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Never Say Die

Hmong rebels have fought the government for almost 30 years. What explains their tenacity?

By Bertil Lintner/CHIANG MAI, NORTHERN THAILAND, and Murray Hiebert/WASHINGTON

THE ARREST OF two Western journalists and their Lao-American guide in early June focused the world's attention on the story they were covering: the plight of the Hmong hill tribe. Originally backed by the American Central Intelligence Agency, the Hmong have been fighting a mostly forgotten war against the country's communist government since it came to power in 1975. Many Hmong fighters, including the legendary Gen. Vang Pao, ended up as refugees in the United States after the war in Indochina ended. A ragtag army of hill tribesmen have carried on the fight for freedom in remote northern Laos.

But is there more to the story than meets the eye? An examination of the Hmong's conflict reveals that a desire for freedom is just one of many possible motives for the continuing insurgency.

Others are less noble. The Hmong may want to cause trouble to help scotch an improving trade relationship between the U.S. and Laos, which they fear could stabilize the government to their detriment. Or they may need to show financial supporters in the U.S. that their contributions are useful. Also, factional infighting among different Hmong groups based in the U.S. may have led to stiffer resistance and a thirst for publicity, which in turn encouraged the groups to get the support of journalists.

Belgian photojournalist Thierry Falise and French cameraman Vincent Raynaud--two experienced media men--were caught in the hills of northern Laos after a brief fight between their Hmong escorts and government-linked Lao militiamen. A month before they were captured, one Western publication focused on another pair of journalists following the Hmong story. Lao sources say that article caused both rage and embarrassment in Vientiane. Strangely, the two sets of journalists were themselves helped by different Hmong factions.

This has been a year of violence in Laos so far, a fact that has devastated Laos's fledgling but vital tourist industry. In February, at least 10 people, including two Western tourists and a Chinese businessman, were killed when gunmen shot up a public bus north of Vientiane. Two months later, another ambush in the same area left 12 dead and 31 injured. Both incidents were reported in the official Lao media. But Lao sources say similar attacks on June 6--two days after Falise and Raynaud were arrested--and on June 16 were not reported.

EXPLAINING THE SURGE IN VIOLENCE

These unreported attacks took place in the heart of what has been Hmong-resistance territory since the 1970s. But another attack in June on a bus, killing one and injuring 20, occurred far from any Hmong-inhabited area. A Hmong spokesman in the U.S., Stephen Vang of the United Lao/Hmong Congress for Democracy, denies that the Hmong were involved in any of the June attacks.

There are many possible explanations for the surge in violence. One is that the bombings and the readiness of the Hmong resistance to take in foreign journalists come at a time when a bill has been presented to the U.S. Congress to establish normal trade relations with Laos. Long-time relief and development worker Roger Rumpf, an American, says members of Vang Pao's Hmong organization in the U.S. have devoted considerable effort to stopping any such agreement because they think it would only help the Lao government. Sources close to the Lao government, on the other hand, claim that large amounts of money have been collected among the Hmong in the U.S. and sent to their brethren in Laos, which has fuelled violence.

According to an American official working in Laos, there is also a split between the 72-year-old Vang Pao and another, younger Hmong leader in exile in the U.S., Vang Pogzeb. To complicate matters further, Rumpf says growing segments of the Hmong and Lao communities in the U.S. now want normal trade relations. Says Ilean Her, a Hmong-community activist in Minnesota: "Some are still bitter about losing Laos. Others may not agree with what the government is doing, but they still want to do business and visit relatives."

Whatever the case--and establishing the truth is often difficult in Laos--it seems that scores of bus passengers have paid a high price for power struggles and intrigues that were far beyond their control.

This article first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, July 17, 2003

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