Lao Group Hopes for U.S. Asylum; CIA-Linked Role Cited, but Story Prompts Doubts

Article excerpt

Byline: Richard S. Ehrlich, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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 air 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. …