The Hmong, Thailand and greed


Thailand has held 149 Hmong people, including men, women, and ninety children in a two-room cell for the past nine months with no access to the outside. Their only access to drinking, cooking, and bathing water is a single stall toilet. Having done nothing wrong, the Hmong have been designated as political refugees, a status that has been certified by the United Nations.

While third nations have agreed to accept the refugees for relocation, on August 21, Thailand decided that it would not allow these asylum seekers to leave. On September 20, Thailand announced that it will force an additional 8,000 Hmong refugees back to communist Laos.

Opinion: The Hmong, Thailand and greed

Thai officials claim that the Hmong have violated Thai law by entering their country illegally. Thai Foreign Ministry Spokesman Tharit Charunyatn told the Associated Press in a telephone interview, “There are many factors that we have to consider, be they pull factors, humanitarian concerns and relations with neighboring countries.” “Pull factor” is a term describing circumstances that might attract people into leaving their own country, such as the prospect of resettlement in the West.

Speaking of violating the law, Thailand like the United States, is suffering from a serious case of brain flatulence and selective memories. Having flown under the radar as one of the main culprits in the Secret War, Thailand is brazenly becoming more and more like its co-conspirator, the United States. Lest it forget, a representative of Thailand, Col. Khouphan was present with CIA agent Bill Lair and General Vang Pao at that famous first meeting in Padong in 1960—a meeting that resulted for the Hmong in becoming political exiles.

Thailand is a signatory to the Geneva Accords of 1962 promising not to interfere in the neutrality of Laos during the Vietnam conflict. Thailand ignored the agreement and engaged in an armed conflict in the kingdom of Laos. Thailand allowed its country to be used as a staging ground for a military assault in Laos. More importantly, Thailand permitted its officers to train insurgents and used its military to actively engage in full-out warfare on Laos’s soil. For example, on April 1, 1970 after the siege of Long Cheng by two divisions of NVA, Thailand was worried that, should Long Cheng fall, they would be next. This was unsettling enough for the Thai Government that they fully engaged with the Hmong to retake skyline ridge using their soldiers, air support, and artillery units.

Forty years ago, Thailand solicited the help of the Hmong because, like the U.S., it feared that once the Vietnamese overran Laos, they would march through Thailand unimpeded. The Thais needed the Hmong to defend their borders. When Bill Lair was asked, “Were the Thais in Laos at the behest of their government?” His reply was a resounding, “Yeah … I think the whole Thai effort was for Thailand because their long range policy was to keep the war out of Thailand.” (Source: Interview with Bill Lair by Steve Maxner, 2001)

Forty years later, Thailand has cozied up to communist Laos, but not because they love Laotians. Thailand, like the U.S., is basing their foreign policy on “economic” development. More conflicts have been fought for economic exploitation, including the Vietnam War, than for human rights. Laos imports 61 percent of its commodities from Thailand. Laos has become a feeding ground for Thai goods. This, the Thai cannot afford to lose. Could this be what Mr. Tharit Charunyatn is alluding to when he references “relations with neighboring countries?”

Furthermore, the Voice of America (VOA) reported that Thailand and Laos are due to sign a new power purchase agreement, under which Laos is to supply Thailand electricity generated by five new projects—four hydro-power and one lignite—as part of a larger accord, selling to Thailand an additional 5,000 megawatts of electricity beginning in 2015. At the same time, VOA noted that Laos is facing a shortage of electricity for its own citizens. The LPDR has allocated only about 5-10 percent of the power produced by the dams for domestic consumption, creating an annual shortage of 12 percent a year, not counting the need for commercial and industrial production.

The dam construction was funded through the World Bank under the guise of helping the poor citizens of Laos. But instead the World Bank has created another state-run enterprise for the LPDR. While the peasants continue to go without electricity, the politburo elites and their Thai business partners will bask in the Mekong delta sun. The World Bank did not attach any stipulations to the LPDR receiving funding regarding its human rights violations. One has to wonder, could all these business deals have something to do with the fact that the Thais are kissing gluteus and once again will use the Hmong as their sacrificial lamb?

What will it take to allow the Thais to release these “political refugees” and halt the forced repatriation of thousands of Hmong facing persecution in Laos? The tourist and travel industry is vital to Thailand’s economy. Since economic factors are a persuasion, pressure needs to be brought to Thailand and Laos by hitting them where it hurts, their pocketbook.

A colleague recently suggested that there are two recourses that the Hmong who have the freedom to do something may consider. The first is to boycott travel to Laos and Thailand. A universal campaign against traveling to Laos and Thailand until human rights issues improve can have an impact. Every year, thousands embark to Laos and Thailand, each dropping five to six thousand dollars per trip.

The second is to demand that the World Bank attach to its funding accountability from the LPDR to improve human right issues. In 2005, the Bank’s senior management asked the then-General Counsel for a reflection as to whether more explicit work on human rights would be in compliance with the Bank’s Articles of Agreement. This review resulted in a January 2006 note entitled Legal Opinion on Human Rights and the Work of the World Bank, which concluded that “The Articles of Agreement permit, and in some cases require, the Bank to recognize the human rights dimensions of its development policies and activities, since it is now evident that human rights are an intrinsic part of the Bank’s mission.” (Source: The World Bank Group)

The five top shareholders of the World Bank—France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States—must demand that guidelines set by the Articles of Agreement be adhered to. The LPDR’s public decree to eliminate the Hmong who supported democracy down to the roots surely must fall within the bounds of human rights violation. After all isn’t the ultimate goal of the World Bank is to improve the life of the ordinary citizen and not grease the pockets of greedy businessmen and dictators?

Chong Jones is a free-lance writer and a concerned US-Hmong citizen residing in the United States.