Monday, July 16, 2007

Lao Coup Loses the Plot

Old tank, probably left over from the 1987 border war with Thailand, in a school yard in the southern town of Savannakhet.

General Vang Pao, the revered leader for many of Laos’ ethnic Hmong, and 10 other defendants who were charged with conspiring to overthrow the Lao government were freed on bail in the US on Saturday. General Vang and his fellow conspirators are now confined to their homes awaiting a trial that will not just prove their guilt or innocence but is revealing how America’s Secret War in Laos is still affecting the Hmong today.

Parts of the conspirators plot even sound a little familiar to events in Laos over 30 years ago.

The plan, if successful, would have seen arms acquired in the United States going to Hmong ‘freedom fighters’ struggle against communists in Laos. Court documents even suggest that some of the would-be coup makers believed that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “was preparing to assist the Hmong insurgency once the takeover began.”

The U.S. based revolutionaries had been seeking to purchase military hardware, ranging from Ak-47 and M-16 assault rifles to claymore mines and stinger missiles, which would be shipped to remote locations in Laos and Thailand for a broad based uprising against the government.

But the Secret War style plot came to an end when the arms dealer was, in fact, an undercover agent with the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). The plotters were the subject of an elaborate sting operation and are now facing a variety of serious charges including conspiracy to violate the US neutrality act and conspiracy to possess missile systems. Charges that could lead to life sentences for those accused.

The Sacramento District Court indictment against the defendants claims that Laos “is a sovereign nation with which the United States has been at peace at all times relevant to this indictment.” And herein lays the unfortunate irony of the defendants’ position. What made General Vang a heroic ally of the United States 30 years ago now makes him a criminal.

Although the court does not see history as relevant to the legal proceedings, the complicated relationship between the Hmong and the United States it is important in understanding why a band of aging rebels didn’t seem to be overly concerned with the legal consequences of a large scale arms purchase and talk of overthrowing a foreign government.

Since the US retreat from Vietnam in 1973 history has judged the war as both a geopolitical and human disaster. Although the North Vietnamese technically won, the human cost was nothing short of profound. In Cambodia, the neighbouring war spilled over creating a fettered breeding ground for an ideological sickness that lead to a horrifying genocide by Khmer Rouge cadres.

In Laos, American’s pursuit of North Vietnamese troops using the so-called Ho Chi Minh trail, inspired a robust and morally questionable bombing campaign. Approximately two million tons of bombs transformed the neutral country into a pockmarked ruin that can make the unfortunate claim of being the most heavily bombed nation on earth.

And then there is the history of General Vang and a 30,000 strong secret army. The CIA had raised and equipped the army, comprised mostly of ethnic Hmong, to fight a brutal war in the jungle against the North Vietnamese and Laotian communists known as the Pathet Lao.

General Vang, whose bravery during the war is often talked about in near legendary terms, and the Hmong army greatly assisted America’s war effort. Although the exact numbers are not known it is estimated that at least half of the Hmong army were killed while fighting in American service.

When America retreated from Indochina in 1973, support for the secret army came to a close and America’s Hmong allies were left to an uncertain fate. Abandoning the Hmong has been the source of a fierce moral debate because, unlike the American’s who could return home, many Hmong would become permanently displaced.

When the Pathet Lao took over Laos in 1975 the Hmong that sided with the Americans during the war were viewed as traitors by the new communist government. The lucky ones, like General Vang, were flown out of Laos and settled in the United States.

The unlucky ones, about 200,000, fled across the Mekong River to refugee camps in Thailand. While most were eventually settled in the US thousands still remain in Thai refugee camps today.

Human rights organizations, like Forum-Asia, have repeatedly warned that Thailand “disrespects the principle of non-refoulment and protection of asylum seekers” and has been forcibly repatriating the Hmong to Laos. Unconfirmed, yet persistent, reports of refugees arrest, disappearance, and murder at the hands of the Lao government have been an ugly characteristic dogging the controversial repatriations.

Even more unlucky were the Hmong who sided with the Americans yet remained in Laos after the communist takeover. Thousands disappeared into re-education camps or back into the jungle where they have kept a low level and increasingly bleak insurgency against the government that continues today.

Although media access is severely restricted in Laos a few journalists have made the risky journey to meet the remaining fighters and their reports create a tragic picture of an intractable conflict. Roger Arnold, a photographer who witnessed the Hmong insurgent’s plight first-hand in 2006, says that the Hmong fighters “are caught in a difficult situation; if they surrender they are likely arrested or worse, if they flee to Thailand they will just get deported.”

Back in the United States, the court has dismissed the history between the Hmong and the United States but it is certainly important in understanding why dreams of overthrowing the Lao government remain.

There is little doubt that many American based Hmong have supported the insurgency in Laos but it is certainly not a unified effort by the whole community and is certainly not without controversy.

For those that support the coup d’etat or the insurgents, the struggle to liberate Laos and the Hmong is a noble cause. Long running rumours of human rights violations in Laos – torture, rape, summary executions, and even chemical weapon use – as well as Thailand’s repatriation of Hmong refugees must provide ample justification to prolong the fight.

Yet continuing the struggle is a catch-22. As long as overseas Hmong continue to dream of revolution and provide material or moral support for their long-suffering brothers in the jungles there will always be a barrier between the Hmong and the Lao government.

Human rights organizations have already begun warning that the coup plot could inspire a violent crack down on Hmong in Laos. Although many Hmong did not side with the Americans during the war and have been active members in the Lao government and business community such coup plots cast a dark shadow of suspicion over the whole Hmong community.

Yet the coup shadow is not just cast over the Hmong in Laos but over the Hmong refugee camps in Thailand and over the Hmong community in the United States. Thailand has already announced a new round of forced repatriations of Hmong refugees and many Hmong-Americans have been trying to remind the public of the positive contributions their community makes to America.

Looking at the details of the actual coup plot there are serious doubts about the ability of the aging rebels to carry out their plan. Although the ATF agent’s sworn affidavit testifies to the legitimacy and determination of the defendants the court’s evidence is less than convincing.

Government Exhibit 1 is a “comprehensive plan of action” authored by one of the defendants and details how the alleged coup was to unfold. Yet the plan, unfortunately titled “Operation Popcorn” – POPCORN is an acronym for Political Opposition Party’s Coup Operation to Rescue the Nation – reads more like a badly written action movie than serious plot for revolution.

In essence, the plan envisioned a small force slipping across the border from Thailand to deliver a quick and fatal blow to the government in Vientiane. At the same time, Hmong in the highlands would descend from their mountain hideouts and take control over the provincial capitals.

But the plan contains almost comical errors under examination.

For example, to “bring down the power leaders” the plan assigns 50 so-called “rangers” at five “rangers” per target. Yet the to neutralize all the targets listed – “communist politburo members, President, Prime Minister and top levels of government officials,” “Defence Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Interior and other cabinet members,” “Chief of police, commanders of security force, special forces, etc” – clearly requires more rangers than the plan allocates.

Even rounding up all 12 members of the small communist politburo, even if the coup makers had the necessary detailed travel schedules, home and work addresses, as well as physical descriptions, would require 60 rangers and presumably would not be a simple task.

Yet the most questionable element of the plot is the assumption that the Lao government would easily fold under attack and that the majority of the population is already at the brink of revolt. “75% - 80% (of citizens are) ready to rise up” claims Operation Popcorn.

Grant Evans, a senior lecturer at the University of Hong Kong and author of numerous books on Laos, says that the plot “is total fantasy.
Laos is as stable as it has ever been. There is zero support for any coup.”

Even General Vang’s defence attorney,
John Keker, argued the ‘fantasy’ angle at the bail hearing. The attorney has pointed out that the plot was “lacking any realistic planning, money or support" and questioned the role of the government’s ATF agent in helping create the plot for the Hmong.

Whether or not the coup plot is viable or simply the work of daydreaming generals might not be the most important question raised by the court case. What might be more relevant is the direction that Hmong in Laos, Thailand, and the United States are heading.

It seems clear that General Vang and his band of would-be-rebels remain firmly anchored in the past. Their direction forward is an increasingly anachronistic return to the past in an effort to heal the damage inflicted on the Hmong during the Secret War.

Yet who the Hmong were and what was happening in Laos 30 years ago is not the same today. Many of the younger generation of Hmong-Americans have little to no memory of the war and General Vang’s politics hold little relevance to them.

The Cold War ideology that had divided the world and was violently fought over in Laos has also changed. And it is specifically this change that seems lost on the coup plot.

While some might view the arrest and upcoming trial of General Vang as another betrayal of the Hmong there will also be many who will question whether Secret War logic has any place in Hmong’s future.