Though he may be one of the most recognized Hmong individuals of all time, Dr. Yang Dao remains an enigmatic, complex figure whose place in history continues to be written with relevance and controversy.
Like many intriguing men throughout history, Dr. Yang Dao is both revered and largely misunderstood.
Considered globally to be one of the preeminent intellectuals to ever come out of Laos, Dr. Yang Dao’s detractors have at the same time been busy at trying to smear his reputation.
However, a more thorough study of Dr. Yang Dao’s lifelong accomplishments and scholarly works would reveal, above all else, that he is a man who loves his Hmong people. For instance, after becoming the first Hmong in history to receive a Ph. D. in social science from the Sorbonne, University of Paris, in May 1972, Dr. Yang Dao could have easily accepted one of many prestigious job offers to stay in France. Yet, it was his love for the Hmong that compelled him to return to war-torn Laos where he would fulfill his lifelong dream in helping to lift the Hmong out of obscurity.
A scholar, a musician and a diplomat. Dr. Yang Dao is a man of destiny whose accomplishments and vision will forever be intertwined with the astonishing advancements that the Hmong have achieved over the last 30 years. Hmong Today is fortunate to have had the opportunity to sit down with this living legend as he was gracious enough to share a morsel of his life with us.
Presented here and paraphrased from his own words is a glimpse into the life of Dr. Yang Dao and the momentous role that he played during the climactic ending of the war in Laos in May 1975, forever shaping the destiny of the Hmong.
Becoming Dr. Yang Dao
|Q & A WITH DR. YANG DAO: THE TRUTH COMES OUT!
By Wameng Moua | Hmong Today
Despite following a lifelong path of pacifisms and peaceful resolutions, Dr. Yang Dao continues to be the victim of rumors and hearsay speculation.
He has been called everything from a communist to being placed as the enemy of Gen. Vang Pao. Online forums are filled with speculation as to his ethnicity and genealogy. And even well regarded books such as Tragic Mountains are filled with misrepresentations on his role during the Vietnam War.
We sat down with Dr. Yang Dao and asked him for the truth on such matters. Not only was he forthright on his answers, he went through the troubles of finding evidence to support his answers whenever possible:
Hmong Today: We have read online forums that claim ‘beyond any doubt’ that you are ethnically Vietnamese and yet others swear that you are ethnically Chinese. To be very blunt, can you tell us your ethnicity?
Dr. Yang Dao: (After laughing) First let me say, all Hmong originated in China, so technically we can all make the claim to a certain extent that we are Chinese. However, I am surely 100% ethnically Hmong.
My father’s name is Yang Myno and my mother’s name is Ker Her. In fact, my father is respected as being one of the most knowledgeable Hmong scholars in the field of Hmong culture and customs. He was an expert musician who mastered Hmong instruments such as the “qeej” and the “xyuj” (a Hmong aboe). It’s funny because we often say that he is 150% Hmong and he was always proud to be Hmong.
HT: For years we have understood that you and Gen. Vang Pao were enemies and yet I have seen you two sitting together at various occasions over the years and it seemed like you were both cordial. Can you elaborate on your relationship with Gen. Vang Pao?
YD: It is common knowledge that we have had our differences over the years, but largely the disagreements that we have are philosophical and not personal. He has always wanted to take Laos back with aggression and I have always believed that diplomacy was the only answer to finding a home for the Hmong in Laos.
Gen. Vang Pao and I worked closely for years in Laos, he as the military leader and I as a political leader. We have had some conversations since coming to America, but mostly we keep to ourselves. We do not have any personal differences with each other.
HT: Ed Szendrey of the Fact Finding Commission told me on one occasion that he has no respect for you because he had personally asked for your help in finding an answer for the Hmong in the jungles of Laos and that you declined to help. First of all, did that ever happen and secondly, what do you think is the answer for those Hmong who have been persecuted by the Lao government?
YD: Yes, Ed from the Fact Finding Commission along with the journalist Philip Blenkinsop (who shot the photos of the Hmong in the jungles for Time Magazine) met with me here in the Twin Cities in 2004. They didn’t exactly ask for my help; they more-less demanded that I help them. I told them, yes, I would help, but under the conditions that we meet in Washington DC with a representative from the State Department present during our meeting so that everything would be official.
They wondered why I wouldn’t help the Hmong people in Laos, but then I asked them how long they had helped the Hmong. Ed said he had been with the Hmong for six years and Philip had known the Hmong for only one year. I told them I have been helping the Hmong for over 40 years.
As for the Hmong in the jungles of Laos, I do believe that there is some military struggles between the Hmong in the jungles and Lao troops, but I don’t believe that the Lao government has an agenda to kill off these people. If they did, they could have eliminated them a long time ago.
I have personally met with some of the highest ranking government officials during my visits to Laos, including the Vice President of the National Assembly, who is Hmong, and from what I have been told, the government has assisted thousands of these jungle dwellers to readjust back to civilization and have been treated as though they are a part of the Lao people.
As a youth, Yang Dao would endure the never ceasing humiliation of taunts hurled by onlookers as he and other Hmong went down from their remote Hmong villages in the mountains to the regional markets, located in the valleys of Northern Laos.
“Meo, Meo, Meo” would continue to burn in his consciousness, but rather than allow such bullying to beat him down, the taunts inspired him to work even harder to achieve the improbable feat of becoming an educated Hmong.
Laos was among the poorest countries in the world and the Hmong along with other ethnic minorities lingered at the very bottom of that cesspool. It was through education, Yang Dao was convinced, where he would find the means to lift the social standing of his people—a motivational factor that remains burning in his heart to this very day.
Born in 1943 into an industrious family, Yang Dao was deeply influenced by his father, Yang Myno. During a time when less than a dozen Hmong had ever went beyond primary school, Yang Myno was one of the very first Hmong in the entire French Indochina to achieve, in 1934, his Certificate D’Etudes Primaires—the Diploma of French Elementary Education which allowed him to become a French elementary teacher from 1936 to 1939.
Beyond books, Yang Myno was also considered a master musician and one of the preeminent cultivators of classical Hmong culture. The emphasis that he placed on cultural knowledge along with the drive to educate his children played a huge role in the development of Yang Dao, who himself followed a lifelong passion for understanding Hmong culture.
The young scholar flourished and was consistently among the top of his class. Recognized for his excellence, in 1962 when the war in Laos started to set fire to the Plain of Jars in Xieng Khouang province and the entire Northern Laos, Yang Dao was invited to finish his high school degree in France where he would earn a scholarship from the French Government for his undergraduate education at the University of Paris where he studied social and economic development, and a “super” scholarship from U.N.E.S.C.O to achieve his doctoral degree at the Sorbonne, one of the most prestigious universities of Europe.
As an interesting side-note, Yang Dao married his wife, Mo Ly, five days before he departed for Paris, France, in 1962, to resume his education, interrupted by two years of war. Presiding over the wedding was none other than Father Yves Bertrais, a French Oblate missionary and one of the principle founders of the written Hmong language, known as the Romanized Popular Alphabet, today widely used by many to communicate among themselves all over the world.
After nearly a decade of stringent studies, Yang Dao would earn his Ph. D in Social Sciences, cementing his place in history as being the first Hmong in history to earn a Ph. D. He would forever now be referred to as Dr. Yang Dao.
“Meo, Meo, Meo” no more—Hmong means “Free”
Upon returning to Laos in July 1972 from France, Dr. Yang Dao made an immediate impact in his native country. He had earned the respect of his fellow countrymen, improving how the Hmong were being perceived.
As he headed the Human Resource Department of the Ministry of Planning in the Royal Lao Government, his job was to travel throughout Laos to conduct workshops on social and economic development to Chaomuong (Chiefs of Districts) and Chaokhoueng (Governors) of the Kingdom of Laos, where a political agreement had been signed in February 1973 by the Royal Lao Government and the communist Pathet Lao. Known as the Vientiane Accords, this political agreement stipulated a cease-fire between Lao communists and non-communists, and promoted peace and national reconciliation. He also contributed to the building of a national conscience among all Laotian ethnic groups, bounded by the same destiny and called to work together for social justice and for a better future of the country of Laos.
During his travels, he would be tenacious about abolishing the derogatory term “Meo”—a word that up until 1973 had been ubiquitously used in text books, journalistic reports, government documents and general usage to describe the Hmong.
Wilburt Garrett (also known as Garrett, W.E.) would write in his memoirs on the significance of his meeting with Dr. Yang Dao while researching for the monumental article, “The Hmong of Laos: No Place To Run” (National Geographic Magazine, January 1974).
Dr. Yang Dao had insisted that the terms ‘Meo’ and ‘Miao’ were both unacceptable, explaining to Garrett that his people had always called themselves by the name ‘Hmong’, which Dr. Yang Dao defined as meaning “free men.”
“I promised Yang Dao I would [use the term Hmong],” Garrett wrote. “It’s a small enough courtesy to pay this proud and independent people hounded by a devastating war.”
This brief encounter and the release of Garrett’s article in National Geographic would prove to be a colossal step forward for the Hmong who would forever be known to the world by their ‘real’ name. Scholars and journalists alike would take immediate action, ceasing to use the derogatory terms ‘Meo’ and ‘Miao’ in books, lectures and articles thereafter.
While the actual meaning of the word ‘Hmong’ would continue to be debated, the definition that Dr. Yang Dao gave to Garrett would become commonly accepted. Thus, as Dr. Yang Dao willed it in 1973, the Hmong would become a free people.
“I have heard some very bad news.”
On May 10, 1975 in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, a message from a close Lao friend shook Dr. Yang Dao’s very existence.
“I have heard some very bad news,” his good friend told him. “Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese troops are surrounding Long Cheng and they will attack at any moment.”
Within the last month, both Cambodia and South Vietnam had fallen to communist troops. Many Lao political and military leaders of the Royal Lao Government started to leave Laos since then. Long Cheng represented the last standing Military Region of the Kingdom of Laos and more importantly, it was the city where Gen. Vang Pao held his headquarters.
With tens of thousands of civilian lives in imminent danger in the Long Cheng area, every ticking second mattered. For Dr. Yang Dao, there was no room for a mistake.
As a member of the National Political Consultative Council (the Lao Congress), Dr. Yang Dao was in a unique position to gain access to the top leaders in the country. The following morning, May 11, 1975 at 11:00 a.m., he met with Prime Minister Prince Souvanna Phouma who was the leader of the non-communist side, and Vice-Prime Minister Phoumi Vongvichit who was a leader of the communist Pathet Lao side in the Provisional Government of National Coalition of the Kingdom of Laos.
Although he was only 32-years-old at the time, comparatively young in diplomatic years, Dr. Yang Dao was already a skilled negotiator. Invoking the Vientiane Accord of 1973, an agreement made by all political factions to seek cooperative measures, Dr. Yang Dao was able to convince the Prime Minister Prince Souvanna Phouma and the Vice-Prime Minister Phoumi Vongvichit to adopt a political solution to the situation in Long Cheng in order to avoid a bloodbath.
Both of them promised to Dr. Yang Dao that nothing would happen if Gen. Vang Pao—who had fought bravely all these years under the Royal Lao Army, Dr. Yang Dao reminded everybody–would also strictly abide by the Vientiane Accords.
After this historic meeting, at all costs, Dr. Yang Dao decided to go the same day to Long Cheng to confer with General Vang Pao on the political-military situation and on the most prudent steps they would need to take.
Despite his family’s frantic urging for him not to make the suicidal trip from Vientiane to Long Cheng, Dr. Yang Dao’s sense of duty and love for his people compelled him to make the fateful journey. He then took the last remaining Air America Cessna at Vattay International Airport in Vientiane and flew to Long Cheng which had already been completely surrounded by communist troops standing ready to launch a final assault against the headquarters of the Second Military Region, considered to be the base of the C.I.A. during the Secret War of Laos.
The young diplomat would spend an anxiety filled night locked in the tight quarters with Gen. Vang Pao and his remaining aides.
As Dr. Yang Dao recalls, there had been serious discussions on whether the General’s forces had a fighting chance to salvage their position and to perhaps initiate one last military operation.
After lengthy consideration, however, Dr. Yang Dao was able to convince the General that his only option was to find passage out of Laos, thus fulfilling his end of the bargain to the Prime and Vice-Prime Ministers in keeping the Vientiane Accords intact.
On May 12, two sleepless days after he had received the message, Dr. Yang Dao and Gen. Vang Pao would make their historical decision based on what they believed would be the best solution for the survival of the Hmong people: The two decided to leave the country, thereby giving the communists no reason to strike against Long Cheng.
That next day, Gen. Vang Pao officially resigned his post of command of the Second Military Region to the Prime Minister Prince Souvanna Phouma. However, rumors of the communist and neutralist troops, supported by tanks and heavy artillery, were moving closer to Long Cheng, Dr. Yang Dao, accompanied by Col. Vang Chou (now residing in Merced, California)—the one man who was equally as close to Gen. Vang Pao as he was to Dr. Yang Dao—proceeded to send an urgent telegraph from Long Cheng to Prime Minister Prince Souvanna Phouma in Vientiane, to urge him to do whatever he could to stop the advancement of the communist troops toward Long Cheng in order to avoid fighting which would cause the death of tens of thousands of lives among the civilian population.
On May 14, 1975, Gen. Vang Pao was furtively whisked away by airplane to join with his family who was awaiting his arrival in Thailand. That same day, Dr. Yang Dao left Long Cheng area by car to go back to Vientiane to organize the escape of his family. A few lucky officers had the fortune to escape with their families on the C-47 cargo planes flown by Hmong pilot, Moua “Coyote” Chue and other Lao pilots.
The following day, May 15, the communist troops finally moved into and occupied Long Cheng, the former headquarters of General Vang Pao, without any resistance and violence.
News of the departure of Hmong military and political leaders spread like wildfire in the mountains of Northern Laos. Within days, thousands of Hmong, fearing for their lives, began to leave the mountains.
Making his way back to Vientiane, Dr. Yang Dao reunited with his own family and organized their escape out of Laos. On May 15 at 3:30 AM, a total of 37 people including his parents, brothers, sisters-in-laws and all their children crammed into four small cars and proceeded secretly towards the Mekong River with nothing but the shirts on their back.
“We still look at that time in our lives and wonder if there was divine intervention at work because we had to cross three communist military check-points and for some reason the gates were open at all three stations where communist soldiers seemed to be asleep,” recalls a grateful Dr. Yang Dao.
He attributes much credit to Yang See (now residing in Saint Paul), who had arranged for boats from Thailand to bring the Yang family from Laos across the Mekong River and into their new lives.
With his family intact, Dr. Yang Dao looks back one last time to the distancing banks of Laos, feeling like the most fortunate man in the world.
Despite leaving every worldly possession behind, he is able to see the glorious sun rising in the morning sky and he mentions to his family, “As long as we are alive, we can rebuild a new life.”
Dr. Yang Dao, who was on the faculty of the University of Minnesota, today resides in a Minneapolis, MN, suburb with his entire family including all 11 siblings and their families (all but two sisters who live in California and his parents who have passed away in Minnesota). Although retired, he is still very active in the Hmong community, often as a guest lecturer at universities across the country.