Controversy marks the visits of two delegations—one from St. Paul, including local Hmong leaders, and another from the Hmong Grave Desecration National Delegation—to talk to the Thai government about grave desecrations.
It was in St. Paul where much of the international uproar over the late 2005 exhumations of 1,027 Hmong graves near the Wat Tham Krabok Buddhist monastery in Saraburi, Thailand – which occurred as 13,000 Hmong refugees had left for America – 4,000 of them to Minnesota – and the refugee camp was being closed.
For two years, committees of elected officials, university professors and students, and local leaders met with the families of newly arrived Hmong refugees and their relatives here to learn about the desecration on video being sent from remaining families in Thailand.
Now, leaders feel the time is right to talk with a relatively receptive Thai government, a transitional military government with the blessing of the king. Saint Paul Mayor Chris Coleman received word from U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Ralph L. Boyce that he was offering assistance on this issue and recommended that a delegation come to Thailand.
The mayor created a Grave Desecration Reconciliation Working Group, which resulted in the delegation. Other Hmong who have worked on the issue for two years felt the delegation did not represent the community widely enough and that it should also reflect the national Hmong community.
The Hmong Grave Desecration National Delegation will travel to Thailand on September 22-29, 2007 to join in with other Hmong leaders from Thailand in an attempt to resolve the Hmong grave crisis in Wat Thamkrabok.
Mayor Coleman will send a fact-finding delegation to Thailand from September 21-29, 2007, to explore the options for bringing peace and reconciliation to the families affected by the desecration.
“The delegation presents an opportunity for the City of Saint Paul to address the tragedy of the grave desecration,” said Mayor Coleman. “With the assistance of the U.S. Embassy in Thailand, we hope to find answers for the families who are suffering as a result of this tragedy.”
Confirmed representatives of the Mayor’s delegation are State Senator Mee Moua, international human rights lawyer Maya Diokno, community activist Yee Chang, and Mayor’s Policy Associate Va-Megn Thoj. The trip will be privately funded.
“There is no better person to lead this Delegation than Senator Mee Moua,” said Mayor Coleman. “She’s been a strong advocate on this issue from the beginning and is crucial to the success of the mission.”
The offices of State Senator Mee Moua, State Representative Cy Thao, U.S. Senators Norm Coleman and Amy Klobuchar, along with the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Program, community activists, students, and affected families have been working to address this issue for the past two years.
Maya Diokno, who is based in the Philippines, expressed interest in participating and was recommended by Dr. Barbara Frey, director, Human Rights Program, University of Minnesota, who announced that she could not attend. Diokno was a former student of Frey’s and was very interested in the Wat graves issue when she was in Minnesota.
Dr. Frey led a student effort to bring the issue to the attention of the United Nations and the U.S. State Department, which helped bring about resolutions from the Cities of Saint Paul, Minneapolis and Northfield, along with the State Legislature in condemning the desecration and “making the plight is the state’s plight.”
Sen. Moua said that Mayor Coleman’s office put together a delegation proposal and then solicited participation from the community. They wanted the locally elected officials so that it would be official in representation enough to be received as diplomatic as opposed to a group of private citizens.
“The mayor is wise in this because he understands that the fundamental issue is how to engage the different participants in Thailand, in conversation that is both open respectful and disarming,” said Moua. “The mayor’s approach is more diplomatic and starts with a position of mutual respect.”
Moua recalled that Michael Yang’s group, “for reasons unknown to us,” refused to participate with the mayor’s delegation and decided to go through Senator Coleman’s office and propose their own.
She noted that both Sen. Coleman and Mayor Coleman proposed that the delegations be together as a “joint delegation of two separate groups.” They went so far as to recommend co-chairs of each delegation, which also failed.
Now that more than two years has passed, and the committee has accumulated evidence, Moua feels that they can present what they know without hearsay to the Thai government in a respectful and honest manner, and let the video and statements speak to their demand to get to the bottom of who ultimately authorized the exhumations and desecration.
“My approach is that we are not going to start out this effort by being accusatory and pointing fingers and blaming or assigning responsibility,” she said. “There has yet to be a personal conversation about the issue…and we need to engage in that conversation and mutually determine source of decision making.”
The goal, she said, is a mutually respectful position that establishes relationships.
The worst thing that can be done she said is to be condemning or overly judgmental. They want to establish an appropriate relationship that will last beyond this issue. The fact that this is a universally condemned incident, with world opinion and that of even many Thai people, will help direct the course of action.
The families are the immediate concern, and at the end of the day there is a bigger picture, said Moua.
The Hmong Grave Desecration National Delegation has six local members that will join the national delegation will include: Michael Yang (co-chair), Ser Lee (co-chair), Sia Lo, Cha Vang and Souwan Thao, a community member elected to the delegation.
“The goals are to find an immediate solution to the remains of 211 exhumed bodies, and to strengthen a mutual respect and understanding between the Hmong people and the people of Thailand,” said Michael Yang.
The delegation has extensive contacts in Thailand that can open doors at all levels of government, according to Yang. He felt the mayor’s delegation came as a surprise to those who had been planning a delegation that invited the mayor all along.
Yang says there is a need for a united voice across the country, including Arkansas, Kansas, California, North Carolina, South Carolina, Michigan, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Washington State, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. He said this delegation contains Hmong cultural experts and leaders who understand the Thai culture and government, said Yang.
Ser Lee said that this is necessary, given this unprecedented event in Hmong history, for its violation of religious and cultural beliefs regarding burial. In working with their Hmong contacts in Thailand, they want to make sure that whatever decision is made is consistent with Hmong beliefs.
“This group was put together because from the very beginning it was important that the Hmong community speak with one voice,” said Sia Lo, an attorney and former staff member of St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly.
Lo said the message from the State Department and Congressional representatives was very clear that the community have one voice that can work with the Thai government to find a peaceful and honorable solution to the issue.
“We are not a fact finding group; we are there to resolve this issue,” he added.
Yang said that calls to Mayor Coleman’s office inviting them to join with his delegation went unanswered.
With both delegations claiming U.S. Norm Senator Coleman as a supporter, his staff noted they have played an active role in Wat graves issue and has expressed support delegations that can help find a solution, but stopped short of showing preference for either group.
In a statement from Luke Friedrich, Minnesota Press Secretary for Senator Coleman, he said staff has actively worked to address the serious concerns over the Hmong grave desecrations since they surfaced in 2005.
“Over the past two years, our office has been closely working with leaders in the national Hmong community to help make their concerns known to the U.S. State Department and the Thai government — and ultimately to develop a solution that is culturally appropriate to the Hmong and their religious practices,” said Friedrich. “This month, two delegations will travel to Thailand to seek a resolution and Senator Coleman is supportive of efforts to find an honorable solution to this matter that affects Hmong families throughout the country and beyond.”