By GARANCE BURKE
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.
Vang Pao and the other nine defendants were scheduled for detention hearings later this week. Prosecutors recommended that all be held without bail until their trials.
"People don't know right now whether the charges are justified or a witch hunt. We just want people to remember that for 20 years the Hmong community has worked to make sure that this is our home," said Peter Vang, refugee community liaison for Fresno County, home to about 30,000 ethnic Hmong.
After fighting as U.S.-backed guerillas in Laos, members of the ethnic minority were all but abandoned when the country fell to communist forces in 1975. More than 300,000 Laotian refugees, mostly Hmong, fled into Thailand.
About 145,000 members of Laotian ethnic groups resettled in the U.S., establishing large enclaves in Fresno, St. Paul, Minn., cities across Wisconsin and in small towns throughout Arkansas' Ozark mountains.
Among those charged Monday were the founder of Fresno's annual Hmong International New Year celebration, a former police officer from the nearby suburb of Clovis and a one-time aide to former Wisconsin state Sen. Gary George.
George, 53, who recently finished serving a four-year prison term for taking kickbacks from a Milwaukee social service agency, is not charged in the Laos case. The ATF agent's affidavit, however, states that "probable cause exists to believe" George was involved in it.
George's attorney, Alex Flynn of Milwaukee, said the evidence in the indictment does not implicate his client.
"Gary George denies any allegations as defamatory and has as much interest in seeing the government of Laos overthrown as he does in the Klingons taking over the Starship Enterprise," Flynn told The Associated Press late Tuesday. "These allegations are preposterous."
Investigators also were examining whether those charged tried to use an unidentified congressman and the California Highway Patrol without their knowledge, according to authorities and court documents.
During a March meeting at a Sacramento restaurant, the affidavit says, Jack told the undercover ATF agent that he had contacted a patrol commissioner and arranged for Hmong leaders to help recruit.
The goal was for the Hmong officers to eventually move to Laos "to take positions of trust" in the new Lao government, the affidavit says.
Federal prosecutors said the men who are charged conspired with a Laotian liberation movement, led in the U.S. by Vang Pao, who splits his time between homes in the Twin Cities _ which has the largest concentration of Hmong in the United States _ and Southern California. The group raised money, directed surveillance operations and organized a force of insurgent troops within Laos, according to the complaint.
Somphet Khoukahoun, the permanent secretary for the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Tuesday he would wait to comment until authorities were briefed by U.S. officials.
Like many of their counterparts in the U.S., Hmong leaders in Thailand said they found the charges unbelievable.
"I think the charges are meant by rival Hmong in the United States to smear him," said Ming Wui, a Hmong Christian minister.
In Laos, Hmong people are still subject to detentions and human rights violations, according to the U.S. Department of State. Many recent immigrants arrive still traumatized by war and decades of persecution, said Sharon Stanley, director of Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries.
Vang Pao's arrest has crushed families struggling to assume a new, American identity, said Blong Xiong, a Hmong-American city councilman in Fresno, where Hmong grocery stores and restaurants are fixtures in most shopping malls.
"I'm hoping that the mainstream understands that our community continues to share the American ideals we defended," Xiong said.
Associated Press writers Sutin Wannabovorn and Ambika Ahuja in Bangkok, Don Thompson in Sacramento and Gregg Aamot in Minneapolis contributed to this report.