U.S. Senator Al Franken (DFL-MN) last Sunday invited press to his Drake Bank Building office to continue updating the progress on the approximately 4,500 forcibly repatriated Hmong in Laos. It was a timely meeting now that President Barack Obama has nominated Karen Brevard Stewart as the next United States Ambassador to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic.
Franken noted that he had submitted an Ambassador nomination request for State Senator Mee Moua, who has taken an active role in several efforts related to the Hmong in Laos and Thailand – from the returnees, the oppressed and the grave desecration issue at the Wat Tham Krabok Buddhist monastery in Saraburi, Thailand.
He said the State Department replied that the process to consider Brevard Stewart, a career member of the Foreign Service with the rank of Minister-Counselor, was too far along to consider other applicants.
Franken added that Brevard Stewart, like her predecessor Ravic R. Huso, speaks fluent Lao and has considerable previous experience in Laos and Southeast Asia. He said Huso has done a wonderful job on the returnees issue and has high regards for Brevard Stewart.
Sen. Franken and his spouse, Franny, traveled to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in early July 2010, as part of a Congressional delegation to discuss environmental remediation of dioxin, the funding of medical disabilities services, education initiatives, labor issues, and trade relations in Vietnam.
The two departed from the delegation for two days to investigate the treatment of more than 4,500 Hmong who were forcibly returned to Laos from Thailand last December. They traveled to the village of PhonKham in Borikhamxay province in central Laos to meet with a group of 150 returnees – and expressed disappointment at only meeting with selected returnees and for denied access to parts of the camp.
Franken said that he brought his concerns back to the Laos Capitol of Vientiane, where he said the younger Lao officials were more responsive than the old-guard military and civilian leaders that were likely in power since the War in Southeast Asia.
The Lao Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Thongloun Sisoulith, who is also the Laos Foreign Minister, was in Washington this July meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Sisoulith reportedly invited Secretary Clinton on an official visit to the Lao PDR.
Franken said he briefed the State Department on his observations and concerns for the Hmong, and requested that it be brought up in addition to the discussion on bilateral cooperation and common interests in Southeast Asia.
The approximately 4,500 repatriated Hmong, were living in Thai refugee camps until forcefully returned by the Thai government. Some are relatives of Hmong in Minnesota, and are considered to be at risk for their association with the Hmong CIA Army and the Royal Lao government prior to 1975. Approximately 158 of the reurnees were identified as “persons of interest” – and reportedly fled Laos for fear of the government – and are eligible for refugee status. Around 70 of the special group were referred to the U.S. State Department for resettlement. The remaining 88 individuals were referred for resettlement in Australia, Canada and the Netherlands.
Franken said that reports indicated that some of the repatriated Hmong have fled the camps and their whereabouts are as yet unknown.
Franken also said that he was provided with information that he is not at yet at liberty to share with public.
The Lao government has placed the returnees in two settlements: the village of Ban Pha Lak in southwest Kasi district in Vientiane province; and the village of Phonkham in Borikhamxay province.
Both sites are said to have permanent dwellings, farmland and irrigation systems for farming rice. There is running water, electricity, and even cell phone coverage. There is some concern for more adequate health facilities and schools – and documents that would allow the Hmong the same mobility as other Lao citizens.
Franken said that in addition to the Hmong issue in Laos, his visit was also to work on other priority concerns over the search for missing Americans from the Indochina War, the clearance of unexploded ordnance from the war, drug and human trafficking, and pandemic disease prevention.