Opinion on Recent Allegations of Atrocities Committed by the Lao PDR Against its Hmong Citizens.
By Dr Grant Evans, Reader in Anthropology, University of Hong Kong.

In early September Amnesty International accused the Lao Government of "war crimes" against the Hmong people of Laos on the strength of a video showing several young Hmong with wounds, several young dead males and females, and their burial. It was alleged that the dead young women had been raped, and that soldiers of the Lao army had carried out the atrocity. The video was apparently shot in May 2004. The wording of the Amnesty charge was unusually strong, and it received widespread press attention. A spokesman for the Lao Foreign Ministry, however, rejected the video as a "fabrication". Yong Chantalangsy claimed: "With modern technology these days you could do this anywhere." Apparently, the video was made by one Va Char. He had been arrested in the middle of 2003 along with two European journalists who were secretly investigating charges of atrocities against the Hmong. Va Char escaped from custody and spent the following year on the run, but finally made his way to the United States with the tape.

I am in no position to authenticate the videotape, but nor am I in a position to say it is a fabrication. However, at present I would say it is authentic. I am inclined to that opinion because of the amateurishness of the video, and authentic sequences, like a person I presume is a shaman blowing on the wounds of a young man as a form of healing (widespread in Laos). My personal judgement is that it is not ‘stagey’ enough to be a fabrication. I cannot understand Hmong, so I do not know what is being said in the video, and strangely no transcription is supplied. There is no way of knowing where the video was made, but one can assume it is Laos, and for the moment one can assume that the date of May 19, 2004 on the video is accurate.

Having said that: are these "war crimes" committed by the LPDR in a "genocidal" campaign against the Hmong of Laos? My short answer is, no.

On the other hand, I would be prepared to say that these young people may have been mistreated and then killed by Lao soldiers who have been attempting to subdue some very small pockets of Hmong fighters who refuse to submit to the authority of the LPDR. I say this simply because serious abuses can occur in any conflict situation -- committed by the armies of democratic countries as we have recently seen in Iraq, let alone the less well-trained forces of an undemocratic country like Laos today where there is no public mechanism for investigating army abuses of power.

But, it is not government policy to deliberately mistreat or discriminate against the Hmong of Laos, as some overseas Hmong, and some journalists claim.

Who are these Hmong who are resisting LPDR authority? Journalistic commentary commonly refer to the so-called US ‘secret war’ before 1975, that is when Hmong formed the backbone of an irregular army commanded by Hmong General Vang Pao, financed by USAID and the CIA. The strategic location of northern Laos for the Ho Chi Minh trail meant that both communist and anti-communist forces recruited from among minorities like the Hmong. Heavy fighting caused many of these minorities to become internal refugees, and more or less made them ‘captives’ of one side or the other. The Hmong community of Laos was deeply divided by the war, as was Lao society generally.

After the communist victory in Laos in 1975 many thousands of Hmong fled the country. Remnants of Vang Pao’s irregular army continued resistance for some years in the high mountains of Laos, but in a ferocious campaign from 1977-1980, the Lao Army reinforced by 50,000 Vietnamese troops largely crushed the resistance. The ferocity of the fighting ensured that some Hmong would remain irreconcilable with the new regime because of the deaths of family members during the campaign. For most of the 1980s very little was heard of these Hmong. The economy was stagnant for most of that time, movement within the country and overseas was restricted, and consequently a kind of stand-off between these recalcitrant groups high in the mountains and the government seemed to have been reached. This changed at the end of the 1980s when the government opened up the economy, began building roads throughout the country with foreign assistance, and relaxed the rules for both Lao citizens and foreigners to travel internally and internationally. This meant an extension of state control into areas that had been more or less left alone and a concern for security for people traveling throughout the country, including many foreign tourists. This combined with a programme for resettling minorities in the lowlands, justified in terms of ecology and in terms of easing the delivery of education and health services, soon meant that remote areas were encroached upon leading to a rise in low-scale conflict with these small groups of recalcitrant Hmong. Cleary, today some 30 years after the ‘Vietnam War’ very, very few of the active male population in these groups are original members of the irregular army. More likely they are the sons and families of former irregular army soldiers who remain in the jungle through fear of retribution, and because of long-standing grudges. It is conflict with these groups, perhaps numbering several thousand at most, that has received a great deal of publicity in recent years, most notably in a Time magazine article of May 2003, and now the video. Less publicity has been given to the atrocities committed by the Hmong, such as the shooting up and then setting fire to a civilian bus in February 2003 in which 12 people were killed, and other such incidents. Indeed, the situation seems to have degenerated into a cycle of payback killings.[1]

The Hmong make up around 5% of the total Lao population, that is around 250,000 persons. The overwhelming majority of these Hmong live peacefully in the countryside, including many Hmong whose families did not side with the communist movement prior to 1975. Most of these people live as upland farmers. But in proportion to their numbers, Hmong have also been very successful in other roles: there are three Hmong Provincial governors, and many other Hmong in high level positions in the government; there is a disproportionate number of Hmong medical doctors and teachers, and many are also successful entrepreneurs. Ethnic Lao readily acknowledge the native intelligence of the Hmong, if a little uneasily. There is an ethnic hierarchy in Laos, with the culture and society of the lowland ethnic Lao being valorized by the government more than other minority cultures, despite its commitment to a multi-ethnic society. For example, Buddhism which is not practiced by minorities like the Hmong, is the unofficial state religion. This means that there is a tendency of the ethnic Lao, who basically run the state and society, to look down on the cultures of the minorities. These feelings of superiority are probably greater in the cities than in the countryside where one finds harmonious inter-ethnic relations. This situation in the countryside has been strained a little in recent years by two factors: one, the government’s often poorly planned re-settlement policies has produced some ethnic competition for resources, and secondly, Hmong internal migration, from for example Xieng Khoang province to Luang Nam Tha in search of land has brought them into conflict with other minority groups there. Besides some of the name calling that is found in all multi-ethnic communities, inter-ethnic relations in Laos are generally good.

Government policy is committed to ethnic equality, and economic and social development for the whole Lao population without discrimination.[2] But, of course, the above social and cultural factors inflect government policy in a way that produces a bias towards the ethnic Lao. This is not deliberate, however. Indeed, ethnic policy in Laos compares favourably with most other Asian states. It is much better than Thailand, for example. Therefore, there is no basis for the assertions (no systematic argument has ever been made) that Lao policy somehow discriminates against the Hmong and this is the reason why the army carries out brutal attacks on them.

The Lao Army uses armed force with these small groups of Hmong because the latter resort to arms to resist the authority of the Lao state. That the state responds with force to such resistance is not at all unusual; the United States uses force against non-conformists in the same way, as could be seen in the fatal shoot out of Federal Agents with the Davidian cult at Waco, Texas in February 1993. What might be questioned is the extent to which the Lao government has tried to use peaceful means to bring these groups under its control. It certainly seems that the Lao Army has often preferred to use force. However, there is also evidence that feelers have been put out to these groups encouraging them to surrender to the Lao authorities. And, in early 2004, there were reports of several hundred Hmong peacefully surrendering to the government.

Unfortunately, the Lao government has denied any international organizations access to these latter groups to investigate their condition or to deliver aid. This is because it denies that it has any ‘resistance’ problem, and insists on calling these Hmong ‘bandits’, by which it simply means lawbreakers. Therefore, it rejects any suggestion that outsiders have any rights to adjudicate in the matter. In other words, it totally denies the complex history which has caused the ongoing problem. A recent report may suggest a change in attitude of the Lao government, perhaps in the lead up to the major ASEAN summit in November. The Prime Minister Bounyang Vorachit in response to a journalist’s query about the Hmong replied that, "Foreign diplomats and NGO people can travel and bring aid to the people" (Dan Scheuttler, Reuters, 24/9/04). It is unclear whether this vague undertaking will lead to anything, however.

In some respects the Lao government is its own worst enemy. Does it understand the international context of these charges? For instance, to cite Yong Chantalangsy again on the question of the videotape: "We don’t need to listen to any foreign organizations that know nothing about our country." But, unfortunately, it may be that Lao officials do not know enough about foreign countries either, and hence feel they can simply brush away genuine queries about the human rights situation in Laos. That Laos has only just recognised the intellectual deficit among its foreign affairs officials is demonstrated by the fact that the Foreign Ministry and the National University have recently inaugurated a degree course in international relations (Vientiane Times, ). It is also true that the Lao government remains authoritarian and lacks transparency in many areas. For example, even if it did begin an investigation into the actions of its soldiers in the area from which the video is alleged to come, Muang Saysomboune, it is very unlikely that these proceedings would ever become public.

The Lao government seriously underestimates the extent to which its secretiveness or lack of transparency makes it easy for lobby groups, and politicians in the United States to lump them in with other ‘Pariah States’ like North Korea, Iran or Cuba. That Laos is nothing like North Korea is obvious to those who know the country well. Yet, the Lao would seem to not appreciate the insularity of US politics, and therefore has so far has refused access to Hmong who have surrendered, or to allow outside mediation with the ‘resisters’. The Lao government also does not seem to realize that it is not sufficiently in anyone’s interest in the US to take the Lao side in achieving normal trade relations, yet this is an issue of great importance for the Lao economy. The Lao, therefore, have to pay attention to those lobbies in the US – whether they are ignorant about Laos or not – and defuse their allegations by helping foreign organizations to investigate claims of abuse.

International organizations like the World Bank can try to impress on the Lao the importance of this. And to continually exert pressure on the LPDR to become more transparent in every respect, which indeed the World Bank has done during its negotiations concerning the Nam Theun 2 dam. Thus, foreign experts have had unimpeded access to the effected area and the different peoples found there. World Bank assistance is not being given to a ‘genocidal’ state. The LPDR is authoritarian and undemocratic, but its policies towards the minorities are as even-handed as any other state in the region receiving World Bank aid. The abuses that some Hmong may suffer are not a result of policy, and force would be used against any other group which attempted armed resistance to the state, with all the dangers of abuse that such conflict can engender.

[1] These issues are discussed in much greater detail in, ‘LAOS: SITUATION ANALYSIS AND TREND ASSESSMENT’, A Write net Report by Grant Evans commissioned by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees,Protection Information Section (DIP), May 2004.

[2] For a more detailed discussion see Grant Evans, ‘Minorities in Laos’, in Ethnicity in Asia, Edited by Colin Mackerras, (Routledge, London 2003).

Just in case you forgot - read the Universal declaration of Human Rights
All information is © Copyright 1997 - 2005 'Foreign Prisoner Support Service' unless stated otherwise - Click here for the legal stuff