General Vang Pao's Death and the Laotian Diaspora

General Vang Pao's Death and the Laotian Diaspora

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Fresno, Calif. – Most people received the grim news through a flurry of Facebook updates. For me, it was a text message from my teenage sister.

At 81 years of age, his sagging features and declining health made his passing inevitable. Everyone knew he was heading into his sunset years, but no one seemed ready to hear the news that the iconic Hmong leader and acclaimed war hero, General Vang Pao, had passed away of pneumonia on Thursday, Jan. 6th, 2011.

During the 1960s, the U.S. government recruited him to command guerrilla forces against communist Laos in a covert war in which tens of thousands of Hmong soldiers were killed and hundreds of thousands of civilians forced into exile. My uncles and grandfathers were among those soldiers who fought alongside Vang Pao.

Many in the Hmong community viewed him as a leader, but Vang Pao also represented for them their lost homeland. When his supporters saw him in public, they saw him not as an aging man in a three-piece suit but, rather, the young valiant war commander he once was. For them, he was the manifestation of a home they once knew and the memories of a life they once lived.

It comes as no surprise then that community members gathered to mourn his passing inside the small Clovis hospital where he died on a cold winter’s evening. On Facebook, dozens of young people posted condolences and humble thanks to the General for his leadership. That same night, someone even took the initiative to update his Wikipedia page.

From California to Minnesota to Wisconsin and other parts of the country, Hmong communities are grieving. In time, news of his death will make its way to Hmong villages and camps in Thailand, and to the jungles of Laos where many more will grieve.

For others in the community, Vang Pao’s passing marks an end to a contentious era. Despite galvanizing support among the masses, there were some who remained skeptical about his leadership perhaps due to his politics, his personal life, or the fallout from histories tied to Laos.

Yet whether a person admired him or held their reservations, there is no arguing the fact that he was one of the most prominent figures in Hmong modern history, essentially serving through the decades as the unelected leader of the global diaspora.

Many of us also recalled the arrest of Vang Pao and ten other men in 2007 as they were charged with attempting to overthrow the Lao government. Rally after rally, hundreds of his devout supporters participated in demonstrations here in Fresno and Sacramento. They put intense pressure on the US government to release Vang Pao, and put together 1.5 million dollar bail for him. In 2009, charges were dropped. He died of pneumonia after 10 days of hospitalization.

Thursday night, on the local Hmong radio station, where news of his death was announced over and over, many elders called in to share parting words. Some of them wept on the air.

I listened to a caller whose voice quivered as she recalled the infamous events of 1975, a year that still triggers dark memories for many elders in our community. It was in 1975 that the U.S. officially ended the failed war in Vietnam as the last evacuation helicopter departed Saigon. And in this same year, Vang Pao bid his final farewell to Laos. It must have been difficult for him to take one last look at his beloved homeland, the one he sacrificed so many lives for and fought tirelessly to save.

The caller on the radio show recalled how terrifying it was when a relative ran to her village to share the frantic news that the General had left Laos. At that moment, everyone realized it was no longer safe to stay and thus the exodus began. Everything, from their homes, to their farms, to their livestock, had to be left behind, and their lives would change forever. The country, as many Hmong people said, had imploded.

Although some stayed to continue fighting the communists on their own, I believe many chose to leave Laos not just because it was no longer safe but because they could not be without their revered General and there was no other option but to follow him to Thailand and then, later on, to the U.S.

Such devotion to one leader raises questions about the state of future leadership in the Hmong community. Although most have spent their time grieving, some have already begun to express concern over the chaos that could ensue if a struggle for power should occur. Yet in that same token, I have heard some elders say that Vang Pao is irreplaceable, and no one could possibly love and care for the Hmong people in the same way that he did.

I am hopeful that our community will find a way to move forward and heal. To ensure that Vang Pao’s passing does not happen in vain we must continue to tell the story of our community, of our history, and of our culture to the rest of the world.

In Hmong we say, “he has left us,” and will soon return to the place of his birth and ancestors. After 35 long years of being away, General Vang Pao will finally make the journey back home.

Mai Der Vang, is a commentator for NAM and lives in the greater Fresno, CA area where she directs a youth media program and works with the Hmong community.