- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 27, 2006

BANGKOK — The CIA’s saturation bombing of Laos killed thousands of people and reduced the tiny country to ruin more than three decades ago, but 4,500 men, women and children now hope America’s failed “secret war” will result in free air tickets to the United States.

The communist regime in Laos, the pro-American government in Thailand and U.S. officials are investigating the group’s problem but cannot agree on who is responsible for it.

Thailand’s Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) is preparing to send the 4,500 people, who are presently in Thailand, back to Laos after Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra ordered the ISOC to quickly solve the problem.

The government in Laos, however, said it suspects some in the group did not originate in Laos or might be faking their CIA-linked role to get to the United States.

The 4,500 people say they or their relatives supported a CIA-backed Lao general, Vang Pao, during America’s so-called “secret war” in Laos from 1961 to 1975.

The minority ethnic Hmong say they fled to Thailand from Laos to escape persecution, imprisonment and possible execution by Lao authorities because of their former link with Vang Pao and the CIA.

They apparently were optimistic about asylum in America, after Washington resettled 15,000 other Hmong from Laos last year.

Those 15,000 had languished in Thailand for up to three decades, claiming the same CIA-linked history before they won support in the United States as unsung heroes of the war in Indochina.

Washington, however, said those 15,000 would be the last Hmong to be resettled in the United States.

The fresh batch of 4,500 began arriving in Thailand’s Phetchabun province, about 185 miles north of Bangkok, last year.

“They came to Phetchabun only in the hope of resettlement to the U.S.,” said Hiem Phommachanh, Laos’ ambassador to Thailand, at an economic forum in Bangkok July 13.

“We have had the Hmong problem for a long time … and now in Phetchabun, and it is because of Vang Pao,” the ambassador said.

“I reject the accusation,” Vang Pao replied, according to Thailand’s Nation newspaper.

“[The Hmong] continue seeking refuge because the Laos government never loves the people. The government arrests and executes people consistently,” Vang Pao said.

Vang Pao lives in the United States, where he is considered a controversial figure among the Hmong expatriates.

A color poster of Vang Pao, in full regalia, is sold on the Web site of the Hmong Cultural Center, based in St. Paul, Minn., where many Hmong reside.

Others perceive him as a corrupt, divisive, former opium warlord who makes it difficult for America and Laos to improve relations.

Meanwhile, Thailand is struggling to stem the flow of refugees with sights set on good life in the United States.

About 140 Thai troops, police and local officials are guarding Ban Huay Nam Khao village, in Phetchabun’s Khao Kho district, to block the Hmong from traveling deeper into Thailand.

Many of the 4,500 have a miserable existence without adequate health care, food, housing and other necessities in the camps.

Officials earlier said the group numbered 6,500, but some were sent back to Laos while others blended with Thailand’s Hmong minority.

University of Wisconsin professor Alfred McCoy, in his book “The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia,” calls Vang Pao “a despotic warlord” who smuggled opium on the CIA’s Air America flights and operated a heroin factory in Long Tieng, Laos, in the 1960s and 1970s while commanding the CIA’s Hmong during a widened Vietnam War.

“Vang Pao [would] ship his dope out, which was made into heroin, which was going to our [American] troops,” CIA officer Victor Marchetti told PBS’ “Frontline” TV news show in 1988.

“Vang Pao had a heavy hand in the production of heroin in that area,” Joe Nellis, former chief counsel for the U.S. House Select Committee on Narcotics, told the show.

Vang Pao, a gung-ho military collaborator for French colonialists, was selected by the CIA in 1961 to lead thousands of Hmong mercenaries to their deaths, fighting Vietnamese and Lao communists.

The CIA’s Hmong, who included child soldiers, were paid pennies a day.

“Everyone of [the Hmong] that died, that was an American back home that didn’t die,” Edgar Buell, a U.S. Agency for International Development official working with the Hmong mercenaries, said in 1979.

When Lao communists kicked out the CIA and achieved victory in 1975, an estimated 300,000 Lao, many of them Hmong, fled to Thailand to escape punishment, which included brutal re-education camps where many perished.

Most of those who fled Laos gained entry to the United States, Australia, Canada, France and elsewhere.

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