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Hmong rally for 'The General'

Crowds at courthouse, state Capitol protest as those accused of a Laos plot plead not guilty.

By Stephen Magagnini and Denny Walsh - Bee Staff Writers

Published 12:00 am PDT Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Story appeared in METRO section, Page B1

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Thong Lor, left, of Stockton, joins a crowd of about 1,000 Hmong protesters Monday at the federal courthouse in Sacramento, yelling "Free Vang Pao." Another 1,500 protesters gathered at the Capitol in the second day of demonstrations to show support as Vang, the Hmong leader in the United States, and nine others entered pleas of not guilty on charges of planning a coup in Laos. Kevin German / Sacramento Bee

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Gen. Vang Pao, hired by the CIA to lead a secret jungle army against the Lao and Vietnamese Communists from 1961 to 1975, raised two new armies in his defense Monday.

Unlike his musket-lugging Hmong guerrilla fighters, Monday's warriors were armed with American flags, protest signs and their lungs.

"Free Vang Pao! Freedom Now!" they chanted as they marched around the Sacramento federal courthouse, where Vang, 77, and nine other defendants pleaded not guilty Monday to plotting the violent overthrow of communist Laos.

About 1,000 Hmong Americans demonstrated for six hours at the courthouse.

An additional 1,500 peacefully occupied the west steps of the state Capitol, where they drew approving honks from passing motorists but failed to draw out Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"We want Arnold to come out and say something!" declared master of ceremonies Vanmong Xiong, a Sacramento life insurance salesman. "Arnold has the power to talk to President Bush, and Bush should dismiss it (the case)!"

Xiong, 40, spoke passionately on behalf of 8,500 Hmong refugees living without legal status in Thailand and several thousand others -- the remnants of Vang's secret army and their wives, children and grandchildren -- trapped in the Laos jungles.

Laos has denied abusing the Hmong who come out to lay down their arms or look for food. But a March 23 Amnesty International report declares: "The Lao Army continues to mount violent attacks on them ... (I)n April 2006, 17 children were among the 26 people who had been killed while foraging for food. Survivors said around 15-20 soldiers from the Lao People's Army had ambushed them with rocket-propelled grenades."

Xiong, who has an uncle still in the jungle, said the U.S. government has unwittingly contributed to the slaughter by sending $30 million in foreign aid to Laos.

"Who paid for this?" he thundered. "The taxpayers of the U.S.! We pay Laos to murder our men, women and children in the jungle!"

When Hmong come out of the jungles, or are repatriated back to Laos from Thailand -- where they had fled from the communists -- "There's no accountability," Xiong said. "They're not allowing any journalists or international monitoring -- what kind of country is that?"

The Lao ambassador to the United States, Phiane Philakone, told The Bee in a telephone interview from Washington that there are no human rights violations against the Hmong. He invited reporters to see for themselves.

In front of the Sacramento federal courthouse, Hmong of all ages rallied behind "The General," as Vang is known. Moua Kong Lee, 16, a Rio Linda High School student, held a banner that read, "Gen. Vang Pao, Father of Our People, Leader Then, Leader Now, Hero Forever."

Said Lee, "I hope people will see the atrocities going on in our homeland."

John Vang, a Fresno elementary school teacher and one of Vang Pao's nephews, said the Hmong people have "endured two waves of trauma and sadness -- the first when U.S. (advisers and support troops) left Laos in 1975, leaving the Hmong people behind, disoriented and in chaos.

"Now, with the general's arrest, we feel betrayed again," Vang said of the estimated 250,000 Hmong in the United States. "Our people cannot eat, drink or sleep."

The Hmong answered the call "when the U.S. needed Hmong soldiers to fight communism, against all their powerful weapons -- now that communist expansion is over they no longer need us," he said. "We're like a bunch of buffalo -- after we plowed the land and they no longer need us, they have to kill the buffalo."

One of the speakers, Dave "Hawkeye" Downs of Fresno, told the crowd, "There's over 10,000 (Vietnam-era) GIs who owe their lives to the Hmong who kept the North Vietnamese from sweeping around through Laos to get into South Vietnam."

Downs, 65, identified himself as a former U.S. Army sniper in Vietnam who served in Army intelligence and "worked with the Hmong scouts on a regular basis."

Inside the federal building, 10 of the 11 defendants entered pleas of not guilty through their respective attorneys Monday before U.S. Magistrate Judge Dale A. Drozd.

Dang Vang, 48, of Fresno, the only defendant not present, was arraigned and pleaded not guilty Friday. All 11 defendants are due before U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr. Monday for a status conference.

Those pleading not guilty Monday are Vang Pao, 77, of Westminster in Orange County; Harrison Jack, 60, an ex-Army Ranger and Vietnam veteran from Woodland; Lo Thao, 63, of Sacramento; Lo Cha Thao, 34, of Clovis in Fresno County; Youa True Vang, 60, of Sanger in Fresno County; Hue Vang, 39, of Fresno; Chong Yang Thao, 53, of Fresno; Seng Vue, 68, of Fresno; Chue Lo, 59, of Stockton; and Nhia Kao Vang, 48, of Rancho Cordova.

The suspects are charged with conspiracy to violate the federal Neutrality Act by planning a military invasion of Laos, a nation at peace with the United States. They're also charged with conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim and injure people in a foreign country.

Monday's protests followed one Sunday at the Capitol that drew 2,000 people.

At the Monday Capitol protest, Vaming Xiong called Vang Pao "a champion for democracy."

"The Hmong people got involved with the U.S. simply for democracy, and now they're trapped in the jungle!" Xiong said. "What do we want? Freedom!"

The crowd responded, "What do we want? Freedom!!"

"It's not too late for the U.S. government to correct any of this and dismiss the case," Xiong said. "The government will see we will not give up!"

About the writer:

Theng Vang cradles an American flag Monday at the federal courthouse as he bows in a show of respect for Gen. Vang Pao, the U.S. Hmong leader accused with 10 others of plotting a coup in Laos. Kevin German / Sacramento Bee

Por Thao, 19, waves a flag as he leads Hmong protesters in a chant of "Free Vang Pao" at the Capitol. Randy Pench / Sacramento Bee

Lisa Yang takes a break from protesting Monday at the federal courthouse while her 2-year-old daughter, Keira Vang, naps in the shade. Kevin German / Sacramento Bee

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Watch a video of Monday's protest in Sacramento by Hmong Americans of all ages

Read the original criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court regarding the alleged plot to overthrow the government of Laos.

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