They drove Pachai (Pachay Vue) to seek refuge in Laos where he
attracted a larger group of followers. It was claimed that the
rebellion at its peak covered a territory of 40,000 square kilometres,
spanning from Dien Bien Phu in Tonkin (North Vietnam) to Nam Ou in
Luang Prabang, Laos, down south to Muong Cha (now renamed Saisomboun)
north of Vientiane, and going north-east to Sam Neua. Many Hmong took
up arms with Pachai either out of their own personal grievances
against lowlanders or in the fervent belief that they were part of a
holy war foretold in many of their myths to regain the country they
had lost long ago.
In China, the Hmong had staged many such bloody uprisings through the
centuries against Chinese domination based on a belief in the coming
of a mythical king and a new Hmong kingdom (Tapp, 1982: 114-127). As
stated by Gunn (1986: 115), the largest military expedition ever
organised in Laos "by that date was mounted to break Batchai's (Pachay
Vue) rebellion; four companies of tirailleurs were brought in from
other parts of Indochina to restore order." Pachai was eventually
tracked down and killed in his hide-out in Muong Heup, Luang Prabang,
on 17 November 1921 (Le Boulanger, 1969: 360).
A number of more than 15,000 Vang Pao followers, ever distrustful of
the new authorities, went into hiding with their families deep in the
jungles of Phu Bia, the highest mountain of Laos and other adjacent
areas from where they have continued to wage a constricted war of
resistance against the Lao PDR government (Lee, 1982: 212-214).
At first, the new government tried to talk the Hmong into joining in
the new political life and socialist economy of the country through
face-to-face discussion, leaflet drops and radio propaganda broadcast.
However, after much frustrated efforts, it resorted to armed
suppression following increasing ambushes of Lao army convoys and
troops by the Hmong along Route 13 and the road linking Vangvieng and
Vientiane in 1976. The Hmong reportedly used arms and ammunition left
hidden by Vang Pao in the Phu Bia region, and later captured weapons
from their enemy or took them from dead government soldiers. As these
ambushes became more wide-spread and government troops proved
ineffective to stop them, four regiments of Vietnamese troops were
sent into the Phu Bia area in 1977 to crush the rebellion, causing
thousands of Hmong to flee to Thailand with 2,500 arriving in December
Since 1977, the Lao government has carried out many intermittent
suppression campaigns, and its casualties continue to be heavy - with
some military units reported to be nearly wiped out in ambushes by the
Hmong and a group of 200 Lao soldiers in the Vangvieng area were
allegedly killed by mistaken aerial bombardment from their own air
force MIG bombers in 1988. In December 1997, the "Chao Fa" are said to
have eradicated all but one member of a company of government troops
near Khang Khai south of the Plain of Jars. Hmong civilians are also
targeted, and many have died from attacks on villages or ambushes by
both sides. Visitors to Laos in 1998 reported that the "Chao Fa" now
claimed to occupy the following areas: (1) Muong Mai, Thasi, Pa Na,
Nam Hia, Na Kong, Phu Makthao, Chomthong and Muong Sa in Borikhamsay
province; (2) Khang Khai, Tha Papang, Nam Tao Samseng, Phu Bia, Muong
Mork, Phu Nanon and Samthong in Xieng Khouang province; and (3) Phu
Kongkhao and Phu Nhay in Luang Prabang province. Hmong and other
inhabitants in these places were said to be living in fear, not
knowing which side to align themselves with.
The Lao Government has continued to try and get more Hmong involved in
the resistance to "come out" from their jungle hide-outs and to lead
"a normal life". Apart from military suppression, it has tried various
development projects, chiefly in the "Saisomboun Special Zone" which
was established in 1994 north of Vientiane in an area formerly known
as Muong Cha under the old Royal Lao Government. This is the area
closest to Phu Bia, the base of most of the "Chao Fa" groups. It hopes
to make Saisomboun the centre for political and economic development
to attract resistance Hmong into the folds of the Lao PDR authorities,
by withdrawing lowland ethnic Lao personnel from the area and putting
Gen. Bounchanh (a Khmu who successfully suppressed many "Chao Fa"
Hmong in the late 1970's) as the local military commander, with Col.
Lo Lu Yang (a PL Hmong) as deputy commander and Mr Siatou Yang
(another Hmong who was formerly the Chao Muong or district governor at
Moung Hom) as the unification coordinator. The Special Zone covers the
districts of Muong Phoun, Muong Hom, Muong Cha and Long San. The Lao
authorities are now putting Hmong to work with the dissident Hmong to
try to bridge the deep political divide between them.
There is no doubt that the Government believes it best to have the
Hmong deal with each other over this long-standing political issue.
This does not seem, however, to have assuaged the anger of the
so-called Hmong " bandits". They continue to ambush army convoys and
even taxis travelling between Vientiane and Luang Prabang, or to and
from Saisomboun. This has escalated since May 1998 into free-for-all
shooting by Hmong government troops against "Chao Fa" villages, with
the resultant armed retaliations on Saisomboun town itself. Whereas it
was lowland Lao soldiers shooting at Hmong before, now the Hmong are
killing each other. It is said that many Hmong families have fled
Saisomboun to Kilometre 52, the major Hmong settlement on the road
linking Vientiane to Muong Phon Haung and onto Vangvieng.
The Lao PDR government has appointed Mr Tong Yer Thao, the
Vice-Chairman of the United Lao National Reconstruction Front
(previously known as the Pathet Lao Revolutionary Front) to negotiate
with resistance leaders and to be responsible for the resettlement of
former Hmong rebels in the Muong Kao area, Borikamsay province, where
they are given lowland wet rice farming land and other forms of
In a sense, the Hmong cannot be said to be rebels against the Lao PDR
government, as these dissidents have never joined the new regime. They
have chosen to resist by isolating themselves in their mountain
fastnesses and refusing to be under the control of the new
In 1976, the two major groups of rebels in Phu Bia were under Mr Yong
Youa Her (Ntxoov Zuag Hawj), a former sargeant in Vang Pao's secret
army, and Mr Xai Shua Yang, a former Tasseng (canton chief) at Pha
Khao, east of Long Cheng that used to be Vang Pao's former
headquarters. Yong Youa joined a Hmong revivalist movement in 1972
which, amidst all the suffering sustained by Hmong refugees in the Lao
civil war, was advocating the formation of a "true" Hmong society, in
anticipation of the return of the legendary Hmong king who would
rescue the movement's followers from oppression by other groups. Under
Yong Youa's military guidance and messianic leadership, the resistance
movement soon became known as "Chao Fa" (a Lao term meaning "Lord of
the Sky or Heaven" or God).
In 1979, Xai Shua Yang's followers had to split up into small bands,
no longer able to withstand the shelling and gassing of their
strongholds. A few months later, most of them reached Thailand with
their families, leaving only Yong Youa and his "Chao Fa" freedom
fighters to roam the thickets of Phou Bia in a hopeless resistance
struggle for their promised Hmong kingdom.
The Lao PDR government appears to recourse to Vietnamese military
intervention every time the Hmong rebels intensify their activities.
This has not helped to quench the resistance movement, but only to
reinforce the claim by anti-government elements that Laos is but a
colony of communist Vietnam, although the latter denies any
involvement by saying that Laos is a country capable of looking after
its own security. This is despite the fact that in June 2000,
Vietnamese Communist Party chief, Le Kha Phieu, told a visiting
Laotian army delegation that he wanted the two countries' armies "to
cooperate in the struggle against hostile forces."
Resistance sources claim that two battalions of Vietnamese troops have
been sent to Laos since October 1999 (Hmong Voice Radio, 22 July
2000). This seems to have been confirmed by foreign diplomats in
Vientiane, one of whom was quoted by Agence France Press (2 June 2000)
as saying that "in the past few months there have been frequent
clashes in Xieng Khouang province which are getting bigger, causing
mounting casualties for the Lao army", including heavy material losses
such as a helicopter carrying artillery being shot down by the rebels.
These losses have forced the Lao government to seek help from Vietnam.
The diplomat went on to say that "the Vietnamese army has sent
soldiers and military equipment to bolster the Lao army which is
struggling to control the situation. We have seen military vehicles
carrying Vietnamese troops on the streets of the capital."
The Hmong International Human Rights Watch recently stated in its
submission to the UN Commission on Human Rights, cited above, that
evidence of Lao and Vietnamese government joint involvement in the
planning of military actions against Hmong insurgents in Laos
"surfaced over two years ago when, on 25 May 1998, a Russian-made
YAK-40 military jet flying over Saisomboun…. was shot down". Among
those killed in the crash were said to be 14 senior Vietnamese
officers (including Lieut.Gen. Dao Trong Lich, the Chief of Staff and
Deputy Defence Minister, another lieutenant-general, three
major-generals and nine colonels and lieutenant colonels) together
with 12 Laotian top military personnel (HIHRW, Press Release:
Deteriorating Human Rights Conditions for the Hmong Living in Laos, 22
At any rate, recent exchanges of official visits between Vietnam and
Laos seem to have increased markedly in June and July this year since
news of the bombings in Vientiane emerged internationally. For
example, On 16 July 2000, the Vietnam News Agency reports a story on a
six-day visit to Laos by "a high-level Vietnamese military delegation"
which was headed by the Vietnamese Deputy Defence Minister, Lieut.
Gen. Le Van Dzung, member of the Communist Party of Vietnam Central
Committee and Chief of the General Staff of the Vietnam People's Army.
The delegation was said to hold "talks with their Lao counterparts in
the spirit of solidarity, friendship and mutual understanding…. (and)
also discussed activities to promote mutual assistance and set the
orientation for further friendship and cooperation in the near
A high-level provincial delegation from Xieng Khouang, the seat of
most of the Hmong resistance activities, also visited Hanoi on 13 June
2000 - just after the spate of bombings in Vientiane. The visit was
headed by the province's Communist Party deputy secretary, Mr Sivongya
Yangyongyia (a Hmong). The group met with the powerful external
relations commission of the Vietnamese Communist Party (Agence-France
Press, 14 June 2000) with the aim to "strengthen relations between the
two parties". The Lao delegation also visited areas with ethnic hill
tribes in Vietnam to see how they are being run by the Vietnamese
government. Hmong Voice Radio (22 July 2000), however, sees the visit
as a punishment for the PL Hmong leadership in Xieng Khouang for being
too weak and lenient by allowing Hmong dissidents to shoot government
officials at random, to burn houses and to kill innocent villagers.
The party leadership was thus called to Vietnam to get a lecture.
The Lao PDR government has tried hard to blame the instability on
overseas Hmong, not local Hmong inside Laos whose dissidents have so
far been officially labelled only as "bandits". It has tried quietly
to solve the problem of Hmong resistance in the backwaters of its
jungles in northern Laos. It has tried to deny that such resistance
groups exist rather than acknowledging them for what they are. It has
made prominent reference in the country's Constitution to ethnic
minorities as inseparable groups in the make-up of the Lao nation's
unity who are accorded equal rights and obligations. It has
established the Saisomboun Special Zone as a show-case development
site for the Hmong to attract Hmong rebels. There are now Hmong
district and provincial governors, Hmong deputies in the National
Assembly and even a Hmong Minister (for rural development) in the
current Lao government. Many Hmong are now in middle management in the
Lao public service, more than under the old right-wing Royal Lao
Government. A group of Lao soldiers who arrested and killed a number
of Hmong civilians a few months ago in Saisomboun were reportedly
executed by their local commander in front of survivors as an example
of what is not allowed by the Lao government.
"BANDITS OR REBELS? Hmong Resistance in the New Lao State"
Copyright 2000 Gary Yia Lee