The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘open secret’ of abused Hmong child brides goes public in Minnesota lawsuit

Panyia Vang, 22 (Family Photo)
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Everyone knows about these men, but few dare speak out against them, least of all the women who have been harmed. Those who do are swiftly admonished for questioning “the way things have always been” — or worse, confronted with physical retaliation and separated from their families. Death threats are not unusual.

Having grown up among the Hmong in St. Paul, it was in the early 2000s that Sia Her began noticing adolescent girls on the arms of Hmong American men who were 20, 30, sometimes even 40 years their senior. She saw these couples walking around in the community’s market places, where DVDs containing suggestive photos of young Hmong women are sold by the thousands. Though she heard through the grapevine that many of these young wives suffered abuse, Her said, they rarely spoke openly about their experiences.

Now, one Hmong woman is refusing to stay quiet about her allegations. In an unprecedented federal lawsuit first reported by the Star Tribune, Panyia Vang, 22, is seeking $450,000 from the American citizen who allegedly raped and impregnated her before binding her to a traditional Hmong marriage. She has gone fully public, name and all, in the suit, which was originally filed in 2012. And her lawyer, who is now seeking a summary judgement in Vang’s favor, agreed to the use of her name in The Washington Post, which ordinarily does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse.

When a 14-year-old Vang received an invitation to go to Vientiane, the capital of Laos, she believed she was auditioning for a music video.

She had lived her entire life in the Laos countryside, harboring dreams of becoming a singer. At the time, she worked and lived with her mother in a farming community, where she met a young man who asked for her phone number. He told her he needed it to communicate about the farming crew’s work schedule, Vang’s lawyer Linda Miller said in an interview.

Vang never heard from him. Instead, Miller said, her client got a call from one of his relatives, who offered her an all-expenses-paid trip to Vientiane to try on extravagant outfits, audition for a music video and meet with a local movie star.

After Vang arrived, she was introduced to the 43-year-old Thiawachu Prataya, who said her new clothes were waiting in a suitcase in his hotel room.

It was there that she claims in a lawsuit that he raped her. When she attempted to run away that night, she alleged in the suit, he captured her and raped her again. She says she bled, cried and pleaded to no avail until she was finally allowed to return home. Some months later, after learning that Vang was pregnant with his child, Prataya forced her into a marriage, her lawyer said.

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These are the details recounted in the legal complaint obtained by The Washington Post in the civil suit of Vang v. Prataya filed in the U.S. District Court in Minnesota. Prataya’s lawyer, Der Yang, wrote in an e-mail to The Post that it would be inappropriate for her to comment on a pending lawsuit. While Prataya has admitted in his testimonies that he traveled to Laos and had sex with Vang, he denies that he knew she was a minor.

In an opposing memorandum, Prataya and his lawyer claim that the sexual relations between Prataya and Vang were consensual, and that Vang’s story about being lured into the capital was concocted to placate her mother.

Vang, 22, now lives in Hennepin County, Minn., not far from Prataya’s residence in Minneapolis. She arrived in the U.S. with sponsorship from her father, an asylee living in the state, but she needed Prataya, an American citizen, to bring their child from Laos. 

After Vang settled in Minnesota with her child in 2007, Prataya allegedly continued to force her into sexual relations with him by seizing her immigration documents and threatening to take their baby away from her, according to the lawsuit. Their cultural marriage — one that isn’t legally recognized — wasn’t broken off until 2011, when Vang obtained a protective order against Prataya.

Now she’s suing him for $450,000, the minimum statutory damages under “Masha’s Law,” a federal law that provides for a civil remedy in the form of monetary compensation in child pornography, child sex tourism, child sex trafficking and other similar cases. Miller believes hers is the first case to use the law to recover monetary damages from child sex tourism — an illicit industry that has faced limited legal accountability due to the challenges of pursuing cases involving alleged wrongdoing that frequently occurs overseas.

Vang’s story — allegations of initial rape in Laos and a subsequent forced marriage in America — is familiar to many within Minnesota’s 90,000-strong Hmong population, the country’s second-largest after California’s. But she’s an outlier for choosing to speak out.

For years, neighborhood lore in Minnesota’s Hmong communities has recounted stories of girls who had been brought to America from Laos and other Asian countries to serve as “cultural brides” at the beck and call of older men who had already been married several times over. There are whispered tales of the abuse these women endure at the hands of their traditionally-minded husbands.

“I feel relatively comfortable saying that most of us are related to someone who has committed this act,” said Her, executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. She called these international abusive marriages the Hmong community’s “open secret.”

Local Hmong leaders, who are aware of the problem but at a loss for a solution, have told Her, “We shouldn’t talk about it out loud.” To do so would bring shame onto a community that’s still figuring out its place in America.

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When Vang entered her attorney Linda Miller’s office for the first time, she was in tears. Prataya had filed a custody action to take their child away from her. “She was frantic when I met her,” Miller said. “I had no idea that she was going to become so strong.” After Vang testified before U.S. District Judge Robert Kressel when Prataya sought to have the suit dismissed, Kressel stated that she was the most credible witness and noted, “It breaks my heart … to hear her describe the humiliation that she had suffered.”

When questioned about her age, Prataya expressed ambivalence, accorded to a transcript cited in the suit:

A: I wasn’t worried about anything.

Q: You weren’t worried about her age?

A: I was not worried.

Q: Why?

A: Because in the Hmong culture I mean, if the daughter is 12, 13, the mom and dad volunteer or they’re willing to give their daughters away to a man, doesn’t matter the age …

Q: Were you worried about the possibility that having sex with Panyia Vang was a crime?

A: I was not worried. Whatever I’m doing is right in Laos …

The subsection that Vang is suing under allows for the prosecution of any U.S. citizen who uses their passport to go to another country and rape a child, regardless of whether that was the original intention of their trip.

Miller expects U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen to decide on the case in the next few months. If the suit is successful, it will send a strong message to other Hmong American men who have participated in similar dealings.

“I’ve heard from these very men, ‘If there’s all sorts of laws about bringing in these underage girls, why hasn’t anyone gone to jail? Why hasn’t there been any coverage?'” Her said. “They wonder, ‘If there is a single law in the world that prohibits this from being done, why is everyone still doing it?'”

She hopes that the suit will change the community’s perception that cases like Vang’s can be kept in the shadows. And with proof that it’s possible to turn the table on abusers, perhaps other young women will be encouraged to let their voices be heard as well.

“There are so many Hmong American women who feel that this is just their lot in life,” Her said. “These women are suffering in silence.”