Grave desecration committee presents report

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State Senator Mee Moua and members of the Mayor Christopher B. Coleman’s City of St. Paul’s Delegation to Thailand for the Wat Graves Fact Finding mission, presented their report at the Saint Paul City Council Meeting on Wednesday. The report details the findings and recommendations from their delegation that traveled to Thailand from September 21-29, 2007.

The delegation was the culmination of years of work that came about after the Fall of 2005, when more than 900 Hmong graves on the grounds of the Wat Tham Krabok, a Buddhist monastery in Saraburi, Thailand, a place where many of the refugee families had lived for more than a decade, were disinterred without warning as nearly 13,000 Hmong left the Wat and to be resettled in the United States – 4,000 to Minnesota.

Hmong refugees still at the Wat took videotape of the exhumations as evidence of the desecration to send to their loved ones in America. Hmong Americans were horrified and immediately saw this as a serious human rights violation.

The delegation was formed in late Spring 2007, after Mayor Chris Coleman received a communication from the U.S. Ambassador about sending a delegation to help resolve this issue with the Thai authorities. He formed a Working Group to find ways to respond to the Thai government’s report about a July 2007 deadline to reclaim the 211 remains.

After meeting with families and sharing the grief and anger over the desecrations, the mayor put together a delegation to go to Thailand and get first hand information in the hopes of finding some accountability, closure and appropriate measures for other remains and the fate of the graves yet undisturbed. They were able to succeed in getting the deadline for removal of the remains lifted.

The delegation members included Yee Chang, Grave Desecration Project organizer, Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, State Rep. Cy Thao, and Va-Megn Thoj, Mayor Coleman’s Policy Associate.

Sen. Moua spoke to the City Council on behalf of the group, talking about the next steps for human rights and political solutions for affected families and the community.

Moua thanked the Mayor for his leadership and the City Council for their support. She thanked the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent, a nonprofit organization that was able to serve as the fiscal agent for the delegation. She said delegation was also made possible through support from Northwest Airlines, the City or Northfield, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux and Prairie Island Indian communities.

She also noted the assistance of the U.S. Embassy in Thailand, the U.S. State Department, Congressional representatives Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, Mike Honda, and Senate leaders Amy Kobuchar and Norm Coleman.

The delegation’s conclusions noted that the first priority is with addressing the concerns of the affected families, which are with protecting the remaining undisturbed graves at the Wat; verifying the ashes of the 480 remains that were cremated; and, the reclamation of the 211 remains that lay in temporary, above-ground concrete graves.

The delegation noted that more research and communication with Thai officials is needed to determine whether the Wat’s claim that water quality was the issue for the exhumations is in fact, true. The removal of the bones while leaving behind the flesh and clothing of the deceased in the original graves and on the ground above offered doubt – as this seemed to present a more serious health hazard than were the graves before the exhumations.

If it is determined that the graves did and do not present a water quality issue, then this will help in the effort to prevent future exhumations based on that claim. (The Wat Abbott told the delegation there would be no more exhumations unless it became another environmental issue).

The delegation is also looking to see that families of the disinterred have more options to exercise in terms of reburying their loved ones at the Wat, elsewhere in Thailand and the United States. These options were first discussed in a community forum on October 10, to debrief the families and others with a personal stake in the issue.

Va-Megn Thoj, Mayor Coleman’s Policy Associate, and a member of the delegation, said that they don’t want to see families put in a position to have to pay themselves or raise funds from outside to have to reclaim and rebury their loved ones either in Thailand or the United States. He said that to push the responsibility onto the families and communities is taking the desecration element out of the picture and allowing it to become a logistical inconvenience.

The delegation is also encouraging the University of Minnesota Department Human Rights Program to continue their efforts in monitoring and advocate the human rights issues surrounding the grave desecration. They filed a complaint with the U.S. State Department and with the United Nations in March 2006

Dr. Frey said that the program will continue to monitor and advocate grave desecration internationally, where she says the burial rights and religious practices of minority peoples within a dominant culture are often violated. They plan get the issue more visibility to help persuade nation-states to do more to be aware of and protect the burial practices and grave sites. She gave examples of the Native Americans in the United States, the Baha’i in Iran, and the Jewish people as other victims of desecration.

Professor Barbara A. Frey, Director of the Human Rights Program in the College of Liberal Arts at the University of Minnesota, was present as a leading expert on international human rights law and policy.

To help with the Hmong in Thailand, Dr. Frey and her students assisted Hmong speaking volunteers in conducting one-on-one interviews with families to complete official complaint forms and letters for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. They collected existing burial documentation, including plot receipts, land titles, death certificates, and personal items of the deceased, such as passports and other identity cards.

The delegation priorities include further protections of the graves on the temple grounds, and to continue advocating the issue to both Asma Jahangir, the Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, and to Doudou Diéne, the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism.

The initial letters sent to the Thai government from the Rapporteur’s have yet to get an official response. The government formulated a response that is to be sent, and was shared with the delegation for discussion of progress on the issue.

The City of Saint Paul passed an April 2006 resolution to condemn the exhumation and desecration with a unanimous vote of the City Council. The Cities of Minneapolis and Northfield followed with their own resolutions, as did the State Legislature, which led to Sen. Moua and Rep. John Lesch to present a joint House-Senate Resolution calling for a Congressional delegation to work with the government of Thailand be accountable for the issues.

Sen Moua credited the U.S. Embassy in Thailand with ensuring that requested meetings with officials were scheduled.

The delegation was granted an audience with the Wat Abbott, The Ven. Luangaw Charoen. They sought reassurance that the estimated 300 to 500 remaining Hmong graves on the temple grounds would not be disinterred. The Thai government estimates the number to be 211 graves.

The Abbott said there were no plans for future exhumations, according to Moua. However, he noted that were there to be environmental concerns in the future that the “commitment would have to be revisited.”

The initial claims that the disinterment was conducted for environmental reasons, particularly for fear of poisoning the water table, was met with great concern by the delegation. If true, the remaining graves will likely need to be moved. If not true, then the Wat can be pressured to keep the graves intact. To date, no one has produced water quality or other related environmental impact reports.

Moua also reported having met with the first of two groups that conducted the disinterment. The leaders say they were contracted by the Wat to exhume “unknown graves,” and that there was no malicious intent to move them because they were Hmong. Had they known the situation, they would not have taken the job, they said.

They cremated most of the remains and took the ashes of to a gravesite for the unclaimed. They communicated to the delegation that they want to install a memorial that will serve as a place for Hmong people to visit, and to signify this is where disinterred remains were placed.

A May 2006 Official Statement from the Thai Delegation at the Fifth Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (provided at the meeting), took the position that the Wat Tham Krabok Buddhist Monastery in Saraburi was authorized to allow the exhumation of the graves because they posed an “environmental risk to the surrounding ecology” that would impact the local population as well.

The statement added that the Tham Krabok Foundation planned to convert the area into “a museum, a place for religious activities, and a public park.” The letter stated that Hmong who came to claim the bodies of deceased family members were able to move them, and that unclaimed bodies were given an “appropriate” public cremation ceremony and the ashes were interred at the nearby Pothipowanasongkrau graveyard.

To inquire about the full report contact Mr. Va-Megn Thoj at 651-266-8530. For background and facts visit online at http://hrp.cla.umn.edu/GDP.html.

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