Hmong refugees to start settlement in Guyana

[Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the April 16, 1980 edition of The Stanford Daily.]

WASHINGTON – Thousands of Hmong refugees, members of a remarkable Laotian hill tribe sent wandering in two decades of guerrilla warfare on behalf of the CIA, may begin traveling halfway around the world next month in an effort to establish a homeland in Guyana.

Tribal leaders and the South American nation’s government tentatively have agreed that the refugees, who have subsisted for years in isolated camps in Thailand, will establish a self-sufficient community in a remote jungle region about 20 miles from the site of Jonestown. The massive resettlement will be sponsored and financed by a consortium of fundamentalist Christian organizations in the United States and Netherlands.

It is an extraordinary proposal that poses extraordinary problems, however, and not everyone is convinced it will work. Officials of the U.S. State Department, which is not formally involved but is monitoring the  proposal, privately expressed skepticism that Guyana would agree to accept such a large number of a new ethnic minority.

Relief agency officials expressed concern that the Hmong not be abandoned in a strange new land without adequate, long-term support. And several Hmong leaders already resettled in the United States said the tribesmen they left behind, many of whom fought for the CIA in its “secret war” in Laos against the North Vietnamese in the 19605, would rather join them in the land of their former allies.

“We cannot return to Laos.” said Hang Sao, 40, who was resettled in Seattle in 1978 with his wife and four children. Now working as a counselor for other resettled refugees, he was one of three representatives elected by the Hmong at the Thai camp of Ban Vinai to scout the proposed site. The other two still live at the camp.

“Many young people wish to come to the United States, but they are rejected by the Immigration (Immigration and Naturalization Service),” he said.

“About Guyana, I cannot say good or bad, but if the Hmong can live together and have good support, good tools to build their lives there, then 1 think maybe it is OK.”

Considering the choices, he said, Guyana may be their best hope. About 35,000 Hmong still at Ban Vinai are expected to decide this week whether to accept the proposal. The three tribal leaders who visited the site last month reportedly have recommended approval if the Guyana government will agree to admit at least 10,000 Hmong. A spokesman for the government, which last week agreed to accept an initial group of 1500 with more admissions contingent on the success of the first group, said the Cabinet would consider the larger number.

The Hmong — the name means “free men” — were known as fiercely independent people in the hills of Laos. The lowland Lao who dominated the country sometimes ridiculed them as bumpkins who had no written language and wore peculiar clothing, hut the Hmong also were noted as good soldiers.

In the early 1960s, when the United States wanted to stall North Vietnamese troops in Laos but was prohibited by international agreement from sending its own troops, the Central Intelligence Agency enlisted the Hmong as surrogate soldiers in its “secret war.” By the time the United States withdrew from the region in 1975, an estimated 10,000 of Laos’ 350,000 Hmong had been killed in action.

The end of the Vietnam War did not bring peace for the Laotian survivors. In the last five years, the Pathet Lao, the new Communist government backed by Hanoi, has destroyed their mountain villages in Phou Bia province with artillery barrages. Some refugees have reported that poison gas — they call it “the yellow rain” — has also been used against them.

So thousands of Hmong, some still carrying American-issued weapons, began to make their way through the mountains and across the Mekong River into Thailand. Relief officials have estimated that one-third died from hunger or warfare on the way, and at the river Thai military sometimes forced them back to Laos at gunpoint. Thailand remains ambivalent about sheltering the refugees from Laos and Cambodia who come across its borders. But United Nations’ refugee camps in Thailand now house 69,000 Laotian hill people, most of them Hmong. Another 5000 arrive each month.

The Hmong have been — and remain — among the forgotten refugees of Indochina despite their suffering and despite the U.S. role in causing their plight. Television film of drowning Vietnamese “boat people” and, la ter, of starving Cambodians has prompted international outrage and help. But the Hmong have stayed for years in isolated camps without adequate water, food or medicine.

About 22,300 Hmong have been resettled in the United States, more than half of them arriving last year. There are fledgling Hmong communities in Santa Ana, Calif., and Missoula, Mont. Some have encountered great difficulty adjusting, however, because their new life is in such stark contrast to their own primitive culture.

Now there are not enough existing resettlement slots in western countries for the rest of the Hmong refugees. There is growing resistance in the United States and elsewhere to continued admission of large numbers of Indochinese. They cannot return to Laos. And they cannot remain indefinitely in Thailand.

Representatives of World Relief and World Medical Missions were in Thailand about a year ago when someone suggested establishing a refugee community in an undeveloped country. The two agencies and several other fundamentalist Christian groups, including the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and two Dutch organizations, formed the Christian Refugee Team International and set out to find 200 square miles of suitable land available for settlement.

Guyana, a country the size of Kansas that has a socialist government, has for years encouraged outsiders backed by sufficient funds to settle in the interior. It is a sort of homesteading policy that exchanged virtually free land for capital development. The Peoples Temple commune at Jonestown, where more than 900 followers of the Rev. Jim Jones died in November 1978, was one of several religious and other organizations that took advantage of the program.

In November, after months of discussion, a formal proposal was submitted to the government of Guyana for the Hmong settlement. The Cabinet ap proved the proposal in December. Last month, consortium leaders went to Guyana for the final negotiations. With them were an official of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, a Thai government official and the three Hmong tribal leaders.

The consortium has plans to raise as much as $15 million to support the still-unnamed settlement until it is self-sufficient and grows its own food and coffee for export.