St. Paul is the center of Hmong-American culture in the way that Boston was home to first-generation Irish-Americans. So we feel tremors from the latest incident on the Lao-Thai border as if it happened in our own backyard.
The government of Thailand has uprooted 4,000 to 5,000 Hmong from a Thai refugee camp and sent them back to Laos. The diplomatic euphemism for such an act is "forced repatriation." The BBC reported that the Hmong arrived in Laos this week. Little is known of their fate.
The Hmong are the hill-dwelling tribal culture that saw it in their own interest to side with the U.S. in the Southeast Asian wars a half-century ago. In Laos, the Hmong joined the CIA-directed "Secret War" aimed at preventing a communist takeover and protecting U.S. troops fighting in the public war across the border in Vietnam.
Laos fell to the communists along with Vietnam and Cambodia in May 1975 and the Hmong began fleeing, usually via Thailand to the U.S. as refugees. St. Paul and the region became a national center of Hmong resettlement. While Hmong Americans prospered in Minnesota, those left behind in Laos faced terrible persecution and hardship at the hands of the victors.
Thailand, itself a poor country, was inundated with refugees after the war and understandably has wanted to move on. This latest action, affecting refugees living in Petchabun Province, has been denounced by the U.S. State Department, the U.N., European nations and human rights agencies.
Thailand argues that most of the Hmong are not war refugees but asylum-seekers who want a better life. The government of Laos says the Hmong will not face sanctions when they are returned.
There is no way to find out if either statement is true. On Monday, as the Thai army moved in on the camp, a local reporter, Doualy Xaykaothao, told National Public Radio that reporters were kept away from the camp as the operation took place. Doualy said independent observers have not been able to interview the Hmong to determine how many are war refugees who have a legitimate fear of returning.
And the Lao People's Democratic Republic is a rigid communist society that does not allow international observers. Its borders are closed — to its own citizens. It is impossible to find out what happened to Hmong people who have escaped from Laos and been "repatriated" in the past. Consider this report from Amnesty International, the human rights group, on a repatriation of 1,700 Hmong people from Thailand earlier this year.
"Many returnees went through a transit centre in the town of Paksan, Borikhamsay Province. According to state-controlled media, authorities 'educated' the returning Hmong in the ideology of the Communist Party. Many were resettled in the newly constructed Phalak village, Kasi District in Vientiane Province. Others were sent back to their home provinces. It was unclear whether the choice of resettlement site was voluntary. No independent monitoring was allowed."
In other words — who knows?
That is why state Sen. Mee Moua and state Rep. Cy Thao, Hmong-American St. Paulites who escaped Laos with their families after the war, are so concerned.
Moua said in a statement that "international law could not be clearer that the involuntary return of persons entitled to protection is inconsistent with precedents and international agreements established in the wake of World War II." She adds that "refugees and asylum-seekers cannot be forcibly returned to countries where they could face persecution and death." Thao told this newspaper: "I fear for political refugees the most.''
The U.S. cannot police every trouble spot. But it remains a beacon of freedom and can reflect this light on dark places on the planet. St. Paul is a city that was enriched by the diaspora of the Hmong and Lao people after the war. We join in the widespread international demand that Thailand and Laos open up this action to international monitors and allow eligible refugees to leave Laos peacefully.