St. Paul delegation reports on Hmong graves in Wat Tham Krabok

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A delegation to Thailand sponsored by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman’s office reported October 10 on information and promises received in relation to desecration of Hmong graves at Wat Tham Krabok, and indicated that more steps need to be taken. Hmong community members at the meeting said those steps include a formal apology from the Thai government, a guarantee that no future desecration will occur, access to honor the dead who have been cremated, and identification of bodies still held by the Phaowana Songkhroa Foundation in Thailand.

Over 50 community members, 20 of whom were family members affected by the desecration of the graves, and elected officials attended the October 10 informational meeting. Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman sent a delegation to Thailand consisting of Senator Mee Moua, Senator Larry Pogemiller, Mayor Coleman’s Policy Advocate Va-Megn Thoj and community advocate Yee Chang to seek answers regarding the exhumation of Hmong graves in the Wat Tham Krabok Temple in Thailand. The delegation spent one week in Thailand, September 21-29, 2007, during which time they met with United States Ambassador Boyce, the abbot of Wat Tham Krabok and the two foundations responsible for the exhumation of the Hmong graves.

Wat Tham Krabok hosted Hmong refugees that fled from Laos after the Vietnam War in 1975. In 2004, an estimated 5,000 of the Hmong refugees immigrated to Minnesota adding to the estimated 60,000 already living here. In 2005, after nearly all the Hmong refugees have left, the abbot of Wat Tham Krabok summoned the Phothi Phaowana Songkhroa Foundation and the Buddha Dhamma 31 Nakhon Ratchasima Foundation to dig up hundreds of Hmong graves for what he claims was for environmental reasons.

“If there is anyone to blame – it would be the Wat Tham Krabok people because clearly they knew that the graves belonged to Hmong refugees. There is a history of discrimination against the refugees – this is just a part of the pattern,” said Thoj.

After two years of working with the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Program, the cities of Saint Paul, Minneapolis and Northfield adopted resolutions of support and brought the issue to the attention of the United Nations.

“We went to find out the facts so that we could come back with options for the families. It’s not our place to make the decisions for them,” explained Thoj when asked about the delegation’s mission.

Senator Moua started her report by passing a message from Ambassador Boyce to the Hmong families in Minnesota assuring his commitment to find a resolution to the issue.

After conversations with the foundations that performed the digging, the delegation reported that the foundations did not have any malicious intent, further explaining that, according to their religion, the actions were done with respect for the deceased.

The Phothi Phaowana Songkhroa Foundation is a non-profit organization that seeks unclaimed graves for the purpose of exhuming, cleansing and cremating the bones in a ceremonial ritual they believe frees the souls allowing passage into heaven. They were told by the abbot that the 480 Hmong bodies they cremated were unclaimed.

The Buddha Dhamma 31 Nakhon Ratchasima Foundation has a similar purpose, but due to time restrictions, they were only able to exhume an estimated 211 bodies and have not yet cremated them. Prior to this trip, the Foundation had set a December deadline for families to reclaim bodies. As a result of the delegation, the Foundation has agreed not to take any actions with the bodies until further notice.

There was concern, however, when the delegation arrived at the Foundation and asked to see the 211 bodies. They were led to a site with closed coffins and were told that each coffin held up to 4 bodies. Senator Moua counted 34 closed coffins and quickly did the math – concluding that there could only be up to 136 bodies there.

Furthermore, the group was denied the opportunity to open the coffins for viewing of the bodies.

Senator Moua gave a determined explanation of her conversation with the foundations, making a point that, “We explained to the Foundations that we understand they were performing rituals according to their beliefs, but we needed them to understand that according to Hmong beliefs and traditions, the exhumation of graves is a severe violation that not only disrupts the soul of the deceased, but of the living relatives as well.”

After the report and viewing of video footage from the trip, family members were allowed time to voice their concerns and suggestions for possible resolutions.

First and foremost, they demanded a commitment from the Thai that this will not happen again and that the estimated 300 bodies that remain buried be protected.

In regards to the cremated bodies, the families are asking for a formal apology, access to the site where the ashes are buried to be able to honor and pay respect to the deceased and there was some mention of the possibility of erecting a monument.

There was an overwhelming consensus on the need for positive identification of the 211 bodies before any further actions should be taken. Furthermore, the Thai would have to incur all the costs of reclaiming the deceased.

“This is a human rights issue and a justice issue. The desecration is really reflective of the oppression that Hmong people experience in Thailand. The Hmong American people were able to send a delegation over there with a clear message that Hmong people are not to be treated poorly. These graves were not unclaimed – these graves belonged to Hmong people,” said Thoj.