WikiLeaks cables bare secrets of U.S.-Laotian relations

McClatchy NewspapersApril 22, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The 2007 U.S. arrest of the late Hmong leader Vang Pao hurt him, but it did wonders for U.S.-Lao relations, classified State Department cables show.

Vang Pao's arrest prompted widespread dismay among Hmong-Americans; at one point, an estimated 3,000 demonstrated outside a federal courthouse in Sacramento, Calif.

Lao officials were "pleased and surprised" by the arrest of the man who'd long denounced their regime, a U.S. diplomat reported. Suddenly, Lao military officers began talking. Bureaucratic barriers shrank. Cross-cultural exchanges became feasible.

"Since the arrests, we have made a surprising amount of progress in areas of our relationship with the Lao government where we had previously experienced difficulty," Mary Grace McGeehan, who was then the U.S. charge d'affaires in Laos, wrote in a June 22, 2007, memo.

The turnaround was such that some Western expatriates in the Laotian capital of Vientiane "speculated to us that the arrests were a positive gesture toward the Lao government by the U.S.," McGeehan reported.

Two years later, federal prosecutors dropped criminal conspiracy charges against Vang Pao. In time, the other men arrested with Vang Pao likewise saw all charges dropped.

Vang Pao died last January in Fresno, Calif., prompting widespread grief in the Hmong-American community he'd led. Long-term U.S.-Lao relations remain a work in progress, though some Hmong-Americans see gradual improvement.

"It seems the government has opened up more; they're reaching out more, to encourage tourism and to encourage business opportunities," said Fresno City Council member Blong Xiong, who visited his native Laos several months ago.

For their part, U.S. diplomats predicted in the 2007 memo that midlevel Lao officials eager for better relations with the United States eventually would "encounter bureaucratic resistance." In other words: Be prepared for stop-and-go.

The 2007 memo, classified "confidential," was obtained by WikiLeaks and passed to McClatchy. It's one of many memos that shed light on the complicated relationship between the United States and Laos, a global odd couple with a war-torn past and many domestic offspring.

Lao Embassy officials in Washington didn't respond to requests for comment. State Department officials denounce the WikiLeaks release of documents.

The Hmong first began coming to the United States after the 1975 communist victory in Laos, concentrating in cities that include Fresno and St. Paul, Minn. Nationwide, more than 140,000 U.S. residents claimed full Hmong ancestry as of the 2000 census, the most recent for which such data are available.

Isolated by language and culture, the Hmong have struggled to assimilate while community leaders have clashed over strategies and tactics.

"The politics of the Hmong communities in both Laos and the United States are extremely complex," a secret June 11, 2007, memo noted.

That summer, for instance, a U.S. diplomat reported that "protection from the local police and/or FBI" might be warranted if certain Hmong-Americans were to visit Fresno, because of the potential for violence.

Typically, the memos provide an unfiltered U.S. view of the Lao government. One March 31, 2006, classified U.S. cable, for instance, noted allegations of corruption and observed that "government ministers and officials with salaries of less than $75 per month sport villas and cars worthy of Monte Carlo."

The raw observations made in the classified memos are echoed publicly in the State Department's annual human rights report on Laos.

Last July, in one sign of warming relations, the Laotian foreign minister visited Washington for the first time since 1975.

"The United States is committed to building our relationship with Laos as part of our broader efforts to expand engagement with Southeast Asia," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said at the time.

Lao officials can seem conflicted sometimes. For instance, Lao authorities seemed intrigued and nervous about Fresno council member Xiong when he visited in November 2008. He was one of the first Hmong-American elected officials to visit the country.

A U.S. diplomat subsequently noted that the Lao government dragged its feet and limited the audience for Xiong's presentations, but then praised "extremely positive" meetings.

"I was the guinea pig for visits," Xiong said an interview. "They were extremely cautious."

Of all the Hmong in the U.S., the Lao government was most concerned about Vang Pao.

The longtime military leader had worked closely with the CIA during the Vietnam War. Once living in the United States, he vocally opposed the Lao government.

So did others. In April 2007, for instance, a secret State Department cable reported that "unidentified Hmong-Americans are said to be recruiting Hmong ... to return to Laos to stage incidents." Vang Pao wasn't named in that cable.

In June 2007, federal prosecutors charged Vang Pao and his allies with conspiring to overthrow the socialist Lao government. Before the arrests, U.S. diplomats in Laos were complaining of "bureaucratic obstructionism and veiled hostility" from Laotian authorities. Afterward, diplomats noted a "sudden and pronounced" improvement, even though some Lao officials suspected that the CIA was still in league with Vang Pao.

"The more forthcoming we can be with the (government of Laos) ... the longer the positive climate is likely to last," McGeehan concluded.

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