Let us demonstrate grassroots movements at its best
by maitria moua
For those unfamiliar with the history of the Hmong people, I do not blame you. The Hmong people are not only small in numbers, with about 188,000 Hmong in the United States according to the U.S. 2005 Census, but also lacking in public representation. So for those that don’t know, the Hmong are an ethnic group who traditionally live in the highland regions of Southeast Asian countries such as Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Burma.
Because there are no written records of early Hmong history, it is difficult to trace the origins of the Hmong people. However, Southeast Asian linguistics expert Martha Ratliff states that there is “linguistic evidence to suggest that [the Hmong] have occupied the same areas of southern China for at least the past 2,000 years.”
At the close of the 17th century, many Hmong migrated southwards, primarily towards Laos, to seek richer soil for farming and political liberation from the Chinese government.
In the early 1960s, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s Special Activities Division recruited and trained indigenous Hmong people in Laos for the purpose of fighting in the Vietnam War. The men, or rather boys, that were recruited ranged from 15 to 25 years of age. This group was what the U.S. so creatively called the “Special Guerilla Unit” because of their competence in fighting using guerilla tactics.
With the Hmong population at the time just shy of 400,000, over 100,000 Hmong people died as a result of the war. It wasn’t until May 15, 1997 that the U.S. officially acknowledged its involvement in the Secret War by designating the Laos Memorial, located in Arlington National Cemetery, to recognize Laotian Hmong veterans.
While the Vietnam War officially started in 1961, another war that occurred during the time was the so-called Secret War. This was a civil war that took place in Laos from 1953 to 1975 between the Communist Pathet Lao and the Royal Lao Government. Both sides were heavily endorsed by world superpowers at the time. The Royal Lao Government was supported by none other than the United States. When the Pathet Lao finally won the war, however, the Hmong were seen as a threat and have been persecuted in Laos ever since.
As a direct result of the ethnic turmoil initiated during the Vietnam War and the Secret War in Laos, Thailand has become an asylum country, hosting thousands of Hmong as internal refugees awaiting relocation to a safer country. Surviving Hmong people who did not seek refuge in places such as Thailand or other asylum countries remain scattered throughout the jungles of Laos. Though it is hard to tell due to the lack of the Hmong population’s visibility, it is estimated that the Hmong currently make up about 10 percent of the population in Laos and one percent of the population in Thailand.
Now, enough with the history chat. Let’s get real. Just recently in December of 2009, Thailand forcibly repatriated over 4,500 Hmong back to Laos. Repatriation, which in this case describes the forceful return of Hmong refugees back to the homeland they fled from, is a violation of humanitarian principles laid down by the United Nations, the U.S. State department, and human rights groups.
Thailand’s plan for repatriating the Hmong involved a deal with Laos. It is important to note that Laos has not allowed the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to monitor the repatriation of the Hmong – reasons as to why (since this would be Laos’ chance to demonstrate its policy of humanitarian treatment) remain open to interpretation.
The U.S. State Department reported in late December of 2009 that many of the Hmong were in need of protection and that returning to Laos would “imperil the well-being of many individuals.” This is to say that the Laotian government would continue its retaliation against the Hmong, specifically Hmong veterans affiliated with the Vietnam War and Secret War, who are called “traitors” by the government.
Additionally, by forcing repatriation of the Hmong, Thailand broke the international principle known as non-refoulement, which protects refugees from being forcibly expelled by asylum countries. Hmong refugees, who had thought they were “safe” from harm under the “protection” of the UNHCR and “alliance” with the U.S., suddenly found themselves falling into a pit of quicksand with no one and nothing to hold on to.
Despite knowledge of this information (or even more information than this), the UNHCR and the U.S. State Department released pathetic statements such as, “Although [we have] no formal presence in Laos, [we] hope to get access to the returned Hmong.”
Why is it that when there is a tragedy in Asia, such as the Hmong genocide or the Cambodian genocide, it is seldom largely covered, if covered at all, in the U.S. media? Come on! Wake up! While I respect the gathered support for crises such as Haiti, can’t we also deal with the problems we started elsewhere around the world?!
A Hmong genocide is currently taking place because of the Laotian government’s search for retaliation. This issue has been incubating for over thirty years, and there still has not been any positive change.
This is far from being over. This is an ongoing fight. I am here. You are here. You are probably asking: Why should I care about some unknown group of people? My answer is this: because this issue is bigger than just the Hmong people. This issue of oppression, suppression, and the application of ignorance has plagued and is plaguing many other ethnic groups out there – big or small, known or not.
The fact is we are all here. So let’s stand in solidarity. Let us demonstrate the power of grassroots movements and the boomerang model theory at its best. Tell friends, loved ones, and neighbors about the issues that so many people face around the world but that no one speaks of. Why shouldn’t we take advantage of our ability to rally support against the repatriation of the Hmong, not to mention the deaths, injuries, and emotional traumas that are resulting from it?
Sites such as Facebook Cause or Chase Community Giving are just a few of the many networks that we can utilize to draw attention to and empower change on this problem. This issue may not be the “top story” in the media, but that definitely doesn’t make it any less important.
This issue is more than just an “issue.” We are talking lives here – mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters that are possibly dying. We need to sit the U.S. down like a bad child and interrogate the shit out of them. This is a salient problem that we need to hold the U.S. accountable for.
We can take the first step by being proactive and exerting pressure on the political system through spreading grassroots awareness to our local Congressmen and government officials.
An organization that is currently tackling this issue is the Hmong International Human Rights Watch (HIHRW), along with a few non-governmental organizations that are allied with the HIHRW such as the Relief Logistics International (www.rlingo.org), Médecins Sans Frontières (http://www.msf.org), and International Rescue Committee (http://www.theirc.org). Please, if you are interested or concerned, I encourage you all to research for yourselves the story of the Hmong people.
 Ratliff, M. (2004). Vocabulary of environment and subsistence in the Hmong-Mien Proto-Language. In N. Tapp and J. Michaud (Eds.), The Hmong/Miao in Asia (pp. 160). Univ of Washington Pr.
 Ragsdale, J. (2005, May 15). ‘Secret War’ echoes. Pioneer Press. Retrieved from http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/f-news/1403513/posts.
 Hmong of Laos. (n.d.). World Directory of Minorities. Retrieved from http://www.faqs.org/minorities/South-East-Asia/Hmong-of-Laos.html.
 (2009, December 28). Thailand to deport 4,000 Hmong to Laos. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/asiapcf/12/28/thailand.hmong.refugees/index.html?iref=allsearch.
 Harvey, R. (2009, December 29). Hmong arrive in Laos after forced repatriation. BBC News. Retrieved from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8433299.stm.