Hmong, Laotian veterans honored

More than 140 people from as far away as Wisconsin, Minnesota and California gathered at Arlington National Cemetery on Thursday to honor Laotian allies who died during the Vietnam War.

This secret army of Laotians and ethnic Hmong helped the U.S. military and CIA fight the North Vietnamese army and protect a secret mountaintop electronic installation that helped coordinate night bombings.

“You have done more for our country than we did for yours,” said retired Colonel Pappy Hicks, who first served as a U.S. Special Forces adviser to the Laotian forces in the summer of 1960.

Hicks and other U.S. veterans helped lobby for the memorial, which was dedicated in 1997, 22 years after the U.S. military pulled out of Vietnam.

Laotian-American veterans wearing Army fatigues stood at attention during Thursday’s ceremony, held beneath the shade of a towering pine. Their families and friends sat in folding chairs watching as a U.S. military color guard placed a white wreath alongside the cemetery’s only plaque honoring foreign soldiers.

Later, a Buddhist monk and a relative of the Dalai Lama prayed over the small plaque and made a separate offering of flowers.

“Our hearts still remember them,” said Kayasith Rattanavongkoth, president of the International Buddhist Fellowship Society.

This annual ceremony and a congressional reception held the night before serve as a periodic reunion for a widely dispersed ethnic population that was brought to the United States mostly from refugee camps in Thailand. Those camps were set up after the fall of the Laotian monarchy in 1975 and the establishment of a one-party communist regime.

Another wave of relocations from Thailand is scheduled to begin next month — a happy event for families who attended Thursday’s ceremony and are looking forward to being reunited with relatives.

Lee Chang of St. Paul, Minn., who brought his two teenage daughters to the ceremony, said one was an infant and the other was a toddler when they last saw an aunt — his wife’s sister — in June 1992.

Despite the joy over the pending reunification, leaders of the Laotian-American community remain concerned about the treatment of relatives still in Laos.

The House voted 408-1 last week to urge the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to allow international human-rights groups to visit restricted parts of the country and to accept international election monitors.

“The resolution outlines a number of infringements on the rights of the people in Laos and lays out the facts of the situation,” said Rep. Tom Petri, R-Fond du Lac, one of the sponsors.

Philip Smith, a Washington activist for the Laotian community, praised the vote for drawing attention to a pattern of abuses.

“It puts on the record things the Hmong community has been saying for the last several years,” Smith said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy of the Laotian government said his country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a response, but he did not have a copy.

The ministry in Vientiane did not respond to an e-mail seeking a copy of the statement, but a French news agency quoted the ministry as saying the congressional resolution could be interpreted as interference in another country’s internal affairs.

On the Net: Lao Veterans of America,; Wisconsin Lao Veterans of America,; Lao People’s Democratic Republic Embassy to the United States, Also see: Loatian Memorial At Arlington National Cemetery

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