April 24, 2008

Hmong: International Inaction is Condemning a People

Sample ImageCountless reports have documented the dire situation of displaced Hmong, but little is being done, either by Laos’ neighbours or in the international community.

Below is an article written by Tom Rainey-Smith and published by the Seoul Times:

The Hmong are a minority people facing annihilation eking out an existence in the mountainous northern region of Laos and in refugee camps in Thailand. For those who live on the run, constantly in fear for their own and their families' lives, the lifestyle is one of forced primitivism; a hunter-gatherer subsistence where they are the hunted. They live in small communities, visibly scarred with the wounds of their struggle and swollen from malnourishment. The mental wounds, which are frequently revealed in the refugee camps, may take longer to heal. According to the Society for Threatened Peoples, recent reports suggest that to the Lao soldiers hunting the Hmong in the northern highlands their lives are worth a measly 675,000 won each.

Ethnic Hmong originally migrated from south eastern China in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries and spread out into South East Asia where they now make up populations in Laos, Cambodia, southern China, Thailand and Vietnam. According to the Lao government, ethnic Hmong make up 8% of the population at over 450,000. It is estimated by human rights organizations that up to 15,000 Hmong live on the run. These people, including women, children and elderly, are the relatives of the 60,000 Hmong who were recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the United States to fight against the communist forces in Vietnam and Laos during the Vietnam War. The Pathet Lao victory in 1975 was followed by a mass exodus of people from Laos (around 300,000 in ten years) with a large number resettling in third countries and over 125,000 ethnic Hmong resettling in the US.

Long forgotten, these so-called remnants of the Vietnam War have now been abandoned by the US and continue to be targeted by the Lao military for a role that was mostly played by their relatives and recent ancestors. Those fighters who remain are small in number and still brandish US arms dating back 30 years. Most of the weaponry and ammunition that these communities carry with them for protection are so outdated that they are functionally useless. Irrespective of this, the Hmong's feeble weapons are irrelevant as an effective form of protection against the Lao military which indiscriminately targets those who leave their safety to forage for food.

Food itself can take a good part of the day to collect and medical aid is all but available. The jungle Hmong live off dried roots and wild fruits and constantly face starvation. While couriers do form a link between the Hmong and civilization, this contact is rare and risks the lives of all those involved. It is common for the Hmong to spend less than one month in one location before it is time to migrate in order to stay a step ahead of the Lao soldiers.

The Hmong are facing a losing battle. Independent human rights monitors from outside of the country are barred access, and while no official estimates have been suggested it is very unlikely that the actual death toll will ever be known. From the number of wounds and lost relatives reported to visitors by the Hmong, the toll has been clearly devastating.

Another aspect of the resettlement mentioned earlier has resulted in the Hmong crossing the border to seek asylum in Thailand in order to escape the ongoing persecution in Laos. In May 2007, a border security agreement was signed between Laos and Thailand which allows Thailand to repatriate Hmong asylum seekers as soon as they arrive. This is a violation of the principle of non-refoulement which is a jus cogens of international law and protects refugees from being returned to a country where their freedom or safety will be threatened – clearly the exact kind of situation the Hmong are being forced back to inside Laos. The Thai government argues that these people, who are simply a "burden in every way to [Thailand]" in the words of the Thai Prime Minister, are illegal immigrants and that Thailand will not be breaking any laws by sending them back.

According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), 31 Hmong were forcibly repatriated in May last year, followed by another 163 in June. In total, 448 Hmong have been repatriated since November 2006. MSF provides medical care to the inhabitants of the Huai Nam Khao refugee camp in Petchabun, Thailand where around 8,000 asylum seekers await their fate in a camp surrounded by barbed wire and Thai military guards. Western nations including the United States, Australia and Canada have already indicated that they will accept resettlement of some of the refugees, but the Lao government, with cooperation from Thailand, is pushing for repatriation.

Laotian authorities describe many of the repatriations as voluntary, a claim that is disputed by the United Nations, MSF and other volunteers. The government has even produced a film for the refugees and international organizations, which shows some of those who were forcibly repatriated being welcomed back and given farming land, houses and government support. This image is in stark contrast to the one described by Amnesty International in its March 2007 report. The report details the experiences of Hmong who have tried to leave their life in the jungle. It notes that families are often separated and resettled in areas designated by the Laos authorities. Women are often separated from men and some women have had to face virtual enslavement, torture and rape. With no real information being released by the government, there is no clear indication that those being forcibly repatriated will fare much better. According to Ann Peters, a long-time Hmong rights activist who worked on a housing project for the refugees said that many of those refugees she spoke to at the Nong Khai Immigration and Detention Centre last January "said they would commit mass suicide if they were forced to return to Laos." A telling indication of how safe they feel about returning to their former country.

The United Nations are aware of the situation but are seemingly powerless to prevent the ongoing atrocities; they have been denied access to the refugees in Thailand and the highland Hmong. Non-state actors also face a difficult task in documenting the ongoing atrocities as all are denied access to the region. Consequently, the only real contact that journalists and human rights workers have been able to make have been through clandestine visits to the jungle during which they put their own lives at risk.

It seems that only with increased pressure from the international community to force Laos and Thailand to commit to the principles of international law that the bloodshed and persecution will come to an end. This would mean letting independent human rights monitors in the northern jungle areas of Laos, allowing proper screening of refugees inside the Huay Nam Khao camp in Thailand, and establishing concrete measures to allow the highland Hmong to seek haven in another country, and, for those who choose, to return to society safely after 30 years on the run. Pressure also needs to come directly from the government of the United States, where many Hmong have already resettled, in recognition of its failed historical role in the region.

We all know the philosophical conundrum, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" The Hmong are being felled like trees and without a voice they will not be heard even when the last hits the ground. In 1977 a communist newspaper stated that Lao's newly-installed communist government would track down the Hmong "to the last root." Ann Peters believes that, "If enough people act, I feel there is a chance to turn the situation around, even though it is very late for the Hmong's survival." It seems that unless concerned citizens take action to petition the Thai and Laos governments to put an end to the targeted killings and forced repatriations, the last root will indeed be uprooted – without an audible sound from the international community.

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