WASHINGTON—Former Gen. Vang Pao and other Hmong hardliners earned a Capitol Hill reputation for both power and persistence.
They've befriended lawmakers—particularly in California, where nearly half of the approximately 103,000 foreign-born Hmong live in the United States, according to the 2000 Census—bottled up trade bills and dominated congressional hearings. Doggedly anti-communist, Vang Pao in particular has been a force to reckon with.
Now he's in jail, a sharp reversal of fortune for a man long cultivated by CIA operatives and members of Congress.
"The contributions that General Vang Pao has made to the Hmong and Laotian people of California have been invaluable," Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., declared in a House of Representatives statement on May 8, 1996. "He has made a lasting impression on those individuals with whom he has been associated. I am pleased to have him as a constituent."
On Monday, federal prosecutors charged Vang Pao and nine other individuals with conspiring to overthrow the Laos government.
The arrests rocked certain corners of Capitol Hill, where Vang Pao's uncompromising martial legacy earned him many conservative allies. Past controversies never impeded his high-level federal alliances—legislative, financial and symbolic.
"They found him to be an important person and someone to listen to," said Phil Smith, a former congressional staffer who used to represent Vang Pao in Washington before a falling-out. "He was seen as a hero."
A few years ago, for instance, one California congressional staffer recalled a Capitol Hill reception that Vang Pao and other uniformed Hmong refugees attended. California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher helped rally the troops.
"Free Laos!" Rohrabacher shouted at the reception. "Free Laos!"
Rohrabacher explained Tuesday that he wanted to "encourage people to be bold," stressing that "it is not improper to use force against a dictatorship to bring it down." Rohrabacher said a key question now is whether U.S. officials had warned Vang Pao not to conduct anti-Laos activities from U.S. soil.
Both Radanovich and Rohrabacher are conservatives with warm feelings for the Hmong and antagonism for the Lao People's Democratic Republic.
Mountain residents in their native Laos, the Hmong fought alongside U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. When the war ended and the communists prevailed, tens of thousands of Hmong immigrated to the United States.
An audacious military commander, Vang Pao assumed an authoritative role in the United States as well. In 1977, for instance, he established the Lao Family Community organization to provide social services nationwide.
Smith lobbied for Vang Pao from the mid-1990s through 2004. During that time, the Hmong refugees secured legislation making it easier for Hmong veterans and their widows to become U.S. citizens. Vang Pao himself would testify before a House committee investigating the disappearance of a California man and a Minnesota resident who had disappeared along the Laos-Thailand border.
Vang Pao and sympathetic lawmakers said the 1999 disappearances of Michael Vang and Houa Ly showed Laos violated human rights, and Radanovich and other lawmakers subsequently pushed legislation to chastise Laos. Documents subsequently obtained by McClatchy Newspapers under the Freedom of Information Act, though, called into question exactly what Vang and Ly were up to.
Sources "indicated that these two (men) had been working with ethnic Lao resistance forces, (and) their disappearance was the result of being captured in Laos by Lao security forces," the July 1999 Defense Intelligence Agency memo stated.
The 1999 DIA memo further noted that "members of an ethnic Lao resistance group affiliated with Hmong leader Vang Pao" were reportedly "well-funded" and working in the area.
Citing the unsolved disappearances, Hmong refugees slowed legislation granting Laos normal trade relations with the United States. The Laotian trade relations bill finally slipped through in late 2004, backed by trade-oriented lawmakers.
By 2004, citing a "major revolt" over alleged corruption and other policy disputes, Smith said he and the Fresno, Calif.-based Lao Veterans of America split from Vang Pao. In recent years, the former general has been seen less often on Capitol Hill.