Franken says Laos trip useful but disappointed in lack of access


U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) held a phone conference Tuesday with Minnesota media to update his investigation into the issues of the forcefully repatriated Hmong in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. 

Hmong repatriation issues have resonated locally with relatives and concerned caommunity in Minnesota since December 2009, when approximately 4,500 Hmong were forcefully repatriated from Thailand. Despite assurances of the Lao government, relatives in the U.S. complain that of an inability to contact or obtain official news about their loved ones.

Franken spoke from Hanoi, Vietnam, where he had just arrived to conclude the trip with fellow delegation Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) to discuss environmental remediation of dioxin, the funding of medical disabilities services, education initiatives, labor issues, and trade relations.

Franken reported little success in his efforts to get unimpeded access to the Hmong returnees but said his group was taken by helicopter to the village of PhonKham in Borikhamxay province in central Laos to meet with a group of 150 returnees. He was confident that his message that Minnesota and the U.S. are concerned for their wellbeing would be carried to the rest of the population.

“To get a real picture of what is going on our Embassy does have a contact with people in the village via cell phone,” said Franken. “So the Ambassador (to Laos, Ravic R. Huso), who has been there now three times has assured me that if anything bad was going on that we would know it.”

When he asked the group escort about seeing more people and the rest of the village, Franken said a language barrier and a disapproving General in the Lao armed forces allowed only a limited view from the air. He said there was evidence of new home construction and cultivation of the land, noting that repatriated Hmong are receiving several acres to farm.

PhonKham reportedly has more than 601 tin-roofed, dirt floor dwellings and was designed specifically as a permanent site for the returnees with infrastructure and irrigation systems. It is the second such site, after Ban Pha Lak village was built in southwest Kasi district in Vientiane province for voluntarily repatriated Hmong in 2007.

Ambassador Huso said, during his June 1, 2010 community address at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, that both sites have running water, electricity, and cell phone coverage. He was concerned with the lack of adequate health care facilities and schools, adding that true progress would come when the Hmong have the same rights, opportunities and mobility granted to all Laos citizens.

It was Franken’s goal to witness the conditions and circumstances of the returnees and in particular the 158 “persons of interest” reportedly eligible for refugee status. Around 70 of them were referred to the U.S. State Department for resettlement here and the remainder were referred for resettlement in Australia, Canada and the Netherlands.

Franken returned to Vientiane and expressed his disapproval to a deputy foreign minister at the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“I let him know how important it is that we have the names of everyone who is there, and of everyone who has been repatriated and where they are,” said Franken. “I said that I was unhappy with the amount of access that I had today, and insisted that the Ambassador have more access to the place, so that he can see what exactly is going on in future visits.”

He said that follow up meetings with members of the National Assembly offered some confidence that U.S. officials and international humanitarian organizations would be granted access in the future.

The Lao Foreign Minister is coming to Washington in a few weeks to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Franken said the next step is to ensure that the State Department has the Hmong issue as a high priority and to demand that the Lao government allow humanitarian access and assistance to the Hmong.

“The Lao government is seeking to strengthen its relationship with the U.S. and successfully addressing this issue of the Hmong returnees will very much help,” he added.

Franken noted that Lao leaders asked him about process of entry to the World Trade Organization and felt they looked at the U.S. Vietnam relationship as an example of what strong relations can accomplish in terms of economic growth. He said the Hmong issue should remain the emphasis of any such discussions.

“This is going to be an issue on the table if we are going to strengthen relations,” he added.

While in Vietnam, Franken and the delegation made stops in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) for several meetings on labor relations. He said Vietnam is trying to improve its trade status and that labor is an issue when a communist government controls the labor unions.

“I was trying to emphasize that we are not too keen on strengthening our trade relations unless there is freedom of association through their unions and that workers have the right to organize,” he added.

Franken also visited an HIV/AIDS treatment center in Ho Chi Minh City and concluded the trip in Hanoi after his Laos visit by talking to some more Vietnamese leaders about trade and labor issues.