Vang Pao Escapes

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The decision by America to drop criminal charges against General Vang Pao, whom it had accused of plotting to overthrow the communist regime in Laos, is being greeted with joy among the freedom-loving Hmong the world over — and these columns are with them. It is hard to recall a prosecution as misguided as that which was brought against the general whose army, in league with the Central Intelligence Agency, played a heroic role in the fight against the communists during the long war in Indochina.

In America after the war, Vang Pao provided distinguished leadership to the community of exiled hill-tribesmen who could no longer stay in Laos. United States prosecutors in California blundered badly in arresting him in an effort to break up a plot against the victorious communists in Vientienne. It is nice to see that they have admitted error, even though they are still pursuing others in that plot.

The case was not widely covered, save by a few, among them our Josh Gerstein (now with Politico.com). At the time of Vang Pao’s arrest, in a sweep by some 200 law enforcement agents, federal officials were quoted by the AP as saying, “We’re looking at conspiracy to murder thousands and thousands of people at one time.” It sounded unlikely on its face, particularly to veterans of the struggle for freedom in Southeast Asia.

These columns called at the time for President Bush to take a break between the Prague Conference, which had been convened by Vaclav Havel to inspirit freedom movements around the world, so that he could exercise the presidential pardon in respect of Vang Pao. We wrote then: “The only faction who have conspired to mass murder in Laos in our time are the communists, against whom Vang Pao has been our most reliable and inspiring ally. He is a freedom fighter who will tower over any courtroom into which he is brought.”

The decision to drop the charges marked what the Los Angeles Times called “another escape for a storied war hero who defied bullets and dodged artillery on the battlefield.” It quoted his supporters saying the general is more revered now than ever. “He’s viewed as a quasi-martyr,” one of Vang Pao’s friends, Phillip Smith, executive director at the Center for Public Policy Analysis in Washington, was quoted by the Times as saying. “If these charges had remained, the government would have been putting itself on trial for betraying the Hmong.”

The episode makes us rue the fact that more is not known about the struggle of the Hmong now that leadership in our own country has passed to a younger generation that, however attractive, was not in the lists when freedom was in the balance in Southeast Asia. But a president now fighting a new and equally dangerous war in the far reaches of Asia could do worse than invite in for lunch and some advice the man against whom his prosecutors have just abandoned charges.


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