Hmong-Americans Stunned by Laos Charges

The Associated Press
Tuesday, June 5, 2007; 11:18 PM

FRESNO, Calif. -- Many of the thousands of Hmong refugees who fled to the United States following the Vietnam War never accepted the communist government that took power in their native Laos.

And if federal prosecutors are right, some apparently never abandoned their dream of toppling it.

A revered leader of the Hmong-American population was among 10 men charged this week with plotting to overthrow the Laotian regime in a case that has shaken the growing immigrant community.

Many Hmong credit Vang Pao, a 77-year-old former general in the Royal Army of Laos who led Hmong counterinsurgents, with helping them build new lives in the U.S. In California and Minnesota, where the first large wave of refugees settled in the 1980s, Hmong-American politicians are rising quickly through political ranks.

Despite that momentum, some in the community say elders still long to return to their highland villages.

"People of my father's generation have hoped one day that they could go back to a free Laos and farm the plot of land they left 30 years ago," said Minnesota state Rep. Cy Thao of St. Paul. "Vang Pao is sort of their last hope. You hear them talk about it, but you don't ever think it will come to this point."

An undercover agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives secretly recorded a Feb. 7 luncheon meeting with Vang Pao, former California National Guard Lt. Col. Harrison Jack and others at a Thai restaurant a few blocks from the state Capitol in Sacramento, according to the agent's affidavit.

They then walked to a recreational vehicle parked nearby to examine machine guns, grenade launchers, anti-tank rockets, anti-personnel mines and other weapons, the agent wrote.

Hmong leaders had agreed to buy $9.8 million worth of military weapons, Jack said in a recorded conversation, with much of the money coming from immigrants throughout the United States, the affidavit states.

Vang Pao appeared briefly in federal court Tuesday in Sacramento.

"Gen. Vang Pao has worked actively to pursue peaceful solutions to the problems in Laos and has disavowed violence," his attorney, John Balazs, said afterward. "We look forward to a trial where we can demonstrate Gen. Pao's innocence."

An attorney for Jack declined to comment after a court proceeding Monday.

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