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

His father, Chi concedes, has publicly supported Hmong rebels who have continued to fight against the Laotian government after Vang left the country. A female family member standing nearby passes over a DVD called Starvation or Surrender, which includes footage smuggled out of Laos showing dead and wounded Hmong villagers allegedly targeted by Laotian government forces, as well as of half-starved columns of refugees marching out of the jungle to surrender. These are the people, the woman explains, that Vang Pao has always tried to liberate. "They are all dead now," she says. "The Lao government kills these people. Vang Pao is a friend of America. His people died for America—they sacrifice everything. Now we don't know why America has done this to us."

Chi denies that the rebels have any connection to his father, but he acknowledges that they look up to him. "They see my father as a beacon of hope, and that is what my father is doing: voicing their concern to the world," he says. But Chi points out that his dad has also supported peaceful dialogue. "The U.S. government itself has recognized my father's peaceful stance when he publicly announced he has no violent intentions to overthrow the Laotian government, which is impossible anyways," he says. "My father is a smart guy. The U.S. government just assumed he was the ringleader in this [plot], but there are lots of things going on around my father that he doesn't know about."

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

Whatever the facts of Vang's involvement, his arrest represents the death of his decades-long dream of returning to Laos and a surprising twist of fate for a man who was once the most fearsome and effective U.S. ally in the Vietnam War. Born in December 1929 as the scion of an influential Hmong clan in the central Laotian province of Xieng Khouang, Vang came of age during World War II, at which time most Hmong were still living a stone-age existence with no written language. He fought against the Japanese, who had invaded Laos, then part of the French colonial Indochina—while still a teenager.

Immediately after the war, when the French re-occupied Laos, Vang attended colonial military school and quickly rose through the ranks. A staunch anti-communist, he eagerly joined the French in their unsuccessful campaign against the communist Viet Minh in neighboring Vietnam. In 1954, France granted autonomy to Laos, which became a constitutional monarchy, and Vang became an officer in the newly created Royal Lao Army. He became the country's first Hmong general in 1964.

By then, the CIA had already recruited Vang to help lead a so-called "Secret Army" in Laos against the communist Pathet Lao guerrillas and their North Vietnamese allies, who were using Laos to transfer soldiers and weapons into South Vietnam. Although Laos was supposedly a neutral nation where U.S. soldiers were prohibited from fighting, American involvement there was a secret only from the U.S. Congress and the American public. To the average Laotian, it was pretty obvious the Americans were around. From 1965 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more bombs there than on any other country in history, resulting in the estimated deaths of 250,000 Laotians.

Meanwhile, Vang led tens of thousands of Hmong militiamen in a campaign to wipe out the Pathet Lao, harass travelers of the Ho Chi Minh trail, and help rescue any American pilots who were shot down while bombing it. By all accounts, Vang was a brilliant tactician who ruthlessly engaged a numerically larger and better-equipped enemy. But by 1968, the North Vietnamese Army had effectively destroyed the Royal Lao Army, leaving only Vang and his diminishing Hmong militia to fight. Their only support came from Air America, the CIA-run airline that helped transport and supply Vang and his lieutenants, and American bombing, which reduced much of Laos to a moon-like landscape of craters. By 1971, most Hmong had fled the mountains and were living in lowland refugee camps.

In the early 1970s, allegations began to surface—from Hmong villagers, Air America pilots, U.S. advisers in Laos, even French and American narcotics reports—that Vang was involved in the local heroin trade. In his 1972 book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, Alfred McCoy, now a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, cites interviews with federal narcotics agents who claimed Vang "was operating a heroin factory at the CIA's Long Tieng [Cheng] headquarters" and who considered Vang and other Secret Army officials "the leading heroin dealers" in Laos. "Vang Pao relied on air transport to deliver his people for slaughter in the CIA's secret war," McCoy wrote. "And the agency in turn did not object when his officers used Air America to transport the Hmong opium crop."

In a recent interview, McCoy said he first came across evidence of Vang's heroin ties in August 1971, when he was conducting field research in central Laos, touring Hmong villages that had broken with Vang over his desire to recruit their children into his militia. As in most Hmong villages, their primary cash crop consisted of poppies, which the villagers told McCoy they harvested and then transported for processing by Vang's network. "Vang Pao, through his relationship and alliance with the CIA and Air America, gained an economic stranglehold over every Hmong household, transporting this scattered group of villages and clan networks into a single force," McCoy said. "It was a small but politically significant part of the Golden Triangle because it involved a covert CIA operation."

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