/05

The Boston Globe
Guerillas in Our Midst, 06/10/07
(article about the arrest of the famed Hmong General Vang Pao)

Laos Cultural Profile website - Introduction to Laos
(A portal providing detailed information about Laos. Created with support from the Rockefeller Foundation)

History of Laos since 1945

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Anonymous said...

Hi. Saw you used my thesis in your blog. That is cool. Check out my new children's book on Amazon: Love to Jaixai and Vonchai, from Laos.

Thought you might be interested as you seem to be of the Southeast Asian culture.


BRE said...

Thanks for visiting Noi. It seems that the plight of the Laotian Hmong and other minorities under extreme repression in Laos is not a priority for many governments and organizations around the world. They are "a forgotten people" in the world's conscience, sad but true.

I do have a deep interest in Southeast Asian people, history, and culture but I am not of Southeast Asian descent.