Friday, September 27, 2013


Beautiful scenery outside the Hmong village of Phantao
With a new day, I’m on my way outside town. I’m looking to explore the province away from the Vang Vieng tourist trap, and I’m glad that I did. The landscape before me is the most picturesque scenery I’ve seen yet in Laos. The path I’m hiking on is sandwiched between lush green rice paddies, terraced one after the other. Steep karst mountains rise beyond, until their peaks are covered with fluffy clouds. High on the steep green hills, patches of bare rock peek out through blankets of tree cover. 

I’m on my way to a village called Phanthao, home to one of the country’s many minority ethnic groups. This particular village is inhabited by a hill tribe group that suffered greatly in Laos over the past 50 years. They call themselves, 'Hmong'. 

Back in 1961 when the war in Laos was heating up, the Pathet Lao and their North Vietnamese allies were growing in strength. To counter this threat, the Royal Laotian Government and their US supporters needed more soldiers in the north. The Laotian Army wasn’t a dependable fighting force, and bringing in American GI’s wasn’t an option. So the CIA found an excellent ally in the highland Hmong. Sometimes referred to as 'Meo', the Hmong were originally from China. Fleeing conflict there, they migrated to the highlands of Southeast Asia in the 19th century. Traditionally animists, there are Hmong minority communities in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and Northern Vietnam. 

Bomb craters in the north of Laos (Museum photo)
Known as brave fighters, the Hmong fought French colonials for a few years in the early 20th century. Some later joined the French to take on the Viet Minh. After the French departed and the communists continued encroaching on their land, they were willingly recruited by the CIA. In what became known as the ‘Secret War’, the Hmong became America’s best fighting force during the long war in Laos. Usually fighting against the heavily armed North Vietnamese Army, the Hmong’s tactics were familiar. They used the same guerrilla warfare tactics against the Vietnamese, that the Vietnamese used against the US in Vietnam. Suffering heavy losses, the Hmong were gradually forced out of their homelands. In the decade from 1960 – 1970, an estimated 20% of all Hmong in Laos died due to the war and its effects.

The 1973 Paris peace accords to end the Vietnam War, were supposed to include Laos but it wasn’t to be. The NVA were supposed to withdraw from Laos, but they never left, so the war went on. When the CIA left, the Hmong lost their main supporters, and the communists set out to destroy the Hmong resistance. Fighting escalated in 1975 as Hmong villages were attacked, and thousands of civilians were killed. Homes, crops and livestock were destroyed. Thousands of survivors fled to Thailand. Those that remained hid in remote jungle highlands, where fighting continued. America’s war in Southeast Asia was over, but it was only worsening for the Hmong. 

Hiding in the mountains, the Hmong resistance fought Pathet Lao and Vietnamese troops off and on for years. Tactics were often brutal. Hmong refugees arriving in Thailand somberly told of massacres, including attacks on unarmed women and children. Hmong villages were being hit not only with artillery, but also napalm. Some witnesses even reported that the communists were using chemical weapons, known as ‘Yellow Rain’. Reports of atrocities were difficult to verify, since all the fighting took place behind the bamboo curtain in remote mountains. Some Hmong advocates called it genocide. 

Approaching village of Phantao
Even without hard evidence of these atrocities, nobody doubted the Hmong were paying a heavy price for their past alliance with the US. Their fight for survival continued outside the world’s spotlight, as journalists weren’t allowed anywhere near the conflict in Laos. By 1978 major fighting was over, but sporadic attacks against remote Hmong hideouts continued for decades. 

As I head for the Hmong village along narrow dirt paths between flooded rice paddies, I follow my guide, an ethnic Lao. I would have preferred a Hmong guide, but couldn’t find one in Vang Vieng. That may be by design. The Laotian government would rather have me visit a Hmong village with a government approved guide, so they can keep away foreign human rights activists. This also means that the Hmong I meet won’t trust my Lao guide; their conversation will be guarded. 

Entering Phanthao, I find Hmong children playing on the dirt road. I gets curious looks, since few Americans come here. The village is made of single story homes, but most are just shacks. Before moving here, these families were refugees in Nong Khai, Thailand, near where the 'Friendship Bridge' is now. Phanthao has only existed since 1995, when it was built from scratch.

“Government give (them) land for free”, my guide says. The creation of this new Hmong village was partly due to improved relations between Laos and Thailand in the 1990’s. Burdened with so many refugees, Thailand wanted the Laotian government to take them back. In the first wave, 150 Hmong families relocated here to Phanthao; more came in later repatriations. Now the village has about 500 families total. 

Hmong woman doing traditional embroidery
As I walk through the village, I encounter a group of Hmong women, stitching embroidery in the shade of trees. I’m disappointed that they’re not wearing their traditional dark costumes and head dresses. Most wear western clothing. The colorful embroidery they’re creating is traditional; made for belts and sashes worn on special occasions. Approaching, I marvel at their handiwork. The bright colored threads they weave form fantastic diamond-like shapes. There are various sub-groups among the Hmong, each with their own distinct weaving patterns. 

I start chatting with the weaving women. One says that before the war, her family lived in Xieng Khuang Province in the north, the region also known as the Plain of Jars. I ask why she didn’t remain living there. 

“If we stay there, somebody will kill us,” she said, “so we move away.” Like most of the Hmong in the north, her family fled fighting and escaped to Thailand. Later, her family was repatriated to Phanthao, while other relatives gained asylum overseas. I ask where. 

“In Minnesota, and Texas,” she says. I’m not surprised, since the largest diaspora of Hmong are in America. Taking in Hmong refugees was the least that the US could do, since they had abandoned the Hmong to the communists. More than 150,000 resettled in America.

Turning to the woman’s friend, I learn she is also from Xieng Khuang. But she gives a different reason for moving here. She says her family came here for the better farmland. “There they have some bombs (in the farmland)” she says. “It’s easy to make rice fields here.”

Walking through the village I see Hmong going about their daily tasks, but I notice that one age group is missing. There are very few senior citizens. With so many years of war, and with poor living conditions that continue today, the life expectancy of the Hmong is much lower than that of ethnic Lao. I wasn’t seeing many senior citizens, because most rural Hmong never reached old age. 

Hmong children in Phantao
Although large scale fighting ended decades ago, there were still Hmong fighters resisting in remote areas of the mountains, even in recent years. Scattered attacks and clashes between government troops and hold outs continued. Living in primitive hide-outs, and chronically malnourished, it’s amazing that these hardy groups of Hmong were able to survive at all. Some Hmong had lived their entire lives on the run. 

Finally, a recent government amnesty program brought many of them out of the hills. In 2004 more than 700 Hmong, including fighters and their families, surrendered in four different provinces. In 2005 another 170 women, children and old men turned themselves in. After surrendering their old weapons, they were resettled in more populated areas. In 2006 another 400 surrendered, but the fighting still hadn’t ended. In that same year 26 Hmong were reportedly killed in a single attack; most were women and children. I was beginning to wonder, if Hmong resistance had continued for so long, is it possible that there are some Hmong fighting in the mountains yet today?

Continuing my village stroll I come to an irrigation canal, where a group of Hmong children are splashing and swimming. Their differences in clothing are a total contrast. Some of the youngest boys swim naked, while older boys wear only underwear. On the other hand the swimming teenage girls are fully dressed in street clothes, wearing trousers, and long sleeved shirts. Hmong women are very conservative. 

Yes, this is actually a 'restaurant' in Phantao!
Taking a break from our long walk, I grab a seat at a small restaurant by the canal. Calling it a restaurant is a bit of a stretch though. There's no floor, and the ground partly muddy. A stray dog lies under a table, too lazy to chase a chicken strutting past. A large pot of unknown stew bubbles over an open fire. Despite the Spartan conditions, there are still customers. I start chatting with the owner of this humble establishment, who is also from the northern mountains. He left to escape the conflict and the poverty. 

“(My) family sell (our) land, sell everything,” he said. “We have $6,000. Give to man, he say (he would) take us to Europe, or America.” But the human trafficker only took them as far as Thailand, where he disappeared with all their money. With nowhere to go, they spent years in refugee camps, before they were allowed to come back to this resettlement village. 

Despite their past tragedies, the restaurateur and his family are among the lucky ones, since they received land for a home in Phantao when they were repatriated. Life in this rural community is relatively good for the Hmong families here. They own their land, they have electricity, a school, and access to the nearby highway. Phantao is an exception though, since most other Hmong who return to Laos these days don’t want to come back. Sadly, they are being forced. 

Hmong children swim in an irrigation canal
There are still thousands of Hmong refugees in Thailand, and although human rights groups have been objecting, the Thai government has been deporting many of them. The Thais have been claiming that rather than fleeing fighting, they all fled for financial reasons. Human rights advocates say that these refugees are at risk of persecution when they return to Laos. 

“Some Lao people hate Hmong people,” a young Hmong told me later. Suffering from discrimination, the Hmong remain the most persecuted minority in Laos. 

Although most Hmong communities live peacefully today, on both sides there is still a great deal of resentment that remains just below the surface. 

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