Friday, March 9, 2007

Genocide in Laos?

I was very recently made aware of a pretty disturbing issue, which is the apparent genocide that is occurring in the jungles of Laos against the Hmong minority. In my social work field seminar each of us has been responsible for leading a class period, presenting on whatever topic we want. This past week a Hmong-American girl in my class presented on this issue, showing a video done by a fact-finding commission that went undercover into Laos. I would like to share the information I have learned (and I did a little bit of my own research for verification and elaboration purposes.)

First of all, some people might wonder exactly where in the world is Laos? Laos is located in Southeast Asia between Vietnam and Thailand. Here's a handy dandy map! Anyway, Laos was a pretty important spot during the Vietnam War, as it was the site of what is now known as the "Secret War." First of all, even though Laos was supposed to be neutral territory during Vietnam, North Vietnamese forces continued to operate in southeastern Laos along the Ho Chi Minh trail. The second thing that was going on was that the Royal Lao Army was being challenged by the Pathet Lao, the Laotian communist faction. The U.S. was naturally not happy with either of these developments, but because of that darn Geneva Conference they were going to have to be sneaky about their involvement in Laos. So, the C.I.A. decided to train some 30,000 Laotians, mostly Hmong, to fight for them. Reports of this Civil War were virtually non-existent in the U.S., as the war itself was officially denied. But nonetheless (thanks to Wikipedia for this info), this was the C.I.A.'s largest covert operation until the Afghan-Soviet war and was the largest bombing campaign since WWII. Well, naturally, this "Secret War" ended up being considered a disaster. The U.S. didn't suffer too much, however, since officially they weren't even "involved" in the conflict and since it was mostly others doing the fighting for them. Over 30,000 Hmong men and boys lost their lives. When America pulled out of Laos in 1975, they took only the most important soldiers and their families to safety in Thailand, leaving the rest of the Hmong to fight for themselves. The Pathet Lao, having won, vowed to hunt down and exterminate the traitors who had fought alongside the U.S. The Hmong fled into the jungle and across the Mekong River into Thailand. Since 1975 approximately 200,000 Hmong have been resettled into the United States from refugee camps in Thailand. The last wave came in 2005 when we accepted 15,000 Hmong refugees.

Now before I get more into this, I want to address the question that some might be asking themselves: "Why did the Hmong join up with the U.S. in the first place?" Well, this question lends itself to a somewhat complicated answer as it involves a lot of history and culture. First a little bit more history about the Hmong may be in order. There seems to be a lot of confusion about who exactly the Hmong are (my dad, for example, thought that word was used for any person from Southeast Asia.) So the Hmong are an Asian ethnic group, sort of like how the Mayans are an ethnic group in Central America. Just as the Mayans don't belong to only one country, the Hmong do not belong to just one country. It is thought that they first originated in the mountains of present-day China. In the 18th century, however, they began to emigrate to Southeast Asia due to persecution from the Chinese. The Hmong are an independent people and when the Chinese began insisting that they give up their own language and traditions and adopt that of their "country", they chose to leave. Here is an interesting fact: a written language was only developed in the 1950s by Western missionaries; however, there are claims that the Hmong once had a developed written language of their own that was lost during this period in China. Once in Southeast Asia, the Hmong settled mostly in modern-day Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Burma. A large percentage of this population settled into the highest mountains of Laos, where they lived relatively isolated from and undisturbed by the rest of the country. They maintained their language, customs and own Shamanist religion (as opposed to the Buddhism practiced by most Laotians). The desire of the Hmong was to live in peace and continue on as they always had. The Hmong people say that their name means "Free." So when the communists began their takeover of Laos, the Hmong people became afraid that they would be forced to give up their land and their customs. Their fears were eased by the United States, who promised them safety and repatriation should their side lose.

And we're back to where we started, with the U.S. hitting the road and the Hmong fleeing their homes. Now here we are thirty years later and as it turns out the Hmong people are still hiding in the jungles. Not only that, they are being actively hunted and killed by the Lao government. Of the reports I've read, the estimate is that there are anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 Hmong still in the jungle. A huge number of these are children, as well as many widows. Now of course the government in Laos has continuously denied reports of genocide. Well, what a huge surprise -- you mean they aren't coming out and saying "Hey world! Hey U.N.! We're exterminating an entire culture over here! We're killing women and children!" (And call me cynical, but even if they did ... well, would that necessarily mean anything would happen?) And for a long time the Western world was denying anything was happening as well. Former ambassadors in Laos said that these reports were unsubstantiated (once again, like the government would be showing the ambassadors what was really going on?) and that the Hmong were happy as can be and all resettled in Laos.

First of all, before I say anything more, let's just pretend that was the case. Then, why, might I ask, are there still thousands of Hmong crossing the border into Thailand? If they're so happy and safe in Laos? Anyway, beside the point ... thanks to this fact finding commission, which is a non-profit run organization, the truth actually has begun to come out. The commission were able to get people into Laos (which was apparently a difficult feat, considering what they wanted to do) to go into the jungle and capture what was happening. The people working in this underground network are known as the "blackbirds" -- they provide support to the Hmong in Laos and also have filmed groups of them. Once these tapes (which showed some horrifying images of children harmed by chemical weapons, mutilated bodies, etc) began to be circulated, the issue began to gain some international attention. TIME, along with the assistance of the Blackbirds, was able to get some reporters and a photographer into the jungle. The BBC also went in and did a film. Most recently, Rebecca Sommer, a German journalist, photographer and filmmaker, produced a documentary film entitled Hunted Like Animals. Sommer works for the NGO Society for Threatened Peoples International, which is in consul with the United Nations. This film was created during 2005 and 2006, when Sommer traveled to a refugee camp in Thailand and heard stories of the Hmong people there. It is interwoven with footage taken by Blackbirds from inside the jungles of Laos.


So while the filmmaker has put clips of the documentary on Youtube, she has apparently disabled the embedding option. So... I can only put a link to the videos and cannot post them directly on here. Sorry, I know that means extra work. But all you have to do is click right here to see the first one. This clip is of a military attack in Laos. It also includes an interview with a journalist from the BBC who traveled to Laos for footage.

This next clip is about the use of chemical weapons against the Hmong.

This one is more of some of the same. It includes a little boy who was severely injured.

Many of the Hmong are being encouraged by the Lao government to "surrender", being told that they will not be punished for their loyalty to the U.S. during the war. And now Laos and Thailand have together decided that the Hmong fleeing into Thailand are not refugees, but illegal immigrants. Thailand is also encouraging repatriation of the Hmong. Here is a clip detailing what has happened to some of the Hmong who have trusted Laos and surrendered.

Finally: "We are not rebels"

The photograph on the right is of a community of Hmong living in the jungle. When the reporters from TIME came a few years back, the people were overwrought with emotions, supposedly believing that it was the CIA, finally coming back to rescue them after 30 years.

If you are as appalled as I am about all this, please do something! Spread the word to your family and friends about what is happening. The United States has already taken in many Hmong refugees and we should continue to take them in. What is happening to them is our responsibility. Injustice such as this is the entire world's responsibility. The West is so fond of sitting back and watching genocide happen in the "third world." We rephrase it as "acts of genocide" to make it seem less horrific. It doesn't change anything. And this time these people and children are being killed as a direct result of American actions.

Contact your elected officials, write the Department of State and to the United Nations. Tell them that we cannot abandon the Hmong and that we will not let the Lao government get away with these crimes any longer.

There is another Hmong-American girl in my Social Work class who works with somewhat recent refugees at the Kajsiab House, which is a community oriented mental health center for the Hmong population. She says that Hmong people here in the U.S. watch those clips to see if they recognize any of their family that is still trapped in the jungle.

Can you imagine?

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