The General's Last Stand

Vang Pao devoted his life to fighting communism in Laos—until his onetime ally, the U.S. government, arrested him

Even though he's 22 years old, Chi Vang looks like your typical Orange County teenager. On a hot day in late June, he sits quietly on the couch inside the living room of his childhood home, a modest two-story stucco house in a Westminster cul-de-sac bordered by a small park with a swing set and jungle gym. He's wearing a Billabong T-shirt, shorts and a sober expression. He's surrounded by portraits of his father. The more recent photographs show an elderly man in a business suit; the older ones depict a fierce-looking warrior decked out in the white uniform of the now-defunct Royal Lao Army.

The person in the portraits is Chi's father, Vang Pao, now 77, a former Royal Lao Army General and the leader of the CIA's so-called Secret Army during the Vietnam War. Back then, Vang Pao was the most powerful man in Laos. For more than a decade, he helped the CIA secretly wage war against the communist Pathet Lao guerrillas and the North Vietnamese Army, which infiltrated Laos to move troops and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the battlegrounds of South Vietnam. Vang also used his position to help rescue hundreds of American pilots who were shot down over Laos.

When the U.S. pulled out of Laos and South Vietnam in 1973, after dropping tens of millions of tons of bombs on both nations, Vang continued to fight the war on communism in Southeast Asia. He kept fighting until 1975, when he and what was left of his Secret Army fled for refugee camps in Thailand. To the estimated 250,000 Hmong who followed Vang to America—most of them were resettled in California's Central Valley, Wisconsin and Minnesota—Vang is a hero. They call him "Our General" and "Our Father."

Chi Vang and Dad. Photo by Nick Schou
Chi Vang and Dad. Photo by Nick Schou

Vang Pao isn't home, but evidence of his prominence in the family household is everywhere. On the coffee table is a spread of Vietnamese sodas and snacks, a testament to the steady stream of visitors who have been stopping by during the past few weeks, ever since Chi's father was arrested by federal agents in Sacramento on June 4, charged with plotting to overthrow the Laotian government. After a few weeks in a federal holding cell, Vang had to be rushed to the hospital for chest pains on June 22. The Vang family's telephone has been ringing off the hook since then.

"He's better now," Chi says. "He's had bypass surgery before, though, so people are worried. We've been receiving lots of phone calls and letters."

Chi seems less worried about his father's health than his legal future. Dubbed Operation Popcorn—the latter word is an acronym for Political Opposition Party's Coup Operation to Rescue the Nation—the plot Vang allegedly led involved the secret purchase of millions of dollars' worth of AK-47s, C-4 explosives and Stinger missiles. Along with hundreds of American mercenaries, the weapons would be smuggled from Thailand to Hmong insurgents still in Laos, who have for decades been skirmishing with the Laotian military.

According to the federal government's criminal complaint against the participants, government buildings would quickly topple in massive explosions that would "look like the results of the attack upon the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001." Military aircraft would fall out of the sky after being struck with missiles, and any Laotian officials whom the plotters could not "neutralize" would be subject to "in-house arrests or assassination."

If convicted, Vang faces a possible sentence of life in prison. Thousands of Hmong gathered in Sacramento to protest his arrest, many of them chanting, "Free Vang Pao!" and charging the U.S. government with betraying Vang, who has for decades openly advocated a violent overthrow of the Laotian government. As recently as February 2007, the New Republic quoted Vang bragging that he would pull off a coup in Laos sometime this year. "The U.S. has better rifles, better guns than the communists," Vang said. "If they give me the guns, I can conquer Laos in 2007. I still believe I can do it." Despite this, Vang's lawyer, John Balazs, quickly released a statement declaring Vang's innocence. "General Vang Pao stands wrongly accused of the criminal charges against him," Balazs asserted. "We look forward to a trial where we can demonstrate General Pao's [sic] innocence of all charges."

On June 18, the Los Angeles Timespublished an opinion piece by Jeffrey Brody, a Cal State Fullerton professor, denouncing the government's arrest of Vang as "a final, contemptible act of betrayal." In an interview with the Weekly, Brody calls Vang's arrest "bizarre and hypocritical," adding that he interviewed Vang Pao about his plans to liberate Laos when Brody was an Orange County Register reporter in the early 1980s.

"The U.S. government has been aware of his activities," Brody says. "Vang Pao has been open and active about it. I've been at the rallies and spoken to him about it. It's the dream of exiles to reconquer their homeland. A lot of people in the Hmong community doubted his sincerity and wondered where the funds were going. Now he's a martyr."

Chi Vang has become something of a family spokesperson for reporters covering his father's arrest. He comfortably fields questions about the evidence against his father, adding that talk of a presidential pardon is premature. "This was a six-month-long investigation, and my father's name only came up once," he says. "He had only one meeting with the other people named in this case. That doesn't sound like much evidence for a six-month investigation. We are waiting for the facts to emerge."

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