January 11, 2010
Below is an article published by the Wausau Daily Herald:
On Dec.18, 2010 the White House released a statement by President Barack Obama extending warm wishes to the nation's citizens celebrating the Hmong New Year, the first such statement to be released by an American president.
By Dec. 24, the U.S. State Department was expressing its "deep regret" over the government of Thailand's decision to forcibly expel more than 4,000 Hmong refugees back into Laos on Dec. 28, where they face a hostile government accused of numerous human rights violations.
But for Hmong activists in the United States who have watched the events unfolding overseas, all of that lip service has not been joined with real political commitment.
"The U.S. State Department did not do their job to save these people," said Vaughn Vang, director of the Lao Hmong Human Rights Council, which is based in Green Bay. "If President Obama or the State Department said to Thailand, 'No, you cannot send them back,' then Thailand would not have sent them back."
The U.S. government, along with the United Nations and multiple international human rights organizations, opposed the Thai government's decision to close the Hmong refugee camp and force the residents' repatriation into Laos. But Vang and other activists say that greater pressure could have made a difference. Along with Japan, the United States is Thailand's largest trading partner, accounting for more than 11 percent of its exports in 2008.
In Wausau, even Hmong without family ties to the camps have watched developments with a sense of frustration. Cheng Lee, a former director of the Multicultural Resource Center at the University of Wisconsin Marathon County and now a student in Stevens Point, said he feared for the refugees.
"There are so many stories from the Hmong of the torture that many Hmong have to endure," Lee said. "If the United Nations had really pushed for the Thai and Lao government to (prevent the camps' closing) ... they would be safe."
"I really believe that because the Hmong do not have their own country, no other country really cares," Lee said. "There is not a set government to stand up and give their voice for the Hmong."
Rebecca Sommer is a German-born filmmaker and activist whose documentary film "Hunted Like Animals" included footage captured by Hmong refugees targeted by the Lao government and fleeing through the jungles, some on their way to Thai refugee camps. Sommer has worked with the United Nations on Hmong refugee issues for years.
She said it has been clear for some time that the Thai government planned to send refugees back, but that officials had repeatedly made assurances that those known to be veterans of the Secret War would not be deported. Those veterans, who fought alongside Americans in a CIA-backed effort against the communist regime in Laos, are thought to be at particular risk from the Lao government.
Sommer, a representative for the Society for Threatened Peoples International, a human rights organization with consultative status to the United Nations, said she personally received those assurances from Thai government officials.
"They always promised that they would not send these people back," she said. "They said, 'We know there are people who cannot be sent back. ... We assure you, we assure you, we assure you.'"
Those assurances turned out to be false.
Today, Hmong families across north central Wisconsin and the United States with ties to those in the refugee camps are struggling to hear any news from their families about where they will end up and whether they will be safe. Vang, of the Lao Hmong Human Rights Council, said he has heard that the 4,000 repatriated refugees were being split into two groups. Those who have relatives in Laos will be placed with their families, while others will be placed in a new camp.
Sommer said she has heard reports from more than one source of Hmong refugees in Laos being tortured, forced to work and kept in a cell with standing water up to the knees, unable to lie down or to sleep.
U.S. senators from Wisconsin and Minnesota, Russ Feingold, Al Franken, Herb Kohl and Amy Klobuchar, released a joint statement in December condemning the repatriation and calling for the Lao government to "allow immediate and ongoing monitoring by international observers at all stages of the resettlement and reintegration process."
At this point, activists say such monitoring might be the best remaining hope for those concerned about the safety of the refugees. Sommer said she would make a call, with "a very loud scream," for the Lao government to allow observers into the camp.
"Not this high-level so-called NGO (non-governmental organization)" that could be subject to official manipulation, she said. "We want to go in. My organization specifically, we demand to be let in. ... We want access together with the Hmong delegation. They all have to have the right to come and see their relatives -- with no Lao military breathing down their necks."
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