Hmong Journey for Freedom

By Mai (Maib) Xiong, Ed. D. Delta College, Stockton, CA

Counselors, social workers, and educators who work with the Hmong people must be aware of, and
understand, the traumatic experiences of Hmong prior to their arrival in the United States. Many of the
Hmong people were abused by the communists, spent many years in the Laotian jungle, and suffered
physically and psychologically in their journey to Thailand and in the Thai refugee camps before
seeking freedom and democracy in America. A more detailed account of these difficult times follows.

The United States and North Vietnam signed an agreement in Paris in 1973 to withdraw their military
forces from Cambodia, Laos, and South Vietnam (Yang, 1993). In 1974, the Pathet Lao (the Lao
communist government) prepared an 18-point policy called the Program for Achieving Peace,
Independence, Neutrality, Democracy, Unification, and Prosperity of the Kingdom of Lao to gain
citizens’ support, so they could take over Laos (Hamilton-Merritt, 1993). When the Pathet Lao took over
the country in 1975, they violated this 18-point policy and began a bloody campaign against the Hmong
in retribution for helping the Americans during the Secret War in Laos (Bliatout, Downing, Lewis, &
Yang, 1988).

In May 1975, the CIA evacuated General Vang Pao (the Hmong leader), his top military leaders, and
their families to Thailand. Many of the lower ranking military leaders, soldiers, educators, and wealthy
families were not evacuated with the General. Fearing persecution, they traveled to Vientiane, the
capital of Laos which is near the Thai border. When they arrived in Vientiane, they secretly contacted
and bribed some Laotian civilians or policemen to help them cross the Mekong River on the border of
Laos and Thailand into Thailand (Hamilton-Merritt, 1993; Lee, 1991). In their journey, according to the
author’s personal observation, they left many of their cousins, relatives, and friends behind. They said
goodbye with tears, knowing that they might never seen each other again. Those who were uneducated
and poor remained in Laos. Shortly after General Vang Pao left the country, the communists started to
arrest thousands of men and sent them to re-education camps, from which most never returned, nor
were they ever seen again. The Hmong had no choice but to organize a resistance force to defend
themselves and their villages by using the rifles that their American allies had left behind.

In the author’s personal observation, the Hmong were able to defend their villages and fields from 1975
to 1976. The communists organized a massive troop movement against the Hmong in 1977, and they
were driven from their homes. Many of them, including their wives and children, fled and hid in the
jungle. The communists attacked the villages, burned the houses, destroyed the crops, and killed the
livestock. Many communist soldiers raped the Hmong women and killed the children who surrendered
because they could not run away. For example, according to P. Xiong (personal communication, July 6,
1995), one of the Hmong who resisted, in December 1978, he saw the communists arrest 16 Hmong
women and children in the jungle. They tied these people together and opened fire, killing them all.

In 1977 and 1978, the Pathet Lao troops heavily shelled the Hmong everywhere in the jungle using
artillery (85s, 105s, 155s, and 130s) that slammed into the jungle, ripping up trees, knocking down their
protection and exposing the Hmong to the communist soldiers (Hamilton-Merritt, 1993). The Pathet Lao
pilots flew abandoned U.S. spotter planes to attack the Hmong with conventional weapons and with
poison bombs, darts, and nails. According to Hamilton-Merritt (1993), the Pathet Lao also used these
planes for chemical warfare, spraying the so-called “red” and “yellow” rain on them. Those who were
affected by the poison bombs and chemical warfare suffered nose and mouth bleeding, nausea and
severe stomach cramps followed by diarrhea.

The Hmong had no food supplies in the jungle. They had to eat whatever was available to survive, such
as leaves, bugs, lizards, mice, buds, bark, bamboo shoots, wild potatos, and many other things
(Hamilton-Merritt, 1993). Toward the end of 1978, the Hmong ran out of things to eat because they had
stripped bare the land and the foliage. Many people, especially children and elders, were dying from
starvation, diseases, and chemical warfare. About 50,000 Hmong people were killed between 1975
and 1978 (Quincy, 1988). While others remained and continued to fight, the survivors made their
journey to Thailand. The journey required from 15 days to a month of walking.

In their jungle paths to Thailand, many families had to abandon their weak and dying family members
and relatives who could not walk. Hamilton-Merritt (1993) wrote that one crying child could alert the
enemy and cause the deaths of all; therefore, when crossing a road or nearing an enemy village, those
who had opium mixed small quantities of it with water and gave it to all children to put them to sleep.
Those who had no opium placed their hands over the children’s mouths when they cried, so the enemy
could not hear. Many children died in this way because the parents gave the children too much opium
or covered their mouths too long. If a child died, parents dug a hole, piled dirt on top of the child, and
walked on.

The Pathet Lao tried to stop the Hmong from fleeing the country by killing them in ambushes, mining
their paths, and sending captives back for punishment (Bliatout, Downing, Lewis, & Yang, 1988). Many
did not survive the trek because they were shot by the communist soldiers, stepped on land mines and
were killed, died of starvation, or drowned when they tried to cross the Mekong River. One group of
about 8,000 people began their journey, but only 2,500 arrived in Thailand (Quincy, 1988). When the
Hmong reached Thailand, many were robbed by the Thai patrol soldiers or civilians before they got into
the refugee camps. Some were returned to Laos by the Thai patrol officers, especially those who had
nothing for the officers to steal.

Those families who could not abandon their weak and dying family members and relatives had no
choice but to stay in Laos and care for them and surrender to the communists. According to Hamilton-
Merritt (1993), they became prisoners and were poisoned, starved, maimed, tortured, and raped by the
communist soldiers. Those who managed to escape again returned to the jungle to join resistance
groups that continue to fight to this day.

Hmong lives changed dramatically after their American allies abandoned them in 1975. They lost their
homeland, and many of them were killed or sent to re-education camps. Many of the resisters
surrendered to the Pathet Lao, while others remained in the jungle and continued to fight for freedom.
Others fled to Thailand to seek freedom in Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the United
States and other countries. They lost many of their family members, cousins, relatives, and friends and
also left many behind. The Hmong people experienced tremendous hardships in their search for
freedom and democracy.

References

Bliatout, B. T., Downing, B. T., Lewis, J., & Yang, D. (1988). Handbook for teaching Hmong-speaking
students. Sacramento, CA: Spilman Printing Company.

Hamilton-Merritt, J. (1993). Tragic mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the secret wars for
Laos, 1942-1992. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Lee, P. (1991). Health care systems utilized by the Hmong in California: A case study in Stanislaus
County. Unpublished master’s thesis, California State University, Stanislaus.

Quincy, K. (1988). Hmong: History of a people. Cheney, WA: Eastern Washington University Press.

Yang, D. (1993). Hmong at the turning point. Minneapolis: WorldBridge Associates.