Ten years ago today U.S. forces withdrew from the Southeast Asian country of Laos. The event was overshadowed by the fall of neighboring South Vietnam and Cambodia, and today Laos is still a country ignored. Yet per capita it leads on many of the indices of suffering.
It is controlled by Vietnam with all the trappings of satellite status: Soviet and Vietnamese advisers and perhaps 40,000 Vietnamese troops, more per capita than Cambodia.
There are still political prisoners in Laos, more per capita than in the re-education camps of Vietnam.
The Hmong and other highland people of Laos are still targets of repression, though the systematic military suppression measures are decreasingly needed to keep the hill people at heel.
The Pathet Lao communist government -- and in particular the Vietnamese presence, which is seen by Lao and hill people as proof of the irreversibility of the regime -- has generated more refugees per capita than have come from any of the other Indochinese countries.
In January Thailand instituted a policy of interdicting and pushing back newly arriving Lao asylum- seekers including Hmong. Thai officials state the lessened willingness of the United States and other Western nations to resettle refugees leaves them little choice, given their many serious problems, and that many Lao now entering Thailand are economic migrants.
Refugee advocates have pressured Thailand, the Reagan administration and others to ensure implementation of a valid screening process, removed from the Mekong River and with U.N. participation, to make certain that real refugees, such as those recently out of "reeducation," are not pushed back to jeopardy in Laos, but rather are provided at least temporary refuge in Thailand.
Despite promises from various officials, as of now no such screening process is in place. Target dates for implementing such a process have been repeatedly postponed. There is no detailed agreement as to how screening will be done and by whom, nor how the safety of those "screened out" will be ensured if they are returned to Laos. All in all, U.S. officials, working with U.N. and Thai counterparts, have not satisfactorily resolved the issue.
One of the most important reasons for remembering Laos 10 years later is to promote understanding about the refugees from that country -- about 150,000 -- in the United States. The Hmong and other highland refugees (as well as the relatively small number of Lao in the secret forces) arrived in the United States assuming their fighting role would be known and appreciated. Instead they encountered the final irony of the secret war: their unique contribution has gone unknown and unheralded.
Recently I visited a town in California with a substantial Hmong community. There was also an Air Force base near town. Nobody there I talked to realized the Hmong had formed the on-the-ground rescue net for the Air Force flyers during the war years.
Ten years ago, when they were forced out of Laos, the Hmong and other highlanders sought to settle together on the land in Southeast Asia or elsewhere. Disoriented and dispersed across the United States despite their desire to remain together, the Hmong and other highlanders who come here should receive better support. The first step is improved recognition of their role during the war years.
One of the best ways to demonstrate recognition of that role is to ensure that the Hmong and other real refugees from Laos again have access to asylum in Thailand.