US Veteran Deported From Laos For Assisting Rebels
US Veteran Deported From Laos For Assisting Rebels
By Richard Ehrlich
BANGKOK, Thailand -- An American, Ed Szendrey, said a former CIA-backed Lao general helped finance his trip into communist Laos, which ended in expulsion last week because Szendrey bought illegal satellite telephones for Hmong rebels, set up a "communications network," and aided their movement.
Szendrey, a former US Navy veteran who served in the Gulf of Tonkin at the start of the Vietnam War, said he negotiated the "surrender" of 173 minority ethnic Hmong on June 4, and hoped to arrange future deals for thousands of other Hmong who are led by armed fighters.
"We have never supported a military solution," Szendrey, 62, said in an interview.
Lao officials expelled Szendrey and his wife, Georgie, on June 6 after interrogating the activist couple who live in Chico, California.
Before arriving in Laos on June 3, Szendrey met US State Department "Laos Desk" officials in Washington with Vang Pao, a notorious, former CIA-backed Lao general.
Szendrey said he went with Vang Pao to the State Department to explain the Hmong's plight, and to ask for help in getting their story to the United Nations.
Vang Pao was named as "a despotic warlord" in Alfred McCoy's respected book, "The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia," for allegedly smuggling opium on the CIA's Air America, and operating a heroin factory in Long Tieng, Laos, during the late 1960s and early 1970s -- while commanding the CIA's so-called Secret Army against Lao and Vietnamese communists in Laos, during the US-Vietnam war.
Much of Vang Pao's heroin was probably "for (American) GI addicts in Vietnam," McCoy wrote.
After years of massive aerial bombardment of tiny, landlocked Laos, America lost the war in 1975, and communist Pathet Lao forces seized power.
Many of Vang Pao's CIA-trained Hmong mercenaries, however, fled into the hills where they dwindled due to injuries, malnutrition, disease and neglect.
Laos currently suffers occasional deadly bombings of its markets, buses, bridges, government outposts and other soft targets, which it blames on rightwing "bad elements" and "exiled Lao reactionaries" in America, France, Australia, Thailand and elsewhere.
Concerned about the alleged "persecution" of Hmong who refuse to surrender, Szendrey created a "Fact Finding Commission" which includes a website, and has visited Laos several times.
He also boosts Vang Pao, who is based in California, as the Hmong's best leader.
"As the one who was involved with the US government, was involved with the development of the CIA army, was the person who was the go-between, he [Vang Pao] is looked up to by the majority of the Hmong community," Szendrey said.
"He is the individual that should be the one that can represent them, and communicate for them, to the world."
Vang Pao helped finance Szendrey's ill-fated June 3-6 trip.
"I know that he has helped raise money, for instance, when we take a trip like this, the funding becomes available, and we understand it comes from a variety of Hmong," Szendrey said.
"It's good. My only hesitancy is that when I say that, we have [people reacting]: 'Oh, this is a Vang Pao thing.' No, we do not work for General Vang Pao.
"We do have people who are followers of his, and organizations who are followers of his, who have financially supported us," Szendrey said.
Lao security officials expelled the Szendreys after they deceptively entered on tourist visas.
"We were not there vacation," Szendrey said.
"They charged us with having interfered with their rural village relocation program. That was the offence they deported us on."
Szendrey said he met 173 unarmed Hmong women, children and elderly men on June 4 on a country road, to ensure their "surrender" would be peaceful.
No Hmong fighters surrendered at the site in the Xaisomboun "Special Zone," which is off-limits to foreigners.
Future "surrenders" could include up to 17,000 Hmong who are hiding in about 20 scattered clusters, each led by two or three armed leaders, Szendrey said.
But those "50 or 60 leaders" will probably never surrender.
"They probably have already been tried and convicted," in absentia, by the Lao government for treason, armed rebellion, and related crimes, and would likely face imprisonment or execution.
Lao officials detained the Szendreys on June 4 and interrogated them after the Hmong gathering.
The security forces were especially angry about his earlier role in providing illegal satellite phones to the Hmong fugitives.
"Over the last four years, we have established a communications network in which they do have [satellite] telephones up in the jungle," Szendrey said.
"We helped with the purchase" of the satellite phones.
"We don't know physically how those actually got to them," he said. "I think the total we got in was four or five" satellite phones.
"On Saturday night, when they [Lao interrogators] started zeroing in, that's the questions they wanted to know. How these people got the phones.
"They wanted to know how our communications, how our satellite phones, got to them, and how we had our communications system going."
The interrogation ended in havoc.
"I kind of almost made a mistake that was turned [around]. I said, 'Yeah, we encouraged getting the phones in there'...and they were turning that into a serious confession," Szendrey said.
"I said, 'We did not smuggle the phones in, we have no personal knowledge of actually how they got from the borders to these people'," he said.
Szendrey did not tell his interrogators that he paid for the satellite phones.
"No, no, we 'encouraged' getting the phones in there," he told Lao officials.
"It finally ended when I demanded to see the [American] embassy, and refused to sign the paper."
The unsigned confession, written by Lao authorities, listed Szendrey's support for the Hmong, and described "our contacts with them, that they had satellite phones and how they were used, what were the goals of our organization, things like this."
The Szendreys entered Laos on June 3, went north to meet the Hmong the next day and were seized by security forces several hours later.
The Szendreys were expelled on June 6 to Thailand, and flew home from Bangkok on Friday (June 11).
Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 27 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 www.geocities.com/glossograph/