Laos Hmong Insurgency
Laos is an ancient country, inhabited since Paleolithic times by an ever-shifting mix of Southeast Asian people and tribes. France had ruled the country beginning in the 19th century until 1954. At the very end of the Second World War, the King of Luang Prabang, under pressure from the Japanese occupation forces, had proclaimed its independence in 1945. From that later date until 1975, Laos shared in the confused and bloody conflict for power which raged throughout Indochina. On 2 December 1975, the monarchy was abolished and a People's Democratic Republic was proclaimed under the Lao Communist Party.
The new communist government imposed centralized economic decision-making and broad security measures, including control of the media and the arrest and incarceration of many members of the previous government and military in "re-education camps." These draconian policies and deteriorating economic conditions, along with government efforts to enforce political control, prompted an exodus of lowland Lao and ethnic Hmong from Laos. Over time, the Lao Government closed the re-education camps and released most political prisoners. By the end of 1999, more than 28,900 Hmong and lowland Lao had voluntarily repatriated to Laos.
Laos is a land of great ethnic and linguistic diversity engaged in trying to forge a cohesive nation. The LPDR (Lao People's Democratic Republic) was one of the world's poorest countries and faced daunting tasks in every field of economic development. Yet, for all its small population and fragile economy, its long history and deep Buddhist culture gave its people a quiet charm that surprised visitors.
Since 2000, there had been periodic attacks on markets, bus stations, all forms of ground transportation, border checkpoints and other public places. Since 2002, a series of attacks on buses by suspected insurgents and subsequent counterinsurgency operations by the military, had resulted in an unknown number of deaths of civilians and military forces. Many of these deaths occurred among the ethnic Hmong insurgents.
Less than half the population of the country was ethnic Lao, also called "lowland Lao." Most of the remainder, probably around 60 percent, was a mixture of at least 47 distinct upland hill tribes whose members, if born in the country, were citizens thereof. The Hmong were one of the largest and most prominent highland minority groups. There were a number of Hmong officials in the senior ranks of the Government and LPRP, including at least 5 members of the LPRP Central Committee.
Societal discrimination against the Hmong continues, and some Hmong believe their ethnic group cannot coexist with the ethnic Lao population. This belief had fanned separatist or irredentist beliefs among some Hmong. The Government focused some limited assistance projects in Hmong areas in order to address regional and ethnic disparities in income. The Government also provided for Hmong and Khmu language radio broadcasts.
There also remained some residual distrust between the authorities and the Hmong, because of the Hmong having made up a large portion of the so-called "Secret Army" in Laos during the 1960s and 1970s. This force, ostensibly organized, training, equipped, and paid for by the United States Central Intelligence Agency was a key component of covert activities against the North Vietnamese in Laos. The close cooperation between the Pathet Lao, who took control of the country in 1975, and the Vietnamese communists meant that the Hmong forces were also engaged against them. The Hmong alliance with the United States led to joint Lao-Vietnamese counterinsurgency operations against Hmong fighters in the late 1970s, during which there were numerous allegations of the use of chemical weapons.
For several years, the Government had a vaguely defined policy of giving resettlement assistance and "amnesty" to those insurgents who surrendered to authorities. At least partially in response to charges that it was trying to kill all insurgent elements, the Government used family members of insurgents still living in the forest and former insurgents to approach these groups to urge them to surrender to authorities. Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, small groups took up this offer and received small amounts of resettlement assistance from the Government, especially in Vientiane, Bolikhamsai, and Xieng Khouang Provinces and in the Saisomboun Special Zone.
In some areas, such as in Bolikhamsai, this amnesty program included job training, land, and equipment for farming. However, in some cases, this assistance was less than had been promised. Moreover, because of their past activities, amnestied insurgents continued to be the focus of government suspicion and scrutiny. The Government refused offers from the international community to assist these surrendered insurgents directly, but quietly allowed some aid from the UN and other international agencies to reach them as part of larger assistance programs.
In April 1999, 2 Hmong-Americans, Michael Vang and Houa Ly, disappeared along the northwestern Thai-Lao border. They might have been attempting to enter Laos illegally and were reportedly carrying large amounts of cash, in excess of $80,000, and were connected with insurgency activities. Two FBI delegations had visited Laos to investigate the case. The Lao government claimed to have no record of the 2 men entering the country.
In 2001 reports surfaced that coerced renunciations of faith by ethnic Hmong Protestants had occured in nearly every Lao province. Similarly government officials had repeatedly forced Christians from their homes for refusing to renounce their faith.
The increased number of attacks by Hmong insurgents against civilian and military targets, coupled with the outbreak of a localized uprising in Houaphanh Province in August 2003, heightened ethnic tensions and aroused the government leadership's suspicion of Hmong irredentist desires. These heightened security problems also resulted in increased efforts by security forces to eliminate scattered pockets of insurgents living in remote jungle areas.
In the aftermath of the alleged massacre of Hmong villagers in May 2004, the Government refused calls by the international community to conduct a full and transparent investigation. However, the Government did permit limited access by international organizations and NGOs to provide food assistance to former insurgents who had accepted government resettlement offers.
Between February 2003 and November 2004, small-scale bombings occurred throughout Laos. Between February 2003 and April 2004 armed attacks on buses and other vehicles on Route 13 (from Vang Vieng to Luang Prabang) and Route 7 (from the junction with Route 13 to Phonsavan) killed at least 12 persons. In addition, several incidents of small-scale clashes between suspected anti-government insurgents and Lao security forces occurred in the Route 13 corridor area in late 2003 and early 2004.
A wave of small-scale bombings that began in 2003 continued during 2004. Several small explosions in Vientiane and Savannakhet Cities caused some property damage and resulted in some injuries. One death, reportedly of an intending bomber, occurred when a bomb exploded prematurely. A group calling itself the Free Democratic Government Committee of the Lao People claimed responsibility for these explosions, which were apparently designed to attract international attention. Many of the explosions occurred at visible tourist sites and sometimes coincided with major festivals and events, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Tourism Forum in Vientiane in February 2004 and the ASEAN Summit in November 2004.
Several foreign journalists visited these groups during 2004, highlighting their plight in the international press. These press articles alleged that the groups continued to be pursued by government military forces, in spite of official government denials that it was engaged in any form of military action against its citizens. Video evidence and witness testimony of an attack by Lao soldiers against a group of unarmed ethnic Hmong youth added to the controversy.
After some attacks, the Lao Government had been known to shut down telecommunications and stop all transport on main roads for up to several days. Travelers were advised to comply with requests to stop at checkpoints and roadblocks.
In light of these incidents and threat information, the Department of State also recommended that US citizens traveling or residing in Laos exercise extreme caution in public places and be alert to their surroundings, since the locations of future incidents were unpredictable. In particular, the US Embassy did not recommend traveling by road between Vang Vieng and Luang Phrabang and on Route 7 from the Route 13 junction to Phonsavan town and in surrounding areas.
The Ministry of Public Security (MoPS) maintained internal security, but shared the function of state control with the Ministry of Defense's security forces and with party and popular fronts (broad-based organizations controlled by the LPRP). The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with MoPS support, was responsible for oversight of foreigners. The MoPS included local police, immigration police, security police (including border police), and other armed police units. Communication police were responsible for monitoring telephone and electronic communications.
The armed forces were responsible for external security, but also had domestic security responsibilities that included counterterrorism and counterinsurgency activities and control of an extensive system of village militias. The LPRP, and not the Government, exercised direct control of the security forces. This control was generally effective, but individuals and units within the security forces on occasion acted outside the LPRP's authority. Some members of the security forces committed serious human rights abuses.
Through 2004, Government's human rights record remained poor, and it continued to commit serious abuses. Citizens did not have the right to change their government. Members of the security forces abused detainees, especially those suspected of insurgent or anti-government activity. The Government continued to pursue remnant bands of insurgents, resulting in an unknown number of civilian and military casualties. Prisoners were sometimes abused and tortured and prison conditions were harsh and sometimes life threatening.
The Government promised insurgents who surrendered to authorities food, medicine, and resettlement assistance. In February and March 2004, between 700 and 800 insurgents and their families surrendered in Xieng Khouang, Vientiane, and Luang Prabang Provinces and the Saisomboun Special Zone. They were resettled in Luang Prabang Province and in a remote area of Xieng Khouang Province. Another small insurgent band surrendered in northern Vientiane Province in late September 2004. Government forces reportedly pursued those insurgent elements that did not surrender, and fighting between insurgents and Government security forces continued through the year. There were reports that insurgent bands in Xieng Khouang, Luang Prabang, and Bolikhamsai Provinces and in the Saisomboun Special Zone suffered numerous casualties. Many of these casualties were reportedly women and children.
In June 2005, 170 women, children and old men of the Hmong ethnic minority emerged from their jungle hideouts to surrender to the government as part of amnesty programs.
On 6 April 2006, an attack in Laos killed 26 Hmong civilians, mainly unarmed women and children. In June 2006 the US called on the Lao government to investigate the murder of the Hmong civilians amid allegations that Lao military forces had killed the group. In December 2006, more than 400 members of the Hmong hill tribe minority surrendered to Laotian authorities as part of an amnesty program.
On 4 June 2007 in California, 9 Hmong leaders, along with General Vang Pao, a former Laotian military general and one of the former leaders of the Secret Army in Laos, and Harrison Jack, a former officer in the California National Guard, were arrested during a sweep by more than 200 federal, state and local agents for their alleged plot, hatched in the winter of 2006, to overthrow the communist government of Laos. They were charged with violating the US federal Neutrality Act.
The arrests of the Hmong leaders effectively marked an end to any real chance of the Hmong insurgency to resurface. As more Hmong continued to turn themselves over to the authorities, estimates have put the remaining Hmong resistance at fewer than 5,000 persons. The Hmong fighters who remained in the hills were becoming increasingly malnourished, poor, and had few weapons and ammunition left to fight with. Laotian authorities expected that it was only a matter of time before all Hmong rebels turned themselves in.
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