After coming into power in 1975, the communist Pathet Lao vowed in official decrees that it would exterminate the Hmong who sided with American forces during the Vietnam War.
For the last 30 years, thousands of Hmong stayed hidden in the remote jungles of Laos, fearing for their lives as the Pathet Lao hunted them down. Now, only a small portion of the freedom fighters still exists and for the first time in 30 years some have come into contact with the outside world.
Video taped by BBC journalists Ruhi Hamid and Misha Maltsev in a 2004 documentary, the decimated jungle dwellers are shown starving, wounded and on their last leg of hope.
One of the first scenes from the heart-wrenching documentary was of an emaciated woman who falls to her knees, hands clasped together in prayer. Rather than plead for food or any other sustenance, she cries out, “Vang Pao. Mighty Vang Pao, we are waiting for you to save us.”
Others in the group follow in exhausting pleas for General Vang Pao to appear from the sky.
After 30 years of getting the humanity beaten out of their skulls, the one person who has kept their spirits from altogether perishing is now himself in a dire situation.
On June 4, 2007, General Vang Pao and nine others were arrested and charged by the United States District Court in California with plotting to overthrow the government of Laos by force and violence.
In a shocking news conference, it was revealed by federal authorities that during a six-month undercover sting operation dubbed, “Operation Tarnished Eagle”, an agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) posed as an arms dealer who was prepared to deliver $9.8 million worth of weapons including hundreds of automatic rifles, antitank missiles, rockets, mines, C-4 explosive and smoke grenades.
Authorities say the alleged conspirators, named in the criminal complaint as “Neo Hom”, the organization headed by General Vang Pao, were planning to ship the arms by way of safe houses and drop zones in Thailand and Laos.
The undercover agent was to also supply mercenaries who would retrieve the weapons and help train platoons of loyal natives who would then blow up government buildings and assassinate officials in Laos in an attempt to overthrow the country’s communist government.
The criminal complaint describes an exchange of words where one of the defendants, Lo Cha Thao, compared the damage they were hoping to inflict to that of the terrorist acts of “September-11”.
Prosecutor Robert Twiss, an assistant U.S. attorney for eastern California, said the conspirators hoped to put the plot into action this month.
“The initial installment of arms to be delivered into Southeast Asia was 125 AK-47s, 20,000 rounds of ammunition and some smoke grenades. That very first installment was to be delivered on June 12. The payment price was $100,000.”
A second delivery, which would include Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, was set to arrive June 19. Twiss says the undercover federal agent was asked to provide 24 mercenaries to lead the operation.
Before any money exchanged hands, however, over 200 federal agents and local law enforcement officers executed early morning search warrants and took nine defendants into custody. The warrants were executed throughout California in Chico, Fresno, Los Angeles, Sacramento, Stockton and Woodland. As a result of the raids, investigators say, a tenth man, Nhia Kao Vang of Rancho Cordova was arrested later in the day.
It becomes apparent in the 88-page criminal complaint, however, that the undercover agent is primarily in contact with only two of the alleged conspirators, Lo Cha Thao and Harrison Jack, the only non-Hmong to be charged thus far.
A retired Lieutenant Colonel in the National Guard and a 1968 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Harrison Jack used his connections to reach out to a defense contractor whom he was acquainted with. According to the criminal complaint, the contractor became concerned after Jack had inquired about purchasing 500 machine guns. The contractor then notified authorities, which triggered the investigation.
Subsequently, the undercover agent contacted Jack pretending to be a friend of the contractor. It was revealed early on that Jack was working with General Vang Pao and that the weapons would be delivered to Laos or Thailand.
In his only meeting with General Vang Pao, the undercover agent secretly tapes a conversation in which the General reveals plans to arm insurgents within Laos who would “initiate hostile military action in the very near future against military forces of the government of Laos.
At that meeting, the undercover agent displays an assortment of weapons to the General and 12 others who were present at the meeting, including the General’s wife, Youa True Vang.
According to the complaint, hidden video cameras show the General admiring the weapons, especially the AK-47 machine gun. He later indicates to the undercover agent that he likes what he saw and that he was “sold on the whole thing.”
Because much of the conversations occurring at this meeting was spoken in Hmong, an interpreter from another federal agency listened to the recordings and translated much of what had been said.
According to the undercover agent’s report, the next five months were spent negotiating with Jack and Lo Cha Thao. Besides secretly taping their conversations when they met with the agent, both Jack and Thao had their telephones tapped as well.
At one point, Thao reveals to Jack that he had been consulting with a friend from the Midwest who warned him about the possibilities that they may be dealing with an undercover agent.
Though not named in the criminal complaint, investigators now believe that the person Thao may have been in contact with was former Wisconsin State Senator Gary George, who Thao worked as an aide when he lived in Wisconsin.
Despite the warnings, the group continues to deal with the undercover agent. It was revealed in the complaint that there was a sense of urgency to get the deal done quickly because the Lao government had stepped-up their actions against the Hmong.
With a sense of urgency of their own, federal agents decided they had enough evidence to indict the alleged conspirators before any real damage had been done.
Authorities say all of the defendants are charged with conspiracy to violate the U.S. Neutrality Act, conspiracy to kill and kidnap foreign nationals and damage foreign government buildings, and also with weapons charges. If convicted, they could face terms of life in prison. Six defendants also face charges of conspiracy to acquire Stinger missiles, which carry a mandatory sentence of at least 25 years.
At each of the men’s separate bail hearings, lawyers have used a variety of defenses as to why each defendant should have the right to post bail. Unfortunately, as of the date this article goes to press, none of the defendants have been granted bail.
Lo Cha Thao’s Defense lawyer Mark Reichel said the undercover agent working the case and others gave the alleged conspirators the impression they were connected to high levels of the U.S. government. Take that into consideration with the Hmong’s history of working with the CIA, Reichel said, the defendants believed they had the government’s unofficial blessing.
“They basically thought that this was CIA that was helping them out. And why wouldn’t they?”
Obviously, it has been the arrest of General Vang Pao that has attracted the most attention worldwide. According to correspondents in Vietnam, Thailand and Laos, the news of the General made breaking television coverage and plastered newspaper covers for days.
“We praise the US government as this group committed wrongdoing against the Lao government, which has good relations with the US,” Laos’ Foreign Ministry spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy told a Thai newspaper upon hearing the news.
Despite nearly a thousand protestors appealing for the release of the General outside the courthouse in Sacramento and despite arguments from his lawyers that any extended stay in jail would jeopardize his ailing health, U.S. Magistrate Judge Edmund Brennan ruled after a 30-minute hearing that the General is “too dangerous and too great a flight risk to be freed under any circumstances.”
“Thousands of people came here on the day of his detention hearing,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Bob Twiss asserted as the General, dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit, sat hunched over his table while listening through an interpretor . “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.”
Despite the prosecutor’s qualms about the rally, community leaders are optimistic about the support that is being shown for the General.
Xang Vang (no relations), one of the General’s closest advisors, was encouraged by the show of support, “especially among the youth who have never shown much interest for General Vang Pao in the past.”
Throughout 30 years of community involvement, Xang Vang says he has never seen the Hmong people so united for anything before, seeing those who have criticized General Vang Pao now fighting at his side.
“It is a sad time for the Hmong people, but it is also time to show the world that we can unite and stand up for what we believe.”
The 10 Defendants:
Harrison Ulrich Jack: (60) A former U.S. Army officer and lieutenant colonel with the California National Guard who served in Southeast Asia. Operates a consulting business in Woodland, Calif.
Gen. Vang Pao: (77) A former general in the Laotian army who led Hmong tribesmen during the CIA’s covert war. Came to the United States in 1975 and divides his time between St. Paul and California.
Lo Cha Thao: (34) A former aide to former Wisconsin state Sen. Gary George, D-Milwaukee. A resident of Clovis, Calif.
Lo Thao: (53) President of the United Hmong International, also known as the Supreme Council of the Hmong 18 Clans. Lives in Sacramento County, Calif.
Youa True Vang: (60) Founder of Hmong International New Year in Fresno.
Hue Vang: (39) A former Clovis, Calif., police officer and director of the United Lao Council for Peace, Freedom and Reconstruction.
Chong Vang Thao: (53) A chiropractor from Fresno.
Seng Vue: (68)A resident of Fresno and a clan representative in United Hmong International.
Chue Lo: (59)A resident of Stockton, Calif., and a clan representative in United Hmong International.
Nhia Kao Vang: A resident of Rancho Cordova, Calif.
– Conspiracy to kill, maim or injure persons in a foreign country with which the United States is at peace
– Conspiracy to damage property in a foreign country with which the United States is at peace
– Conspiracy to violate the Neutrality Act
– Violation of the Neutrality Act
– Conspiracy to receive and possess missile systems designed to destroy aircraft
– Attempt to receive and possess missile systems designed to designed to destroy aircraft
– Conspiracy to receive and possess machine guns
– Conspiracy to receive and possess destructive devices