By María Carmen Martín
Among the silent ongoing conflicts in Southeast Asia, the Hmong problem in Laos remains as one of the longest unsolved crises in the region. This ethnic has been persecuted by the government of Laos since 1975, when they were publicly signaled as traitors due to their support to the American troops during the Vietnam War. As a result, over 17,000 members of the secret Hmong army and 50,000 civilians have been slaughtered by the Laotian government in successive ethnic cleansing campaigns. Despite the magnitude of the bloodshed, the international community has not found a solution to the Hmong problem, and today many members of this ethnic are still struggling against governmental persecution.
COMMUNISM AND THE IDEOLOGICAL ROOTS OF THE PROBLEM
The origin of the conflict is rooted in the foundation of the modern state of Laos. This country, formerly known as the kingdom of Siam, was one of the crowning jewels of the French Empire in the region of Indochina, given its neighboring position with the British-controlled Thailand and the hegemonic China. Therefore, Siam behaved as a buffer territory which helped to reinforce the French presence in this geostrategic region.
In the advent of the Second World War the occupying Japanese forces obliged the King of Siam to declare the country´s independence. The new state would be renamed as the Kingdom of Laos and governed by the Lao Issara, the country´s first communist party. Despite this coup d’état, the French did not withdraw from Laos, and awaited the end of the Global war to overthrow the communist government and reassert control over the country.
Nonetheless, the French feared that a potential turmoil in Laos could spread across the neighboring provinces of Vietnam or ultimately result in a contend against Thailand, which had shown its support to the Lao Issara. Thereby, it was determined that the newly born state of Laos could partially keep its sovereignty if it remained under the supervision of the French Administration. Thus, in the 1953 Treaty of Amity and Association, both countries agreed that Laos would still belong to the French Union under the form of a quasi-independent constitutional monarchy. This Partnership would last until the defeat of French forces in the Vietnamese-French war, which would ultimately result in the dissolution of the French Union in Southeast Asia in 1955.
THE VIETNAM WAR AND THE HMONG ETHNIC
Following the end of the French dominance over the country, Laos became immersed in a civil- war that confronted partisans of the traditional royal family and the supporters of a republican and neutralist Laos. Profiting from this inner conflict, the neighboring Vietnam invaded the country, displacing the northern front of the Vietnamese War against the Americans. Therefore, Laos unintentionally became involved in a two-headed conflict, which lasted until 1975.
During those years, the influence of Vietnamese forces resulted in the creation of the Pathet Lao movement. This communist party joined the Vietnamese cause and became an additional headache to the American Army. Given the scarcity of American troops deployed in Laos and fearing of the potential consolidation of another communist state, Americans decided to train the Laotian ethnic of the Hmong to help them combat the Pathet Lao, creating a proxy army that was known as the “Secret Laotian unit”.
However, when Americans were defeated and forced to withdraw their troops from Vietnam and Laos, the new Pathet Lao administration signaled the Hmong people as traitors and announced that they would be “exterminated to the last root”. (Perrin, 2003) As a result, over 40,000 Hmong fled the country in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Nonetheless, it is esteemed that over 100,000 people died while trying to reach Thailand, either assassinated or drawn in the Mekong River.
However, Hmong people have not found shelter in Thailand, as the central government has been accused of massively deporting Hmong refugees back to Laos. In 2008, Human Rights Watch denounced the deportation of over 5,000 people, following an agreement between the governments of both countries. (Wheat, 2010) Unfortunately, what awaits those asylum seekers once they return to Laos ranges from incarceration to disappearance.
Almost 40 years after the beginning of this ethnic cleansing, the persecution of the Hmong is still one of the secret ongoing tragedies of Southeast Asia. Even though the American Administration officially acknowledged the dimensions of this humanitarian crisis in 2002, the former ally of the Hmong ethnic has commanded few initiatives to ensure the protection of this community. Only some advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch have raised their voice on behalf of the Hmong people, aiming to draw international attention over this seemingly forgotten humanitarian crisis.
María Carmen Martín is a fifth year student at the University Pontificia de Comillas where she studies Business Administration and International Relations.
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Hamilton-Merritt, J. (1993). Tragic mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the secret wars for Laos, 1942-1992. Indiana University Press.
Quincy, K. (1988). Hmong: History of a people. Eastern Washington Univ Press.
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Wheat, H. P. C. S. (2010). The Hmong and America’s Secret War in Laos. Seattle: University of Washington Press.