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Laos-The Hmong

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The Hmong are one of the principal ethnic minorities inhabiting the higher elevations of Laos, living in mountain villages situated above 1,000 meters where they grow rice and corn using swidden (shifting, or slash-and-burn) agriculture, raise livestock, and grow opium as a cash crop. Several million Hmong also live in Thailand, Vietnam, and China (see Population , ch. 2). The Hmong traditionally have aggressively protected their independent lifestyle , and their independence has kept them at odds with the central government.

Throughout the twentieth century, the Hmong maintained their tradition of rebellion. In the 1920s, successful Hmong uprisings against the French colonial power in northeastern Laos led to negotiated settlements rather than defeat. The French colonial government later used the Hmong to help subjugate lowland Lao dissidents. In the mid-1960s, the United States, recognizing the Hmong's tenacious fighting ability and superior knowledge of mountainous terrain, employed them as irregular mercenary units against the Pathet Lao (see The "Secret War," ch. 1). Hmong forces, trained and supplied by the United States, fought alongside the Royal Lao Army and were used extensively in many of the most pitched battles of the Indochina wars. As a consequence, a disproportionate number of Hmong were wounded and/or died in combat (see Historical Background , this ch.).

After the disastrous defeat of two major Hmong armies in March and April 1975 at Sala Phou Khoun by North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao forces, the United States evacuated Vang Pao from Longtiang to Thailand on May 14, 1975. Thousands of his followers were left to their fate because the United States evacuation aircraft requested by Vang Pao did not materialize. The vast majority of Hmong who made it safely to Thailand did so on their own. This defeat left the Hmong who had not fled to Thailand in great disarray. One group of Hmong, after a long and dangerous march through hostile countryside, fled to Thailand, where 25,000 persons reached safety. But a larger group of some 60,000 persons retreated to the heights of the Phou Bia Massif south of the Plain of Jars, where they set up defensive positions. Aside from occasional harassing attacks by Pathet Lao forces, no serious attempt was made to interfere with the Hmong for more than a year after the communist takeover.

In 1977 Vietnamese troops backed by Soviet 130mm long-range artillery encircled and attacked the Hmong sanctuary in the Pho Bia Massif. Hmong defenses held and drove off the attackers. Later that same year, however, Vietnamese forces, unable to penetrate the Hmong ground defenses, began to overfly the redoubt, reportedly dropping napalm, gas, and a mycotoxin known as trichothecene, or "yellow rain," on Hmong villages (see Bilateral Relations , ch. 4). An unknown number of Hmong died, while others tried to escape into Thailand.

As a result of decades of warfare, dislocation, and a campaign mounted against them by Vietnamese and RLG forces in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Hmong population was reduced to approximately 200,000 in Laos and about the same number in Thailand in the early 1990s. From their sanctuary in Thailand, the Hmong continued their armed resistance efforts against the communists throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s. Many thousands of other Hmong, however, had sided with the Pathet Lao and were living peacefully in Laos, particularly in the northeastern provinces; others went to Thailand and then the United States. Nevertheless, by 1992, cross-border Hmong raids into Laos were reduced to little more than banditry--a casualty of wavering Thai support and apathy among the Hmong themselves.

In 1992 a major Hmong refuge, the Ban Vinai Hmong refugee camp in Thailand, was closed as part of a Thai effort to close all camps holding Laotian refugees. In late 1992, there were an estimated 30,000 Laotian refugees in Thailand, and about 1,700 in China. In March 1993, Thailand announced that it was closing two more refugee camps, one in Nakhon Phanom Province, the other in Phayao Province. These two camps held more than 27,000 Laotians, the majority of whom were Hmong. Although the government is making attempts to reintegrate the Hmong, the lack of resources limits these efforts. Continuing participation of Hmong in resistance activities poses no threat to the stability of the government of Laos, but it does complicate the repatriation process.

Data as of July 1994

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