Freed Journalists Describe Laotian Guerillas
Freed Journalists Describe Laotian " Hmong" Guerillas
by Richard S. Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Americans supporting anti-communist Hmong guerrillas in Laos should realize they lost the CIA's support in 1975 and the abandoned stragglers must be rescued because they cannot fight, according to two European journalists who were jailed and deported after meeting the rebels.
"This community of about 600 people were mostly women and children -- 60 percent of them children -- and maybe 40 guys with guns but very old guns, no ammunition and totally unable to fight as guerrillas," said Belgian photojournalist Thierry Falise, describing a group of Hmong rebels trapped in a jungle in northern Laos.
"Their situation was very pathetic. It is definitely much more a humanitarian issue than a military issue," the Bangkok-based Mr. Falise said.
"The Hmong guerrillas are totally unable to defy the Lao government," he said.
An American Lutheran reverend, Naw Karl Mua, along with Mr. Falise and Bangkok-based French cameraman Vincent Reynaud, were freed in Laos on Wednesday (July 9) after being sentenced to 15 years in jail for meeting the rag-tag Hmong rebels.
The three men insisted they were innocent after being arrested on June 4 near the rebels' camp in the Plain of Jars region of northern Laos.
They were sentenced on June 30 on flimsy charges of involvement in the death of a Lao security officer, who was killed during a jungle skirmish.
Their 15-year sentences sparked an international outcry among human rights organizations, foreign correspondents, diplomats and others demanding their freedom.
Mr. Falise, speaking at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on Thursday (July 10) alongside Mr. Reynaud, said they journeyed to Laos to report about the guerrillas but discovered the motley band of desperate Hmong were barely able to survive hunger and disease.
During the ill-fated trip, the reporters and the pastor had to eat "roots" because food was scarce, he said.
Rev. Mua, the freed Hmong-American pastor from St. Paul, Minnesota, also arrived in Bangkok after being deported from Laos with the journalists but was not immediately available for comment.
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency financed, trained and armed Hmong and other minority tribes in Laos during the 1960s and 70s against Lao communists and North Vietnamese.
In 1975, when the U.S. lost its wars in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia, thousands of Hmong crossed the Mekong River to refugee camps in Thailand. Some later found sanctuary in the United States, France, Australia and elsewhere.
Today, U.S.-based anti-communist Hmong groups demand the overthrow of the regime in Laos and claim the guerrillas could win their fight for democracy if supporters contribute more money to their cause.
"Some Hmong-Americans, a lot of them are sincere and they still think the Hmong, so-called guerrillas, can take over some part of land," he said.
Mr. Falise, in remarks echoed by his colleague Mr. Reynaud, said that dream was a farce.
"The point now is to try to help those people -- the 600 -- and I understand there are five or six other groups scattered in Laos and they are in the same situation," Mr. Falise said.
"They have been waiting for years and years, hidden in the jungle. A lot of them are still waiting for the Americans to come back.
"It is like a dream, even though most of them were not alive when the Americans were there almost 30 years ago. But their fathers were there, their grandfathers were there, they spoke to the Americans, and so they have been educated in that [anti-communist] talk for so many years that they also believe there are those Americans coming to save them," Mr. Falise said.
To end the misery, the U.S. and Lao governments should agree to allow the Hmong remnants to move to America so they could establish a new life, the Belgian photojournalist said.
Many Hmong in communist Laos are able to live relatively normal lives, but several thousand die-hard fighters wandering the jungle are unable or unwilling to be assimilated.
If they are not rescued, they will slowly die of hunger, disease, injuries and neglect, the journalists said.
- Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/glossograph/