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Thailand's Forced Repatriation of the Laotian Hmong
Outside observers have estimated that anywhere between 3,000 and 17,000 Hmong remain in the jungle
Michael Solis (msolis)     Print Article 
Published 2008-04-17 02:42 (KST)   
A New Generation Kept Waiting: Huay Nam Khao in Phetchabun Province, Thailand
©2008 Ann Christine Peters
Wartime withdrawal after failed military missions inevitably results in fruits for some and frustrations for others. Perhaps no one understands the consequences of this better than the Hmong hill people of Laos, who have been struggling against systematic persecution, ethnic cleansing, starvation, sexual subjugation, and torture ever since the United States pulled out of Vietnam in 1973.

The Hmong hill tribe was recruited in 1961 by the CIA as a part of the United States' "secret war" against the communist forces of North Vietnam. The United States used the Hmong to help block the communists' supply route to South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh trail. During the war, over 40,000 Hmong lost their lives. Following US withdrawal, communist forces seized control of Laos and instituted a politics of systematic retaliation and persecution against the Hmong that remains in place to this day.

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In response to the state-sponsored ostracism, mass arrests, and violence, approximately 300,000 Hmong fled to Thailand seeking asylum. The vast majority resettled in third countries like the United States. Those who remained in Laos took to the jungles, inside which they would remain trapped for over 30 years.

Life inside of the jungles remains untenable. The Hmong lack vital resources such as food, shelter, and access to medicine. According to Amnesty International, the Hmong's chief forms of sustenance are the unpalatable cassava root, dried yams, leaves, and the slightly-toxic husk of the Toga-la tree.

The Hmong constitute approximately 8 percent of the population of Laos and are the nation's third largest ethnic group after the Lao and Khmou. While several Hmong factions do not encounter systematic persecution in Laos, those Hmong living in the jungles are direct targets of state-sponsored abuse.

According to the Lao Human Rights Council, Inc., Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR) military forces have subjected the Hmong to mass starvation, ground troop and artillery attacks, and the poisoning of food and water supplies. Those Hmong who venture outside of the jungles in search of food, regardless of age or gender, become moving targets that LPDR forces have been trained to shoot on sight.

The number of Hmong still living inside the jungles of Laos is unknown, as the LPDR government is unable to account for this information and non-governmental organizations are banned from carrying out work in Laos. However, outside observers and lobby groups have estimated that anywhere between 3,000 and 17,000 Hmong remain in the jungle.

Clandestine footage obtained by Al Jazeera correspondent Tony Birtley provides a devastating glimpse into the lives of the Hmong in hiding. The Hmong are a deeply war-weary and discouraged people. They weep openly over the loss of their husbands, wives, elders, compatriots, and children, as well as what they sense to be their approaching annihilation as a people at the hands of LPDR forces. Hmong leaders claim that over 580,000 Hmong have perished since 1975 and that many of the living have been wounded by bullets or maimed by land mines and explosions. According to the leader one of the largest Hmong encampments, approximately 30 percent of the 800 member group has suffered shrapnel wounds.

For the fewer than 8,000 Hmong who have acquired refugee status in Pethchabun, Thailand, sanctuary is tenuous at best. The Huay Nam Khao Hmong camp, surrounded by barbed-wire fences and armed soldiers, allows for very limited freedom of movement and lacks educational facilities for the thousands of Hmong children who reside there. Furthermore, the Thai government does not permit foreign embassies, UN agencies, journalists, or international organizations, with the sole exception of Médicins Sans Frontières, to enter the camp.

Of even graver concern is that the Hmong's refugee status has been compromised by the temporal whims of the Thai government. Due to a Thailand-Laos border security accord signed in May of 2007, Thailand is now exercising its "right" to classify the unwanted Hmong as illegal migrant workers so as to effectively expel them back to Laos.

Since May of 2007, hundreds of Hmong refugees have been forcibly repatriated to Laos against their will. They return in tears, absolutely petrified by the prospect of what they believe to be certain death. On Feb. 27, 2008, Thai soldiers used police dogs to expel 12 Hmong from the Huay Nam Khao camp. Several other Hmong families have either been repatriated or are expected to be repatriated to Laos this month.

Although Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, international organizations and international human rights lawyers still feel that the Thai government has a duty to fulfill the principle of non-refoulement, which explicitly states that no refugee should be forcibly returned to his or her country of origin if he or she will encounter any form of persecution or discrimination in that country. The Laotian government has denied committing acts of persecution or discrimination against the repatriated Hmong, but the international community and human rights bodies remain unconvinced.

"The Hmong have witnessed the murders of their parents, relatives, and friends by the LPDR military forces," said Laura Xiong from Hmong International Human Rights Watch. Xiong closely monitors a group Hmong refugees in Thailand.

"Several Hmong told me that they will not return to Laos under any circumstances. By returning, the traumatic experiences would come back to haunt them. They are asking the international community, human rights organizations and other government agencies to put pressure on the Thai government to allow the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) to conduct a proper screening process to determine their refugee status before repatriation takes place."

The message has reached certain concerned individuals from around the world who are now mobilizing in support of the Hmong. In Korea, for instance, a group of foreign human rights activists has created a Web site with links to documents and videos that trace the cruel history of the Hmong leading up to the recent deportations. The group has also initiated a letter-writing campaign to world leaders, including the King and Prime Minister of Thailand, calling for an immediate end to the forced repatriations.

"This is such a critical time in history for the Hmong people," said Ann Peters, a guest speaker at the group's last gathering who has worked closely on the human rights of the Hmong for over fifteen years. "Thailand has overstepped its bounds, with respect to international laws on refoulement. That is, it is not within those accepted international laws to send people back to a country where their lives and well-being are in serious jeopardy."

Even while the aftershocks of the Vietnam War rumble as turbulently as ever for the persecuted Hmong, Peters remains hopeful that enough people will mobilize in time to stop the Thai government from pursuing its pernicious policy of forced repatriation.

"If people want to get involved they can contact directly by fax or phone their governments, US Senators, the Thai Prime Minister, and His Majesty the King of Thailand. If we don't speak out and say that this is not right, something similar will most likely happen again. As human beings in the family of human beings, I feel we have a duty to stand up and say, 'No More.'"
Michael Solis is a visiting researcher at the National Human Rights Commission of Korea under the auspices of the Luce Scholars Program. He is a graduate of Princeton University.
©2008 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Michael Solis

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