Dec 05, 2017

Hmong: Hmong People Under Threat

The Hmong minority living in the Laotian jungle continues to face grave threats by the State’s military forces. Today, despite international criticism, several communities continue to be surrounded by armed forces that bar them access to food and other resources.  The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) stresses the inaccessibility to humanitarian aid for populations in the jungle areas and the impossibility for them to access information . The UNPO calls upon the international community to take action in order to enforce the respect for the rights of these populations.

Below is an article from RFI: 

Deep in the jungle in Laos, a small group of people tries to survive against all odds. Surrounded by Lao military camps, men, women and children keep themselves alive by eating roots and leaves and an occasional gibbon. They live in makeshift tents and are always on the move. Recently the shelling has intensified. But their calls for help fall on deaf ears.

“There is more heavy artillery, they are launching 60mm and 80 mm rounds. It becomes very difficult to find food in the area.” This was the last update from Chong Lor Her, the leader of the Hmong Chaofa group that hides in the jungle in Xaishumboun Province, east of Vientiane.

Her, nicknamed the “president”, sent his message by satellite phone, on November 23. It was translated by a US group sympathetic to him and forwarded to RFI.Chong Lor Her is the last of the Hmong fighters who was part of the CIA’s clandestine army that fought a secret war against Vietnamese and Laotian communists in the 1970s and are still fighting on the ground. His companions in arms were all born in the jungle.

When the Americans left Indochina in 1975, they airlifted out some of the Hmong, a minority people with their own distinctive language and habits whom the CIA recruited because of their hatred of the communists.

But they left tens of thousands behind. Many of those walked through the jungle and reached refugee camps at the Thai border, from where the Hmong diaspora spread into France, French Guiana and the US, where they struggled to start a new life.

But some stayed behind, continuing their war against the communist Pathet Lao, that had taken over the government of Laos.

Over the decades, their numbers have dwindled.

“They are constantly fleeing persecution by the Lao military and a lot of them just have been killed,” says Marvin Kumetat, a project coordinator with the Brussels-based Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organisation (UNPO) that raises awareness for the group.


Photo Courtesy of RFI

Kumetat estimates that there are 2-3,000 Hmong in 10 different groups hiding in the jungle, cut off from the outside world.

“No government personnel, journalists, humanitarian groups can go inside this region,” says Kumetat.Some try, but at great risk. In 2003, French cameraman Vincent Reynaud and Belgian photographer Thierry Falise together with their interpreter, Hmong American pastor Naw Karl Mua, managed to reach the Hmong hideouts.

But they were arrested by the Lao military when they tried to leave, grilled for days, and then sentenced to 15 years in connection with their alleged involvement in the killing of a local militia member. Following protests by their governments, they were released after 35 days.

Other journalists, including BBC producer Ruhi Hamid and her husband Misha Maltzev, have managed to visit some of the groups.

Hamid testified for the European Parliament’s subcommittee on Human Rights in 2004, saying that Hmong they met “had no significant military capacity and so pose no real threat to the government forces”.

A handful of other journalists who managed to make the illegal trek to the Hmong jungle outlets reported dire situations, where people were deprived from medical care, lacked basic supplies but were scared to surrender, afraid to be either “disappeared” or sent to a “reeducation camp.”

The only lifeline to the outside world is a clandestine network called “the Blackbirds” that cross the Mekong River illegally from Thailand and provides the Hmong with satellite phones, watches and other equipment.

The last Western journalist to visit the region, Spanish documentary maker David Bariain, walked six days through the dense vegetation of the Laotian jungle to reach the camp of the Hmong Chaofa.

They are possibly the last group to continue some sort of resistance to the government and even cherish hopes of establishing an independent state.

 “It was one of the toughest experiences I had in my whole life,” says Bariain, contacted by RFI.

He visited the Hmong Chaofa stronghold in September 2015.

“It was like getting into a scene from Apocalypse Now,” he says. “This guy [Chong Lor Her] was really something, coming from another era. But I couldn’t help thinking: 'When he took over the movement there were 10.000 people, now there are 100.' I asked him: 'What’s the point?' and he said, 'There is no other way, we just have to fight'.”

His documentary on the Hmong, part of the Clandestino series aired by the Spanish version of Discovery Channel in 2016, shows a small and desperate group of people. Many of them have scars of bullet wounds, sometimes with bullets still under their skin.

“Most of these kids have bullet injuries," says Bairian, describing children as young as three years old. “It proves this is a continuing process, a continuing offensive.

“I just don’t know why the Laotian army still cares about such a small and powerless group. But they do and I noticed that they are hard-core fighters and able to ambush the army from time to time. They are still effective. That’s what they have done for their whole life.”

The Lao government consistently denies that there is any form of “armed resistance” residing in the jungle.But an operating order Lao People’s Army No 131, dated 3 May 2005 and attributed to the Laotian army, may shed some light on the matter.

Published by the Salem Post, which is based in Minneapolis, home to many of the Hmong diaspora, in 2010 its authenticity cannot be independently verified.

The order says that the Hmong hiding in the jungle “must be terminated prior to 2015-2020 from Laos. The CIA Hmong together with their offspring forgotten by the Americans shall be wiped out immediately.

“Then, after 2020, no one of them will be alive nor the secret war fighting. Therefore, I command to the all of our parties in Luang Phrabang Provinces that we must conduct this order from now on."

It is signed by “Kham Onh Chittamee of the coordinating Regiment of Luang Phrabang”.

Chong Lor Her reports an increase in military attacks over the last few months, while Barain witnessed military bases appatently closing in on the group.

Attempts by Hmong lving abroad and concerned human rights organisations to change the situation have not had much effect.

The Minneapolis-based Congress of Hmong World People (CHWP), which is made up of veteran Hmong CIA draftees now living in the US, tries to raise awareness with advocacy campaigns and open letters but without much response.

"Some governments condemned the Lao Government," says James Her, CHWP president, who accompanied Bariain on his reporting trip.

An explanation for the lacklustre repsonse is the lack of concrete evidence.

“The only proof we have is just being in communication with the people on the ground,” says Kumetat of the UNPO.

“We have no access to those areas in central Laos and so no way to verify any of the stories the Hmong are telling you,” adds Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, in an email.

The few requests that were made by the EU and the UN to send observers, are categorically refused by Vientiane.

During the last Universal Periodic Review, a UN mechanism that addresses human rights issues, 198 recommendations were made. When Bariain asked the head of the Indigenous Peoples and Minorities section of the Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights(OHCHR), Antti Korkeakivi, if they had “fixed the situation” the answer was a succinct “No.”

If the Laotian government continues to bar all official access, soon there may be no one left to tell the tale.

“Many people surrender,” says James Her. “Many people dissapear and many get killed. It's getting worse."