General Vang Pao
Dec 8, 1929 - Jan 6, 2011
Click the photo below for General Vang Pao's
Laos General and Hmong Leader Vang Pao Dies in Exile
7 January 2011 Last updated at 12:28
Vang Pao, the former general and leader of his Hmong
ethnic group in Laos, has died in exile in the US, aged 81.
He had been in hospital for about 10 days before his
death late on Thursday.
As a young man, he had fought against the Japanese during World War II, and with the French
against the North Vietnamese in the 1950s.
He led a 15-year CIA-sponsored secret war in Laos during the Vietnam
War and, when it was lost, led tens of thousands of his people into exile.
Thousands of ethnic Hmong are expected
to attend his funeral in Fresno, California.
"He'll be remembered as a great general, a great warrior, a great
Hmong soldier," his friend Charlie Waters told AFP news agency.
However the response from the Laos government
was muted. "He was an ordinary person, so we do not have any reaction," a government spokesman was quoted by AFP
'Last of his kind'
Gen Pao was a controversial figure,
deeply loved by many Hmong - an ethnic minority in Lao that complains of persecution - for his insistence on freedom from
Former Central Intelligence Agency chief William Colby once called Gen Pao "the biggest
hero of the Vietnam War".
But critics say that by allying himself with the US, Gen Pao caused his people untold
suffering - something that he himself recognised.
"I lost 17,000 men, almost 10% of the total Hmong population.
The Hmong sacrificed the most in the war and were the ones who suffered the most," he said at the Heritage Foundation
think tank in 1987.
Americans who first came into contact with him found a man skilled in warfare and with the
charisma necessary to sustain a dangerous, 15-year operation in support of the US against the North Vietnamese.
CIA airline, Air America, carried Gen Pao and his fighters across the country.
On the ground, he and his men disrupted
Vietnamese supply lines and engaged in pitched battles to try to stave off the Vietnamese-backed communist victory in Laos.
When that effort failed in 1975, Gen Pao led many thousands of Hmong into what are now well-established exile communities
in the US.
The Central Valley of California, Minneapolis and cities throughout Wisconsin have a Hmong presence
of an estimated 30,000-40,0000.
In his later years, Gen Pao was accused of leading rebellions or sponsoring subversion
against the People's Democratic Republic of Laos.
In 2007, he was charged along with nine others with plotting
to use AK-47 rifles, missiles and mercenaries to overthrow the Lao government. Charges against him were later dropped.
He was regarded by some as an exiled head of state.
"He's the last of his kind, the last of the leadership
that carries that reverence that everyone holds dear," said Blong Xiong, a Fresno city councilman and prominent Hmong-American.
"Whether they're young or old, they hear his name, there's the respect that goes with it."
Photo Slideshow of Funeral Services for General Vang Pao
For a Hmong Hero, a Lavish Farewell
By MARK ARAX
Published: February 6,
FRESNO, Calif. — If Vang Pao had died a simple
farmer like so many other Hmong here, his funeral would have been an elaborate affair.
For three days, as Hmong
custom has it, his family and friends would have mourned in high-pitched chants, feasted on freshly slaughtered beef and burned
a giant pile of paper money to buy his soul into the spirit world.
But Gen. Vang Pao was no plain Hmong elder,
and his death last month at age 81 has brought forth no ordinary grief. He is known to his people as the general, the hero
of the Central Intelligence Agency’s long-ago secret war in the jungles of Laos, a man who was leaving behind 25 children,
68 grandchildren and an uprooted nation of Hmong refugees who regard him as something near a king.
So his funeral
— six days and nights, with 10 cows slaughtered and stir-fried each day — has become a send-off for the ages.
It began last Friday, his body borne on a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of downtown Fresno, throngs
of grieving Hmong lining the way. Scottish bagpipers played “The Green Hills of Tyrol” and two T-28 planes, the
aircraft piloted by Hmong guerrilla fighters in the Vietnam War, flew overhead.
And the funeral rolled down a
long red carpet through the weekend, as thousands more Hmong from across the country, and some from as far away as Thailand
and France, strode into the convention center of this farming capital of California to say goodbye.
Many of the
Hmong here — tens of thousands of tribal people who immigrated from Thai refugee camps in the 1970s, ’80s and
’90s — wanted to see General Vang Pao buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors, befitting
a man, they say, whose Hmong battalions saved the lives of many downed American pilots. On Friday, however, the Pentagon announced
that it had denied the family’s request to waive the policy that restricts military burials at Arlington to American
General Vang Pao’s family and friends said they were “very disappointed” by
the decision. “The C.I.A. recruited Gen. Vang Pao in 1961 to lead a guerrilla force,” a statement read. “He
fought in combat situations for 15 years. The covert war resulted in the death of 35,000 of the general’s men. We strongly
believe the right thing to do is to honor his contributions to the United States.”
General Vang Pao was
certainly given a hero’s farewell in Fresno. His body rested in a coffin made of wood, right down to its nails. Hmong
custom holds that a single piece of metal, planted by a rival clan, can block the soul’s journey. His coffin was draped
by a United States flag.
All through the cavernous hall, men in wide suits and women in ornately patterned home-sewn
garments, their hats the color of eggplant, mourned and gossiped and drank and ate while their children and grandchildren
snapped photos on their cellphones.
It was, in some respects, a state funeral for a people who, decades after
landing in the United States as slash-and-burn farmers new to written language, could still see themselves as stateless.
“I have been crying for weeks,” said Youa Vang, a distant cousin of the general who buried her soldier
husband almost 40 years ago in their Laotian mountain village.
“I worry that the Americans will treat us
differently now that our father is gone,” she said. “Tell the Americans to still love us the same way.”
General Vang Pao died of pneumonia on Jan. 6, after celebrating Hmong New Year in Fresno. That it took a full
month to stage the service spoke to its intricate pageantry and the general’s singular standing, but also to the rifts
that simmer among the 18 Hmong clans over how to conduct their affairs in this land of exile.
In the end, clan
leaders decided, a three-day service would not be sufficient. The shamans would need double that time to guide the general’s
outsize soul back to his birthplace, the highlands of Laos.
If this was a traditional Hmong funeral, it came with
plenty of modifications, said Lee Vang, a nephew of the general who helped organize the service.
There were 30 spiritual
guides instead of one. The wood coffin was not like those usually favored by the Hmong: Orthodox Jewish models with the Star
of David engraved on top. This coffin, the nephew said, had been planed and carved and flown in by a team of Hmong men from
As congressmen and state senators and retired C.I.A. agents filed in to deliver speeches and bow their
heads, a scattering of old guerrilla fighters stood outside in the winter sun, puffing on Marlboro cigarettes.
Chao Xiong, 63, was dressed in a camouflage uniform that came not from his years as a jungle warrior, but from a recent shopping
spree at the local Army surplus store.
“I wear this uniform for my general,” he said through a translator.
After 20 years in America, he apologized for not knowing English. “Today, I am a soldier again.”
A version of this article appeared in print on February 7, 2011,
on page A11 of the New York edition.