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VANG PAO: HEROIC LEADER OR DRUG LORD?;

PARK NAMING SPURS DEBATE

Pat Schneider, The Capital Times, April 17, 2002

General Vang Pao, whose name could be inscribed on a new Madison park, is a looming figure in the Hmong community whose controversial activities in the Vietnam War are little known to many Americans.

Vang Pao, commander of the CIA's secret army in Laos, has been linked to drug trafficking in Asia. He continues to wield enormous influence with Hmong refugees in the United States.

So great is the desire to honor Vang Pao in the Hmong community among veterans of the war that they are hatching a plan to dot the country with parks named for him.

"No political figure within the Hmong community has influence like General Vang Pao," said Locha Thao, the Madison Park Board member who recommended a park on the developing east side be named for him. "Ninety-nine percent of the Hmong people in the U.S. are under his leadership," Thao said.

Nevertheless, Thao's proposal to name a 130-acre regional park in the Door Creek area for Vang Pao raised a spate of commentary in the local Hmong community, for and against the prospect. Thao said this week he'll call a community meeting on the issue in May.

Others outside the Hmong community also question the suitability of naming a park for Vang Pao.

Betty Chewning is a member of a park board committee that took an initial look at the General Vang Pao Park proposal.

Vang Pao's link to opium trafficking was not discussed, said Chewning. "We didn't know that."

Alfred McCoy, now a professor of history at UW-Madison, detailed Vang Pao's role during the war in his 1972 book, "The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade."

The CIA supported Vang Pao's role in trafficking in opium -- which along with rice was a foundation of the Hmong's traditional agricultural economy -- in partial payment for supplying men for the secret army that gathered military intelligence, rescued downed U.S. air crews and fought the North Vietnamese in Laos.  CIA-run Air America aircraft were used to transport the opium crop to laboratories in the Golden Triangle where it was processed into high-grade heroin sold to U.S. troops in Vietnam and later directly to the U.S. drug market, McCoy wrote.

Controlling the opium market, McCoy said recently, was crucial for Vang Pao to maintain his leadership and transform the clan-based Hmong into a unified force.

Thao, who works as an aide to State Sen. Gary George of Milwaukee, said Tuesday he has heard some mention of Vang Pao's ties to the drug trade.

"There is a good side and a bad side to every politician serving the community," said Thao.

He said Vang Pao warrants the honor of having a park named after him because of his role in helping the United States stop the spread of communism in the Indochina war.

"Without General Vang Pao, there would be more U.S. military who would have died during the time of the war," said Thao. "You must be an intelligent person in order for the U.S. and the CIA to knock on your door and say Will you help us?' "

Wang Yee Vang, founder and national director of the Lao Veterans of America, Inc., said Tuesday that Vang Pao tried to stop Hmong farmers from relying on the opium crop as they had before the Indochina War began. "He told his people not to grow opium or sell it in the market," Vang said.

He said he worked closely with Vang Pao on the front as a combat officer in 1973 and 1974, and "I didn't see anything involved with drugs."

The U.S. in 1997 formally recognized the contributions of the forces who fought under Vang Pao, sustaining heavy losses.

Vang Pao fled Laos with his supporters when U.S. forces withdrew from Southeast Asia in 1975.

He has remained active in resettlement issues and commands the support of Hmong veterans and older and more traditional Hmong.

In California, where Vang Pao and his supporters headed private resistance and resettlement organizations that helped Hmong refugees connect with public welfare agencies, complaints about extortion and misuse of funds led to a 1990 criminal conviction against the head of one group, the United Lao National Liberation Front.

The Thai government in the mid-1990s accused Vang Pao with directing attacks on Laotian troops across the Thai border through various U.S.-based resistance organizations.

Vang Pao remains a primary figure in Hmong efforts to shape U.S. policy in Laos, said Vang Pobzeb, executive director and founder of the Lao Human Rights Council Inc. based in Eau Claire.

Vang Pao has urged U.S. officials to condemn war against people of Laos and former CIA soldiers, Vang Pobzeb said.

That campaign has killed more than 300,000 people in Laos since the end of the Vietnam War, Vang Pobzeb said.

The attacks now have taken the form of genocide, he said, with the use of chemical weapons against Hmong and Lao people by the Laotian government, he said.

U.S. officials "ignore evidence of genocide against people in Laos," said Van Pobzeb, who said he met April 11 with officials of the U.S. State Department.

Vang of the Lao Veterans said that his group is looking for local officials to sponsor naming of parks for Vang Pao in cities across the country. "He is the only man who brought the Hmong people from the 16th century to the present time," he said, referring to the vast cultural changes made as the Hmong moved from their traditional society in Laos to modern America.

Thao has argued that naming a park after a Hmong leader would recognize the growing community of Southeast Asians in Dane County.

McCoy questioned whether Vang Pao was a good choice for giving that recognition.

"I can't speak for the Hmong, but as a commander, he led his people on a futile endeavor," McCoy said. "Apart from his local acolytes, any Hmong would have to ask whether he served his people well, given their high casualties."

McCoy suggested a better namesake for a city park might be Shong Lue Yang, a messianic leader and inventor of a written form of the traditionally oral Hmong language. He developed a large following during the war.

"Whatever you might think of him, Vang Pao clearly stands for war and death, while Shong Lue Yang stands for literacy and life -- much more appropriate for a park," McCoy said.

A book on Shong Lue Yang, "Mother of Writing," by William Smalley, reports that he was assassinated in 1971 by troops reporting to Vang Pao.

One political leader based in the Twin Cities has challenged Vang Pao's resistance strategy, arguing that diplomacy would be more effective.

"As we all know in free world, there is no way to sit at a table and negotiate peace with communists," said Thao. "Without power and military troops you never can bring them to negotiation."

Members of the park board committee last week focused on whether Vang Pao would fit under city criteria for park naming -- which stress contributions to the city and park system, said Chewning.

"As the criteria were laid out, I'm not clear that he would qualify," she said.

The committee voted not to recommend to the Park Board of Commissioners that the park be named for Vang Pao, said parks superintendent Jim Morgan.

The recommendation will be presented in May or June to the full Park Board of Commissioners, whose members have the power to kill the proposal or proceed with it.

Morgan predicted a public hearing of some sort would be held, to get broad public opinion on a name for the park. "It's a big park, I think we'll get a lot of suggestions." GRAPHIC: ASSOCIATED PRESS

General Vang Pao.