Thailand Deports 163 Hmong Back to Laos

The Associated Press
Saturday, June 9, 2007; 3:45 PM

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand deported 163 ethnic Hmong asylum-seekers to Laos on Saturday who authorities said had entered the country illegally in recent years trying to reach a large refugee camp.

The deportations come after one of the most prominent Hmong exiles, former guerrilla leader Vang Pao, was charged in U.S. federal court in California last Monday with plotting to overthrow Laos' communist government.

Vang Pao, 77, led CIA-backed Hmong forces as a general in the Royal Army of Laos in the 1960s and 1970s. After he emigrated to the U.S. around 1975, he pledged to lead his people back to a free, democratic Laos.

Tharit Charungvat, a spokesman for Thailand's Foreign Ministry, said Saturday's expulsions were not related to the charges against Vang Pao.

"There is no link to this case whatever. ... It's the policy to send back illegal immigrants, that's all," he said.

The deportees had been detained at four police stations near a large Hmong refugee settlement in Thailand's Phetchabun province, about 185 miles north of Bangkok, Thai and Lao officials said.

Tharit said the deportations took place without resistance. Laos Foreign Ministry spokesman Yong Chanthalansy also said the repatriation process was not forced and that the hand-over was peaceful.

However, the California-based Fact Finding Commission, a group that lobbies for the rights of the Hmong, claimed the Thai military beat some of the asylum-seekers and used tear gas and stun guns as they were rounded up to be sent home.

The claim could not be independently verified, although the group has provided reliable information in the past. Kitty McKinsey, a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Thailand, said her office had not been informed of the deportations, and she would not comment.

About 8,000 Hmong refugees live at the Huay Nam Khao refugee camp, claiming they fled Laos to escape persecution from the government, which distrusts the tribal group because it sided with the pro-American government against the communists during the Vietnam War.

More than 300,000 Laotian refugees, mostly Hmong, fled into Thailand after the communist takeover in 1975. Most later resettled in the U.S. and elsewhere, but thousands stayed behind, some adjusting to the new hard-line regime and others seeking refuge in the jungle.

In March, Amnesty International alleged the government was hunting the tribe's members down in the jungle. The government denied the accusation.

In May 2005, the last major Hmong refugee camp in Thailand was closed, and in what was supposed to be the final big movement of Hmong refugees, some 15,000 were relocated to the United States. Thousands more slipped across the border from Laos to reach the camp at Huay Nam Khao.

(This version CORRECTS SUBS lead to RECAST. SUBS graf 2 to correct spelling of California.)

© 2007 The Associated Press