DRIVE through Frogtown, a seedy bit of St Paul, Minnesota, and the future of Laos is on display. On one side of University Avenue is Foodsmart, a supermarket owned by a Hmong businessman. On the other is the office of the Hmong Times, next door to the Asian-American press. Nearby are a Hmong bookshop, a Hmong chemist and dozens of other Hmong-run shops. Toua Xiong, who owns the supermarket, says he wants "to turn Frogtown into Hmongtown".
Unlike their relations in Communist-run Laos, the Hmong of Minnesota, some 70,000 of them, are evidently flourishing. The Hmong fought with America's CIA against North Vietnam during the Vietnam war. Hmong fighter pilots and troops attacked the Ho Chi Minh trail, part of which wound through Laos. When the Americans withdrew, thousands of Hmong fled to Thailand, and then on to America. Now, 25 years on, the Hmong want to improve matters back home. Like the Hmong who remain in Laos, those in America are riven between the militant-minded, who say the struggle against the Communists should continue, and a larger group of moderates, who would encourage trade, remittances and contact with their old country.
General Vang Pao, who once led the Hmong in battle, has stout backing from the oldest support group for the Hmong in America, the Lao Family of Minnesota. Ying Vang, its boss, says he wants America to "go and rescue our people". He suggests that "maybe we can do some economic sanctions". He claims that agents sent by the Laotian government have been creating splits among the Hmong in America. What of the recent bomb attacks in Laos, blamed on unnamed dissidents? Mr Vang does not support them. Nevertheless, he says, something must be done to stop what he calls ethnic cleansing in Laos.
The moderate Hmong in St Paul say that closer ties, not sanctions, would improve the lot of their people. Lee Pao Xiong, a Hmong politician on a government committee for Asian-American affairs, says that Hmong businessmen in St Paul would leap at the chance to invest back home. He wants to move some of Minnesota's wealth -- the state's economy was worth $161 billion in 1998 -- to Laos, which earned $1.3 billion in the same year. As Laos's neighbour, Vietnam, has found, the diaspora can be a major source of hard currency. A few former residents are now visiting Laos, says Fu Hang of the Asian Development Corporation. His father has bought land there. "When Laos opens up, then we'll do business there," he says. Others send money to build temples and to support families.
The moderate Hmong seem to be winning the argument. The Laotian royal family, which lives in France, visited Minnesota in June and encouraged Mr Lee's group. Members of the Laotian government have visited the moderates in Minnesota, much to the outrage of the militant Hmong. An article in the Hmong Times in June called the moderates reds and collaborators. But Mr Lee says, "Everything depends on us. If we succeed, we open up the door for future generations." The Hmong's dollars, if not their bullets, could yet change life in Laos for the better.