June 18, 2007
Written by C.N.
As products of the Viet Nam War, many Hmong Americans share similar experiences with Vietnamese Americans of being political refugees from their native country. As such, many Hmong have very strong anti-communist beliefs and hopes of overthrowing the communist government in their homeland. In that context, as the New York Times reports, the arrest of a prominent Hmong political leader has created much controversy among the Hmong American community:
Vang Pao, a military general in Laos, was lauded for leading forces backed by the Central Intelligence Agency in the “secret war” against communists there during the Vietnam War and had, for 30 years since, made no secret of his hopes for a democratic Laos. But [his] arrest has also revealed a split in the Hmong population that has sprung up in this country: between old and young, between those who fled Laos and those who grew up here.
A younger generation of Hmong-Americans, more skeptical of Gen. Vang Pao’s fund-raising tactics and controversial groups, said they respected the man but did not wish to return to a homeland they had never seen and worried that the charges might stain the Hmong people here.
Federal authorities said their six-month investigation revealed a plot to purchase AK-47 rifles, plastic explosives, anti-tank rockets and surface-to-air missiles in order to overthrow the government in a violation of the Neutrality Act, which bars Americans from taking military action against countries with which the nation is at peace. . . .
Cy Thao, 35, a Minnesota state representative, one of the few Hmong-Americans serving in a state legislature, said many of the older generation felt confused, even betrayed. “For them, too, his arrest signals the end of an opportunity for them to ever go home to a free Laos,” Mr. Thao said. “He was their best hope of ever going back so this is sort of the closing of a book.”
Obviously I don’t know the specific details of his case, so at this point, I cannot conclude whether he is guilty or innocent of these charges. What I can comment on is, as the article notes, how his arrest — more specifically, the Hmong community’s reaction to his arrest — seems to highlight a large generational gap between older Hmong who have direct memories of their refugee experiences, versus younger Hmong Americans who have little if any memory of such and have basically been socialized as Americans.
In fact, this is a very common theme across many immigrant communities, Asian and non-Asian. But in this case, this generational different is particularly poignant when it comes to ethnic and immigrant groups that have experiences of being political refugees because the emotions surrounding their departure from their home countries tend to be much more sudden and emotionally traumatic.
As such, when such a visible symbol of their long-lost lives of being free in their homeland (their “glory days”) is removed, perceived to be disrespected, or even desecrated — whether it’s General Pao in this case, or the old South Vietnamese flag for Vietnamese Americans — strong emotions are bound to be provoked.
As someone who researches such issues, it would be a mistake for me to say something like, “Oh, just get over it. The past is the past — you’re living in the U.S. now, so act more like a regular American” because doing so would negate and dismiss the very real trauma that many political refugees have experienced. The emotional and physical pain and suffering that many have have felt, and may still feel, are real and cannot be so easily dismissed by those who have not experienced them themselves.
In the same way that people of color become enraged when they hear Whites dismiss their experiences of racism, so too must the younger generation respect the feelings and perspectives of their older community members when they speak of their painful experiences of what it was like having to leave their homeland in such traumatic circumstances.
At the same time, all members of such political refugee communities should remember that even given their strong anti-communist perspective, living in the U.S. means that we must abide by its laws. In other words, being a refugee and being here in the U.S. involuntarily does not give anyone license to ignore laws that are applied to everyone.
In the end, regardless of how General Pao’s case turns out, I hope that all of us can learn from this experience and become a little more understanding and tolerant — on both sides of the issue.
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Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Hmong American Arrested for Anti-Communist Conspiracy" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2007/06/hmong-american-arrested-for-anti-communist-conspiracy/> ().
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