Hmong worldwide revere 'The General'

WESTMINSTER, Calif. – "The General," now 79, no longer commands battalions of Hmong guerrilla fighters or the fawning attention of U.S. lawmakers and heads of state.

For years, Gen. Vang Pao has made his headquarters in a ranch-style home on an Orange County cul-de-sac. It's a world away from Long Chieng, the secret CIA base in the mountains of northern Laos known as "Spook Heaven," where he lived from 1963 to 1975, waging war on Lao and Vietnamese communists with his jungle army of Hmong and Iu Mien warriors.

The face of Hmong people worldwide holds court here on his beige sofa, his brown eyes still shooting fire, his will and wits unblunted by a barrage of health and legal problems.

His former patron, the U.S. government, charged him and 10 others in June 2007 with plotting the violent overthrow of their old enemy, communist Laos.

After a six-month undercover investigation known as Operation Tarnished Eagle, more than 200 federal agents and police fanned out to arrest Vang and 10 other suspects.

The federal indictment filed in Sacramento accuses them of conspiracy to "kill, kidnap and maim" by financing a mercenary force armed with AK-47s, Stinger and anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, Claymore mines and other explosives.

The co-conspirators allegedly commissioned one of the suspects, Fresno businessman David Dang Vang, to draft "Operation Popcorn (Political Opposition Party's Coup Operation to Rescue the Nation)." The 18-page blueprint outlines how Laos could be transformed into an American-style democracy with free elections, freedom of speech, a constitution and judiciary, and a congress that included Hmong and other ethnic minorities.

The group, according to federal court documents, had no weapons or soldiers of its own – the alleged co-conspirators were offered a menu of munitions and mercenaries at a Sacramento Thai restaurant by an undercover Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives agent posing as an arms dealer with CIA connections.

If convicted, Vang could die in prison, an ignominious end for the man former CIA officers have called the greatest general of the Vietnam War.

And yet Vang's profile has never been higher in the Hmong community.

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