Valley Hmong worry over 4,000 refugees' fate

Fresno-area Hmong thought they had additional reason to celebrate this week at the Hmong International New Year -- the U.S. government's decision not to prosecute Gen. Vang Pao, widely considered their leader here.

But the celebration, which has drawn tens of thousands to the Fresno fairgrounds, has been tempered by recent news from overseas: More than 4,000 Hmong are being repatriated from Thailand back to Laos. And the Lao government reportedly said Vang Pao faces a death sentence should he try to return to the country.

The Thai government's actions cast the longest shadow Monday. Over the weekend, Thai troops began moving Hmong from Thailand to Laos, and are expected to bring them across the border today, The Associated Press reported.

"All the people here are worried about what's happening to the people in Thailand," said Charlie Vang, executive director of the Hmong International New Year celebration -- the largest Hmong gathering in the United States.

Part of the worry stems from not having much information about what is happening to the refugees, said Pao Fang, executive director of Lao Family Community of Fresno, a nonprofit agency.

"They're being relocated without protection," he said. "We want to be sure they won't be hurt."

Many Hmong in Fresno can identify with the refugees' plight because they went through a similar experience. The Fresno area had the nation's second-largest Hmong population in the country last year, with an estimated 25,000 Hmong residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"It's a very disorienting and confusing time," said Peter Vang, who came to California from Laos more than 30 years ago, and now works as Fresno County's refugee liaison. "You don't know where you're going to end up."

Chue Thor, a 34-year-old Sacramento resident, remembers being in a Thai refugee camp in the 1980s. The camp was surrounded by fences with barbed wire.

He worried about where he would end up. He thinks the refugees going back to Laos are facing the same questions.

"I've been through this. I'm concerned about their well-being," said Thor, taking a break from the proceedings at the fairgrounds.

Thor was able to leave a war-torn country and become an engineer in California. By contrast, he said, the refugees going back to Laos "don't know what their future is."

Monday afternoon, Vang Pao was tight-lipped as he returned to the fairgrounds to watch some of the festivities. He didn't immediately address the crowd, and a representative said he would not comment about the Lao government's remarks.

Just last week, Vang Pao, who no longer faces a charge here of plotting an armed takeover of his native Laos, gave a triumphant speech to a fairgrounds crowd. He said he would go to Laos to try to liberate Hmong from the refugee camp and those trapped in the jungles.