There are about a quarter of a million Hmong people living in the United States today. Most Americans – except the ones who’ve read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down – probably don’t know that they’re here. Even fewer know why.
In the 1950s-1970s, as the Vietnam War occupied international attention, a related conflict was occurring nearby: The Laotian Civil War. Like Vietnam, Laos became a proxy battlefield for the Cold War antagonists, with the communists ultimately emerging triumphant. But there was one important difference: The great powers’ role was covert.
The United States, heavily engaged in Laos’s civil war for the better part of two decades, referred to its operations there as “The Secret War“. The Hmong, fighting on the side of the Laotian government against the communist Pathet Lao insurgency, were crucial to the American agenda in the region. The CIA armed, recruited, and trained a secret army of Hmong fighters. By 1965, the US Air Force was providing direct air support to Hmong guerrilla forces fighting against both Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese.
U.S. forces left Laos in 1973, under the terms of the Paris Peace Accord. Two years later, the communists took power in Vientiane. This was a disaster for the Hmong, who became the targets of a genocidal campaign. The government announced that it would “wipe out” the entire group. Many were slaughtered, sent to brutal “reeducation camps”, or imprisoned and never seen again. In 1976, 1,000 Hmong fighters were evacuated to the U.S. and given asylum. Several years later, their families were allowed to join them. Many more fled into refugee camps in Thailand.
Others fled back into the hills, some determined to continue the fight. The government pursued them, assisted by its Vietnamese allies and had largely stamped out rebellion by the early 1980s. But the harassment of the Hmong continued. In 2007, Amnesty International reported that although the remnants of the Secret Army no longer posed a threat to the Lao government, they were “constantly pursued and attacked by the military”. Numerous reports allege the use of prohibited chemical weapons, although some of these claims are controversial.
Evidence of the fate of the Hmong is hard to come by. As Amnesty’s report made clear, these attacks are perpetrated against a population made extremely vulnerable by its lack of minimal contact with the outside world. But increasingly, information has begun to make its way out. The New York Times ran a front-page story in 2007 on a group of Hmong veterans still hiding in the jungle, who said that they had been attacked twice by the military within the last year. A 2008 documentary, “Hunted Like Animals“, combined refugee testimony with video evidence to tell a chilling story of a ruthless military assault on a beleaguered civilian population.
Estimates of the number of Hmong who have died at the hands of Lao security forces over the last 40 years range from the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands. We may never know what the truth is.