Pa Ge Xiong buried his nose in a tissue Monday as he held up photos of his deceased mother, father and youngest son, tearfully telling the story of how he heard from his cousin in October that officials had exhumed and destroyed their remains at a defunct Thai refugee camp.
Hundreds of people rally Monday at the state Capitol after the reading of a resolution condemning the desecration of Hmong graves in Thailand. The rally was organized by University students as part of a human rights program class. Thai officials have exhumed more than 900 bodies at a Buddhist temple.
“When I learned that my father, my mother, my son’s graves and remains were dug up and destroyed by the Thais, I could not imagine it,” the 65-year-old Hmong immigrant said through a translator.
Xiong’s experience is not unique in the Hmong community. Hundreds gathered at a University student-organized rally at the state Capitol Rotunda Monday after the House and Senate read resolutions calling for a halt to the desecration of Hmong graves in Thailand.
Thai officials have dug up at least 900 graves since 2005 at Wat Tham Krabok, a Buddhist temple, after locals and Monks at the temple complained that remains contaminated rivers, according to Associated Press reports.
But Hmong Minnesotans said they first learned of the excavations from relatives in Thailand and from a videotape that circulated within the Hmong community here in 2005, which reportedly showed bodies dismembered by excavators.
Rally speakers said the U.S. State Department has been reluctant to address the issue. The State Department has said it is looking into the reports.
Pang Xiong, an Augsburg College student, said her boyfriend told her about Monday’s rally. The first-generation Hmong American said she attended because it is an important human rights issue first, and a Hmong issue second.
“You don’t just go and dig up someone’s grave,” said Pang Xiong, no relation to Pa Ge Xiong.
University students organized the rally as part of a human rights program internship class. Professor Barbara Frey, director of the program, called her students a “dream class.”
The students took 158 statements from Hmong families with stories like Pe Ge Xiong’s and lodged a religious persecution complaint with the United Nations. Last week St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said he would raise the issue with United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who was in St. Paul to visit his alma mater, Macalester College.
Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, learned of the exhumations in November and, looking for answers, sponsored the resolution in the Senate.
“What took place (at Wat Tham Krabok) was a violation … this will help to pressure the Legislature to work with the State Department,” Moua said, herself a Hmong American.
“We believe the life cycle is intertwined,” Moua said of her culture, which places high importance on burial traditions.
Global studies senior Rachel Lipsey and the rest of her class spent the semester developing ways for the Hmong community to get the support of Washington lawmakers. It wasn’t until 500 people showed up to their letter-writing campaign that Lipsey realized the class had moved from hypothetical to real.
“Once we started working on this rally and working on the resolution, we knew that we were on a more direct-action path than a learning path,” she said.
Lipsey said that from this point forward her class will work more closely with Hmong organizations, with more “formal participation” such as the possibility of bringing a property-law suit in Thailand and further encouraging the U.S. State Department to pursue the issue.
“We needed to make it an issue at the state level, and if it became a big enough issue, it would come up (in talks with Thailand),” Lipsey said.