Vang Pao legacy is the future of Hmong in U.S., Laos and world

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General Vang Pao, commander of the Hmong resistance to the Laotian and Vietnamese Communists, community leader in exile in the United States, and charismatic leader, died in California at the age of 81.

Writing in the Minneapolis Tribune, Stephen B. Young, friend and associate of General Vang, gave a personal eulogy.  In addition to his emotional and loving reminiscences, Stephen declared but did not fully explain that Vang Pao was an historical hero:  “He was a warrior chieftain, a throwback to ancient societies. He had the special charisma of a great founder of a dynasty. He was a Sitting Bull, a Cochise.”

Sadly, both Sitting Bull and Cochise were tragic figures:  they were heroic fighters against American settlers but eventually surrendered and were abused by the American government.

Sitting Bull(1831-1890)  had fled to Canada after the slaughter of General Custer and his men.  Upon his return, he made peace with Washington D.C., but was shot to death by the Indian Agency Police.  Cochise (1805-74) fought heroically yet unsuccessfully at Apache Pass.  His relatives were taken hostage by the Army, and subsequently executed.  He fled to Mexico and from there engaged in raids into New Mexico which resulted in the slaughter of thousands of settlers and Indians.  He, too, surrendered and lived on a reservation where he died-possibly of stomach cancer.

I would have chosen a comparison with Quanah Parker, a Comanche chief and warrior who engaged in guerrilla warfare resulting in great slaughter of Indians and settlers for many years and finally surrendered to his arch enemy General Mackenzie.  Surprisingly, the two became fast friends and the General gave support to the Comanche’s career.  Quanah went into the cattle business and became very wealthy.  He built a mansion and opened up his farm and residence to all guests – including poor and homeless Indians.  He became active in the community:  he was the Director of an Indian school, and later had a county named after him.

Vang Pao’s fate was created by the fact that the Laotian communist party would not tolerate Hmong autonomy in Laos.  The futile battles that raged in Laos resulted in “killing fields” of one third of the Hmong population and the flight of another third. The rest suffered under the oppressive policies of the regime.

On the other hand, the U.S. government was initially opportunistic in arming the Hmong against the communists.  This was not unlike their use of Indian tribes to fight each other.  At the end of the war, Washington D.C. was reluctant to recognize its obligations to and the rights of the refugees. It treated the Hmong like it had treated many native American tribes. Vang Pao did not have support from a man like Quanah’s Mackenzie.  Nor was he able to secure a broad constituency outside of the Hmong community.

Quanah was fortunate.  The Indian wars subsided.  The settlers could work in relative peace with the Indians.  For Vang Pao, the Cold War intensified the conflict. Loyalty to anti-communism became the political test for his support from both the U.S. government and his Hmong constituency.  Although he tried, as Young relates, to compromise with Laos and perhaps Vietnam, this was stymied by both the U.S. and China.  Near the end of his life, the U.S. government even brought charges against him for supporting the rebels in Laos.  The result was that Vang Pao was even further alienated from important support in the broader American community.

Vang Pao’s legacy will be fulfilled if there is a way for the Hmong in Laos and those abroad to live in peace and be able to attain a rich quality of life.  For the historian, his is another example of the treacherous politics of colonialism, whether communist or “western,” and the struggles for independence and survival in the modern world.  The love of his followers should not prevent or hinder them from looking both admiringly and critically at his life and times.

Richard C. Kagan, Ph.D. is a Professor Emeritus and former director of the East Asian Studies Program at Hamline University.