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Homeless Hmong: refugees or migrants?

Hmong women and children sit with their belongings after being evicted from a village in Phetchabun province, northern Thailand, in July. The Hmong fear they will be persecuted by the communist government in Laos if they are repatriated because of their Vietnam War-era links to the United States. Apichart Weerawong / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When July began, some 6,000 ethnic Hmong living in this village in northern Thailand could count on little but the flimsy roofs sheltering them from rainy season downpours.

Within days, those ramshackle homes were just a memory for the illegal migrants from neighboring Laos, including many children. Thai authorities pressured the village to evict the Hmong, and they were cast out of town.

Now they make do in a makeshift squatter community along the roadside, and even that may not last. Some officials in this Southeast Asian nation want to send them back to their homeland.

The poor mountain people are determined to hang on. They do not want to return to Laos, saying they face persecution, even possible death, at the hands of its communist government.

Once recruited by the CIA
“If they want to force me back to Laos, they should kill me instead of sending me to be killed at the hand of the Lao government,” said Jer Saechong, one of several Hmong who said they would take their own lives rather than go.

In the Hmongs’ view, they are the last refugees of the Vietnam War, members of a group that supported the losing side in a war with Laotian communists who took over the country in 1975 and who are still persecuted for it.

Thai authorities see them differently: as the flotsam of human trafficking, like hundreds of thousands of other economic migrants from the country’s poorer neighbors, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. In mid-September, seven ethnic Hmong Thai nationals were convicted by a Thai court of smuggling more than 200 of the Lao Hmong into Thailand and illegally giving them shelter.

The Hmong were recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency to fight on behalf of a pro-American government in Laos when war embroiled Indochina.

Diaspora after communist takeover
After the 1975 communist victory, some 300,000 Hmong fled Laos into Thailand, many later resettling in the United States and elsewhere. But tens of thousands stayed in Laos, some adjusting to the new regime and others keeping to the jungle, where they faced continuing attacks.

Displaying a crease in his flesh from a bullet wound in his left leg, 64-year-old Jer said he had been an officer for the CIA-backed “Secret Army,” but made his peace after 1975, settling down to farm north of the Laotian capital, Vientiane.

Then, last year, “many former CIA soldiers were arrested and never returned, including five from my village,” he said.

“I was very frightened and decided to travel across the border,” said Jer, who slipped into Thailand with his wife and five children a little over a year ago.

Chongmi Saelee, 37, said her husband — whose father also fought for the CIA — disappeared two years ago after coming back from a visit to the United States with money given him by his relatives.

Sorting migrants from refugees
When she went to the police for help, she said, “they told me that they would also kill me if I continued to search for him.”

Many of the migrants here in Phetchabun province, however, are not so clearly fleeing persecution, and Thai officials are trying to sort them out.

“These people have entered the country illegally and will be sent back according to the law,” Gov. Direk Thungfang said.

Several times before, Thailand thought it had closed the book on the Hmong refugee saga. The final group from the last official refugee camp for Hmong from Laos, at Ban Napho in northeastern Thailand, went home in 1999.

In May this year, an unofficial camp that sprang up around a Buddhist temple in central Thailand was closed. Some 10,000 Hmong from the camp at Wat Tham Krabok were relocated to the United States, with an additional 5,300 expected to follow.

A 'manageable challenge'
Officials considered Tham Krabok a big headache, saying it was a haven for drug dealing and a center for armed resistance to the Lao government, with which Thailand has good relations. The government worries the same could happen in Phetchabun.

Lionel Rosenblatt, president emeritus of the Washington-based group Refugees International, said the 30-year saga of Hmong refugees shows that “these sorts of refugee flows never end neatly.”

Describing the 6,000 Hmong in Phetchabun as a “manageable challenge,” he said Thai authorities should provide protection for those who are genuine political refugees and find an acceptable solution for the others.

“I would hate that the last chapter of the Indochina refugee drama should be that Thai authorities rounded up people and sent them back to an unknown fate,” Rosenblatt said.