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By: Pat Schneider, The Capital Times, May 4, 2002 Saturday

Madison park commissioner Locha Thao is backing off a controversial proposal to name a park for Gen. Vang Pao, commander of the CIA's secret army in Laos during the Vietnam War.

"I don't want any controversy to mislead the community," Thao said Friday. He has asked fellow park commissioners to place his proposal on file when it comes up on their agenda Wednesday.

Thao's proposal had set off a war of words waged by Hmong veterans on Alfred McCoy, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor who linked Vang Pao to drug trafficking in Laos in a book first published 30 years ago. Thao said Friday the issue now is not what to name the park on Madison's far east side, but setting the record on Vang Pao straight.

Hmong veterans from around the state and their supporters took to the streets, picketing outside McCoy's office and demanding that he retract allegations of Vang Pao's involvement in heroin production and that the university fire him.

University officials have supported McCoy, releasing a statement citing the university's tradition of academic freedom. "We see no reason to take any action to influence Professor McCoy's views," said Chancellor John Wiley and Phil Certain, dean of the College of Letters and Science.

A week ago Thao arranged a news conference that raised the volume of the furor by adding to the mix the voices of a former pilot of Air America, the CIA-owned airline that McCoy said was used to move opium, and Jane Hamilton-Merritt, a journalist who also has authored a book about the secret war in Laos.

They disputed McCoy's claims as Sen. Gary George, D-Milwaukee, who is a candidate for governor, called on the university to investigate McCoy's work.

Vang Pao, through a spokesman, ridiculed McCoy's "Hollywood" imagination as he denied McCoy's charges.

On Friday, Thao said it was neither rumblings from park commissioners or questions from the community that led him to put the park-naming proposal on a back burner.

"I want to listen to both sides and get the story straight," Thao said. He said he will ask Wiley to meet with McCoy and representatives of Vang Pao. "They can sit down and work together and come to a conclusion."

McCoy on Friday raised concerns about such a meeting.

"To participate in any review of the book would be a trampling of academic freedom," he said. "The book has been subject to CIA review, it has been subject to peer review. It's been in print 30 years."

First published in 1972 as "The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia," his research was incorporated into a 1991 book, "The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade."

The CIA assisted in transporting Laotian opium to Southeast Asian heroin factories to cement the power of Vang Pao, who supplied ethnic Hmong villagers to protect the important Ho Chi Minh Trail from the North Vietnamese, McCoy wrote.

The CIA tried to suppress publication of McCoy's book, the New York Times reported in 1972. Government officials at that time denied abetting or engaging in the drug trade in Southeast Asia. McCoy also defended his assertions before a Senate committee in 1973.

Thao charges that McCoy was never in the region of Laos that was under Vang Pao's control and that the wealthy leader had no need for drug money. Besides, if Vang Pao had been involved in drugs, it would be well known among the Hmong people.

"Ninety percent of Hmong people do not know that," said Thao. "That means that it is not true."

But McCoy said it was from Hmong opium farmers in Laos that he learned of Vang Pao's involvement. He said he went from home to home interviewing opium farmers, who told him a consistent story.

"Air America helicopters would land on the local landing place, officers of Vang Pao's army would buy the opium for cash and fly off, the villagers said, to (the village of) Long Chieng," McCoy said. Long Chieng was the site of a heroin lab, according to McCoy's sources.

McCoy said he left the area only after Vang Pao's troops ambushed him and his guides as they traveled from one village to another in the district controlled by Vang Pao. The latter denied last week that such an ambush took place.

While detractors last week called on McCoy to apologize to the Hmong people for defaming them, the professor speaks with deep admiration of the Hmong and their aid to the United States during the Vietnam War.

"The Hmong as a people suffered incredibly. America's debt to them is infinite," McCoy said Friday. "Vang Pao is not the Hmong. I argue he led them badly."

McCoy also said that he has lectured widely in the state on the experience of the Hmong people. "I've pleaded with the people of this state to recognize what the Hmong have gone through."

McCoy said he urges the Park Commission to honor the Hmong community with a park, perhaps called Hmong Freedom Park.

Individual Hmong heroes to be so honored might include Shong Lue Yang, a messianic leader who developed the Hmong alphabet, or Touby Lyfong, the political leader of the anti-communist Hmong during the secret war in Laos, he said.