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

Vang had more luck in building alliances with right-wing politicians from Orange County who wanted his help in proving that American soldiers who had been listed as "missing in action" during combat in Laos were still being held by the communists. Shortly after arriving in Orange County, Vang hooked up with Republican Congressman Robert K. Dornan, the politician most closely aligned with the POW-MIA movement.

Dornan's interest in Laos seems to have stemmed from the death of his "best friend in the Air Force," David Hrdlicka, an American pilot shot down over Laos in 1965 who was initially listed as missing. U.S. intelligence reports later revealed Hrdlicka had been captured by Pathet Lao guerrillas and imprisoned in a camp, where he died of natural causes before being buried near a cave that was obliterated in an American B-52 bombing raid. But Dornan was convinced Hrdlicka and other Americans were still languishing in communist tiger cages.

In 1982, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that two groups of U.S.-backed Hmong rebels in Laos "loyal to General Vang Pao" were "searching part of Laos for evidence of Americans left behind at the end of the Vietnam War." Dornan told the newspaper that "a top Defense Intelligence Agency official confirmed he had knowledge of the reconnaissance sweeps during a closed-door congressional hearing." Nothing came of the venture. Although the U.S. Defense Department has investigated tens of thousands of reported sightings, no live American serviceman has ever been found in Laos or elsewhere in Southeast Asia after the war's end.

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

Dornan left office in 1996 after losing his seat to Democrat Loretta Sanchez. But another Orange County Republican, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, also maintained close ties to Vang and the Hmong resistance. Rohrabacher did not respond to an interview request for this story, but in 1997, he and several other Republican congressmen formally protested a U.S. State Department report that claimed to find no evidence of the use of chemical weapons on or torture or murder of Hmong villagers by the Laotian government.

A July 2001 article in Foreign Policy in Focus also tied Rohrabacher to Vang, who, it noted, had been connected to several efforts to smuggle weapons across the border from Thailand to Hmong rebels in Laos in the late 1990s and that Vang's nephew had disappeared during one such operation. "Following this still-unresolved incident, supporters of Hmong-American groups formed the U.S. Congressional Forum on Laos, which has held a series of closed-door, secretive meetings on Capitol Hill beginning in 1999," the magazine reported. "This group has no formal link to the U.S. government but has gained support from members of Congress, including . . . Dana Rohrabacher."

Vang Pao's relationship with Rohrabacher, who once shouted, "Free Laos! Free Laos!" during a Capitol Hill reception for Vang and other uniformed Hmong resistance leaders, is especially noteworthy given the evidence that has already emerged that Vang and his fellow coup plotters apparently believed they had U.S. government backing. A government affidavit filed in the case notes that the plotters claim they had consulted about their plot with an unnamed "CIA guy" as well as a "congressman."

Justice Department spokesperson Rosemary Shaul refused to comment on whether her agency was investigating the identity of the mystery politician, but Rohrabacher was quick to deny it was him, adding that he hadn't spoken with Vang or any other Hmong leaders for some time. "A year and a half ago or so, I remember—maybe two years ago—there were a couple of guys in my office talking about Laos," he told an AP reporter a day after Vang's arrest. "I don't know if they were with this group or not."

But Rohrabacher was just as eager to defend Vang's plot. "I don't think that's anything that should worry Americans, that some people who believe in democracy are trying to overthrow a dictatorship in their homeland," Rohrabacher said. "This seems to be a situation where they're targeted because they are engaged in an effort to forcefully bring down the Laotian dictatorship. . . . No one is suggesting they should be able to break our laws, but at the same time, they shouldn't be targeted and intentionally brought down."

Mark Reichel, a Sacramento-based defense attorney for alleged coup plotter Lo Cha Thao, claims he will prove the CIA knew about the plot all along. "There is no dispute that the CIA knows about these insurgents, and I'd like to know whether or not this [operation] was cleared," Reichel said. "These guys have been bragging for the past 25 years that they have ties to the CIA. They openly brag about it. There are Hmong conventions all over the U.S., and they bring out generals and go to Congress, and their sole existence is to overthrow the Laotian government."

Vang Pao's arrest has already unified the notoriously fractious Hmong, many of whom resented him for raising millions of dollars to overthrow the Laotian government without producing any results. They feel that his arrest is the final slap in the face to the Hmong people. "America should have rescued these helpless freedom fighters in the deep jungles of Laos a long time ago," observed one Hmong-American. "They're hunted like animals without any support from their former American allies. Right now, the American people view these freedom fighters as terrorists, not knowing what mess they have caused 30 years ago. . . . General Vang Pao is man of honor and peace."

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