War crimes allegations and execution threat keeps Vang Pao at home

Gen. Vang Pao has canceled plans to stage a peaceful return to Laos this week after the communist regime announced he would be executed as a Vietnam War criminal if he goes back.

In September, the U.S. government dropped charges against Vang for allegedly plotting the violent overthrow of communist Laos. A dozen other defendants – including several of Vang's cronies – have pleaded not guilty but are still facing charges of trying to overthrow the Lao communists.

In a dramatic speech before 1,000 Hmong at the Big Fresno Fairgrounds on Dec. 22, Vang declared it was time to make peace with communist Laos for the sake of 4,500 Hmong who'd fled to refugee camps in Thailand and another 5,000 to 8,000 reportedly still hiding in the Lao jungles. He said he would return Jan. 10.

In the meantime, Laos has begun repatriating the 4,509 Hmong who were living in Thai camps. A Lao Embassy spokesman told The Bee on Monday that they are being reunited with family members or being provided food, land or jobs "so they can survive."

Many California Hmong feared their relatives in Thailand would be persecuted or tortured once they were back in communist hands and didn't trust Vang's call for reconciliation with the communists.

Vang had urged American Hmong to invest in Laos and "forget about the past ... Right now, the government of Laos thinks it's time to live together peacefully, with equal rights and equal opportunities."

Vang's son Cha Vang and Vang's confidant Charles A. Waters of Fresno said they made several trips to Laos to negotiate the general's return. He was to participate in a reconciliation event on the Friendship Bridge between Nong Khai, Thailand, and Vientiane, Laos, after 35 years in exile. The Lao Embassy knew nothing about it.

"We don't know what he wants to do here, and we don't understand why," said Mai Sayavongs, deputy chief of mission for the Lao Embassy in Washington. "Before he announced something, he should have contacted the embassy here."

Another of Vang's 18 sons, Chai Vang, said the general's representatives apparently spoke with "the wrong people – it wasn't the proper channel."

Vang's personal diplomacy didn't cut any ice with the Lao government.

"Vang Pao has been sentenced to death," said Sayavongs.

Vang was sentenced to death in absentia for Vietnam-era war crimes by the Lao People's Court after the communist takeover in 1975, Lao Foreign Ministry spokesman Khenthong Nuanthasing told the Nation newspaper of Bangkok.

Vang, who turned 80 Christmas Day, is revered as the leader of the Hmong worldwide, including about 350,000 in the United States, 30,000 of them in Sacramento.

From the early 1960s until 1975, "The General" led a CIA-funded guerrilla army of Hmong and Iu Mien jungle fighters against the Lao and Vietnam communists. Former U.S. Special Forces officers have credited Vang with saving thousands of American lives by engaging North Vietnamese in northern Laos and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Hundreds of Hmong veterans dreamed the general would lead them back to a democratic Laos one day.

"We're hoping for reconciliation in the future, but at this time we're more concerned about the Hmong who were repatriated," Chai Vang said of his father's efforts.

California Hmong in contact with those being sent back to Laos report some of the men have been separated from their wives and children, Chai Vang said.

The Thai military repatriated 4,351 Hmong from White Water Camp in Phetchabun province, 186 miles north of Bangkok, on Dec. 28, according to the U.S. State Department.

Another 158 Hmong held at a Thai army detention center at Nong Khai, near the northern Lao border, were also sent back even though they have been granted refugee status by the United Nations' high commissioner for refugees.

"Many of them need protection," said a State Department official, who spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "We are closely monitoring the situation and strongly urge the government of Laos to be transparent in their resettlement practices and allow the international community to access and assist the returned population."

Read the full story at the Sacramento Bee.