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The Death of Vang Pao

by Joshua Kurlantzick
January 11, 2011

Shawn Xiong and thousands of Hmong protest the case against Gen. Vang Pao in Sacramento, California May 11, 2009. (Max Whittaker/Courtesy Reuters)

Last week, Vang Pao, who led the Hmong forces in the “secret war” in Laos during the Vietnam conflict, passed away near his home in Fresno, California. Vang Pao was a complicated figure – a truly brave fighter whose men helped American forces significantly during the Vietnam War, and during his time in the United States after he emigrated to America, a leader of the Hmong community, which faced as many obstacles in adjusting to American society as any immigrant group ever has. But, especially later in his life, Vang Pao also became an extremely divisive figure within the Hmong community in the United States, as Hmong-Americans, like many émigré communities, fought within themselves over whether to keep a dream alive of returning to Laos, and as Vang Pao, wittingly or not, allowed himself to be used for all number of schemes.

I had a chance to interview Vang Pao several years ago, during Hmong New Year celebrations in St. Paul, Minnesota. You can find the article from the New Republic here (unfortunately for subscribers only).

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  • Posted by larry morgan

    Vang Pao operated in Laos in the classic warlord mode. The US indulged him as counterpoint to the weak Royal Lao government and the Pathet Lao. His effectiveness as a military commander was mixed at best. For example, in one incident in 1969, he left the battlefield at the height of an engagement with the Pathet Lao to take one of his wives to Bangkok to for a goiter operation. During his absence, the battalion he abandoned was largely destroyed by the Pathet Lao. US officers in Vientiane were livid at his dereliction of duty, but powerless to replace him. By giving him sanctuary in the US after the war, the US upheld its bargain with him, as it had with several other high-level collaborators during the Vietnam War. But his post-war legacy is one of ambivalence toward Laos, so it’s not clear he ever really cared for anything except number 1.

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