U.S.-Laos Trade Splits Hmong Communities

By PHA LO Pacific News Service
Tuesday July 13, 2004

A series of violent attacks against Hmong leaders in Minnesota is drawing out of cultural and political isolation insular Hmong communities across America.  

Several arson attacks against Hmong homes and businesses and a drive-by shooting rocked the tight-knit Minnesota Hmong community in April. A Hmong police officer was arrested on May 10 in connection with the drive-by (no one was injured in the incident). Members of Lao Veterans, a St. Paul-based nonprofit run by and for former Hmong soldiers from Laos, believe the violence was triggered by the dispute over granting Normal Trade Relations (NTR) to Laos. Other Hmong leaders, such as Minnesota State Senator Mee Moua, are reluctant to make that link.  

Whatever the motivation for the crimes, Hmong leaders agree that creating dialogue between their communities and U.S. authorities can help prevent violence in the future. Moua says that even if the Hmong remain a subgroup, “we need to live very transparently and become part of America.”  

Bo Thao, executive director of Hmong National Development and a neutralist on the NTR issue, says she hopes this “isn’t the result of one group working to silence another.”  

A majority of Hmong does not know about or take a position on the NTR debate. But among those who follow the issue there are two sharply divided groups, according to SuabHmong Radio Host Victor Vaj of Milwaukee.  

Granting NTR to Laos would introduce handicraft products such as clothing, wicker baskets, and food to the United States and create jobs in Laos, according to Edward Gresser, an international trade researcher with the Progressive Policy Institute.  

But for Hmong in America, the debate has reopened longstanding emotional wounds. Opponents of NTR allege that human rights abuses will continue against family members in Laos if trade is normalized.  

“This is a passionate issue,” says Thao, who has not taken an official stand on the trade-status debate. “We have loved ones overseas, and this is our link to the past.”  

Hmong are a minority ethnic group that emigrated from Laos after the 1970s. During the Vietnam War, they were recruited and trained by the CIA to fight North Vietnamese and Lao-Communist forces. After the Communist party took over in Laos, a government-sponsored ethnic cleansing campaign drove Hmong out of their homes.  

Many came to the United States as refugees, leaving family behind in Laos. There are approximately 300,000 Hmong living in the United States today. Approximately 70,000 live in California, with a large concentration in the agricultural region around Fresno. A group of 15,000 more is set to resettle in America from a refugee camp in Thailand.  

Zong Khang Yang, who calls himself the “strongest opponent of NTR in the Twin Cities,” believes that granting normalized trade status would sanction continued human rights violations against Hmong in Laos. He is organizing a two-month long march from St. Paul, Minn., to Washington, D.C., to present the case that Hmong are still being persecuted. He says he will not “support the Communist Government in killing (his) people.”  

Gresser, who is not involved in the Hmong debate, says that although few Americans were in Laos to witness alleged human rights violations, “denying NTR to Laos would not reflect the reality that war is over.”  

Nara Sihavong, a member of a national coalition in support of granting trade status to Laos, says that what happens in the Hmong community has nothing to do with NTR. “It is internal struggles (over leadership),” he says. “What happens in that community stays there.”  

The Hmong community in America has historically maintained a tradition of clan leadership in which disputes are resolved internally. But that community is now working with cultural outsiders, including police. Hmong leaders say the level of violence is unprecedented. “We cannot fix this alone,” says Ying Vang, executive director of Lao Family Community of St. Paul, a nonprofit organization that was set on fire April 20.  

Bee Lor, who hosts a Hmong-language radio news program in Fresno, Calif., says that Hmong need to stop looking at their community as “us versus them.” Continuing internal divides will only “make Americans mock us,” Lor says.  

To uncover the motivations behind the attacks and find the perpetrators, the FBI and the St. Paul Police department are studying the history of an immigrant group little known to many Americans. “It’s difficult,” says Paul Schnell, a spokesman for the St. Paul Police Department. “I am learning as I go.”  

Police say that they are placing Hmong officers on the case to try and break down some of the cultural barriers. But with the arrest of Officer Tou Cha, Bee Lor of Fresno fears that a bad image of the Hmong people has already been created.  

Hmong leaders say the co-operation with authorities is encouraging, but not without risks. “It’s up to investigators to put effort into this,” Vang says. “But if they start to blame just one faction, it might create more (internal) tensions.”  


Pha Lo, 22, traveled to Asia in 2003 to research Hmong refugees.