A month later, prosecutors still stand firm on case, but so does Hmong community.
Nearly a month has passed since the shocking arrest of Gen. Vang Pao and ten others for plotting to overthrow the communist government in Laos. Since that time, federal authorities have been unrelenting in their efforts to uncover evidence for their case.
According to reports, an estimated $150,000 cash was found at the Fresno home of Chong Vang, one of the General’s sons. Authorities say they have found evidence to link this money to the conspiracy. However, Chong Vang has not been arrested or charged.
An eleventh man, Dang “David” Vang, 48, was arrested after Cha Lo Thao (one of the men originally arrested) told authorities that it was Dang Vang who put the plot in writing, according to the Fresno Bee.
When federal agents raided the Fresno home of Dang Vang they found the 19-page document with the cover page titled, “POPCORN: A COMPREHENSIVE PLAN OF ACTION”. Apparently POPCORN is an acronym for Political Party’s Coup Operation to Rescue the Nation.
Reading like an amateur film script, the document details how within 60 days a small army was going to overtake the communist government of Laos, going as far as to name the new government of Laos. Newspaper columnists have compared the POPCORN scenario to that of a Hollywood film in the ilk of “Rambo” or “Commando”.
The document goes on to name others who are a part of the planning process, including Minnesota residents Col. Ly Teng and Pang Mang Thao.
Col. Ly Teng expressed surprise to seeing his name in the document. He told the Star Tribune that he hadn’t been involved with any of the other 15 individuals who are named in the document. Neither Col. Ly nor Thao have been questioned or charged as of yet.
Furthermore, prosecutors said in the last court hearing on June 25 that they were prepared to release 2,300 pages of evidence to the courts. Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Twiss, the lead prosecutor in this case, said he plans on filing a motion to declare the case as being “complex” which allows some of the Constitutional provisions requiring a speedy trial to be waived.
“The Coup Plot Was A Fantasy”
Strolled into court on a wheelchair, Gen.Vang Pao had been hospitalized over the weekend after suffering irregular heart beats. At 77 years old, the General suffers from a number of chronic ailments including diabetes and high blood pressure.
Family members have expressed their grave concerns over the General’s health, stating that an extended jail stay will most likely be a death sentence to the General who has been on a strict diet since being diagnosed with diabetes.
The General’s newest attorney, John Keker, argued that his health would greatly limit the General’s likelihood of fleeing from authorities if he were granted bail and asked the judge to schedule a revised bail hearing as quickly as possible.
“We are frankly worried about the health of Gen. Vang Pao and not getting to trial,” Keker stated in court.
A highly regarded criminal defense attorney from San Francisco, Keker agreed to join the General’s defense team on a pro bono basis. Though he didn’t elaborate to the press about why he agreed to take the case on, Keker, a former Marine who fought in Vietnam, is presumed to be very cognizant about the significance of Gen. Vang Pao and what he meant to America 30 years ago.
Keker explained to Federal Judge Frank Famrell that the talk of plotting to overthrow a foreign government was nothing more than a “fantasy” egged on by the undercover ATF agent who posed as an arms dealer.
Hoping to prove that his client does not pose a security risk, Keker introduced the idea of questioning the ATF agent to determine his role in expanding and making “much larger what we believe is essentially a fantasy.”
Another defense attorney, Mark Reichel, offered, “This will be our first real opportunity to question the evidence, peel away and see what’s really happened”
He went on to say that whatever transpired was motivated solely by a desire to end the suffering of the Hmong in Laos, who have been persecuted for decades. “You have people of extreme good will presented with terrible, ugly, inhumane facts.”
Judge Damrell agreed to take up the dangerousness issue on July 12, though he did not commit to permitting defense attorneys to interrogate the undercover operative.
If the judge determines the defendants are not a danger, that would ease the way for some or all of them to be released pending trial. So far, none of the men has been granted bail by federal magistrates who have dealt with the defendants one by one.
“United We Stand”
While words were constantly being exchanged between attorneys and the judge, the eleven men charged in this case remained silent throughout the hearing.
Powerful even without saying one word, Gen. Vang Pao’s entrance into the courtroom caused a stir of emotions as he was carted in by wheelchair after just being released from a nearby hospital for heart problems. Dressed in a bright orange jail jumpsuit, the General remained shackled and silent with the other ten defendants throughout the hearing.
Eye witnesses have described the General as being especially frail since being incarcerated. Upon seeing him in court myself, it is apparent that the gravity of the situation has fully been absorbed by the man who one CIA operative once called the greatest guerilla strategist ever.
His eyes, once piercing and all-knowing, appear now as lifeless slits sunk deep within his tired face. He sneaks an occasional glance to his family members, but otherwise stares into space as the court proceeds with their motions.
Down below on the doorsteps to the courthouse nearly 2,000 demonstrators are shouting his name, calling for freedom. Another 3,000 plus supporters have gathered at the state capitol in St. Paul and in Madison, WI and in Detroit, MI. The numbers of supporters continue to grow from week to week but to deaf ears as the prosecutor in Gen. Vang Pao’s first bail hearing noted, “Thousands of people came here on the day of his detention hearing,” Twiss said in an interview. “If General Vang Pao were to pick up a cell phone, is there any doubt they wouldn’t execute his order? To me, it (the rally) was an indication of his ability to effectuate action indirectly.”
While not producing immediate results, rally organizers are optimistic about the unity that this case has inspired in the Hmong community.
“When will you ever get this mix of people together?” Asked Lee Pao Xiong, director for the Hmong Center at Concordia University. “It’s very encouraging to see the young with the old, all fighting for the same things.”
There are those who have been notably absent, organizers point out.
At the St. Paul rally, Dai Thao asks the crowd to look around them. “Take note of who is here. We are the ones who love the Hmong people. And then note who is not here. Do you see any of the politicians who you helped to put into office?”
The crowd roars louder as Thao continues with his questions, “Isn’t this the time for our so-called leaders to step up?”
After his highly charged speech, Thao explains that he isn’t calling out any specific politicians, but he points to those who have a tendency to reach out to the Hmong during election periods. “The fact of the matter is that we have some very vulnerable people right now, especially among the elderly who look up to Gen. Vang Pao as their guiding light. There have been reports of illness and even a death in California over their grief of Vang Pao’s incarceration.”
Thao shrugs his shoulders and asks, “Wouldn’t it be nice for someone who has some political power to just stop by the rally to say that they support the Hmong people during times of crisis? This is, after all, the biggest story to hit the Hmong community in 30 years.”
When asked about his absence at the rallies, State Representative Cy Thao simply explains that he’s waiting for the judicial process to take its course. “My job is to make the laws. When somebody has been accused of breaking one of these laws, I can’t show any preference to that person because of his ethnicity or relationship to me. As a politician you’ve got to be very careful of where you show up, even at rallies. Look at Keith Ellison—his entire campaign was fighting the image of him being associated with the wrong crowd.”
Neither State Sen. Mee Moua nor Sen. Norm Coleman responded to phone messages.
Despite the lack of political leaders, the rallies being held across the nation have continued to grow by the numbers. Organizers believe that half the people who come out are there to not only support Gen. Vang Pao, but to also bring attention to the humanitarian crisis in Laos and Thailand.
“You’ve got to realize that Vang Pao being in jail is only the tip of the iceberg,” Dai Thao elaborated. “We’re talking about the genocide of our people. It all starts with what’s going on in the jungles of Laos!”
Exactly how long the crowds will continue to show up, nobody knows. Maybe when the General has been released? Maybe when the Hmong in the jungles have been safely situated? Nobody knows.