|Beautiful scenery outside the Hmong village of Phantao|
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)|
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|
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|
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|
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!|
“(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|
“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.