The Hmong Action Network Korea (HANK) interviewed Ann Peters on the plight of the Hmong in Laos and Thailand.
HANK: Please describe your role in the Bamboo Housing Project and other work that you have done for the Hmong.
A P: For the housing project, I originated and coordinated the initial stages of the Bamboo House Project. After I returned to Korea, I worked from here via media in the U.S. (radio interviews and internet) to help the Hmong Ameicans fundraise, and CARE got extra funds from its U.S. branch to assist in funding. As the project neared completion, CARE (based in Bangkok and other places) did much of the footwork, traveling to Huay Nam Khao and keeping track of funds and arranging for building supplies. All groups kept up a dialogue by email and phone as this process neared completion and I was able to travel to Thailand and Huay Nam Khao a couple of times to meet Hmong Americans I'd worked with and check the progress of the project. The project culminated last summer with the completion of most of the houses and the refugees moving in and burning their old homes. There were meetings between all parties involved, and they included what I thought of as a kind of historical meeting at Huay Nam Khao (after General Vang Pao had been arrested) between Hmong refugees, Hmong Americans who had raised funds, CARE, and ITF. It seemed like it was quite an emotional experience for the refugees. At that time, the Thai 3rd Region Army assured us that the refugees from HNK would not be returning to Laos. All of that changed later, and rapidly.
HANK: Please describe the current situation that the refugees in Thailand are facing.
A P: As you know, the plight of the jungle Hmong in Laos and Thailand is little known by most of the world, so they have little support. I and other advocates want to change that. We feel that once people learn about what's happened to them and what's happening now, they will feel a moral obligation to speak out and to say "No, this is not right". If enough people act, I feel there is a chance to turn the situation around, even though it is very late for the jungle Hmong's survival.
HANK: Why does the Lao government still consider the jungle Hmong a threat?
A P: I do not feel that the Lao government considers the jungle Hmong a threat at all. They are quite weak and fairly defenseless. I feel that this particular situation is the result of a vendetta frame of thought that goes back to the Vietnam era. As you know, feuds of this type often don't end until the last person is gone. There are many societies in the world who have operated in this way, and the thinking is quite unevolved. I've spoken to refugees who fear for their lives if they are sent back to Laos. Last January a group of men at Nong Khai IDC SAid they would commit mass suicide if they were forced to return to Laos. So I guess that tells you how some of them feel.
There are other Hmong factions that LPDR do consider a threat to the government. As you know, last year General Vang Pao was arrested in the U.S. and accused of trying to overthrow the Lao government.
HANK: How credible is the Lao government's claim that those refugees who are being repatriated are going back to Laos willingly?
A P: I'd have to say that the LPDR's claim that the Hmong refugees will be taken care of and given land, etc. is not very credible, considering what has come before, the disappearances of people who have surrendered from the jungle, or some who have been "repatriated" from Thailand last year, the kidnappings of children from Huay Nam Khao camp who later returned to tell stories of being imprisoned and mistreated in Laos' prisons, while some of them never returned, the stories of the refugees living in the jungle who are attacked and pursued, raped and killed, and chemical weapons used on them. I've heard (from refugees) and read of too many accounts of these terrible abuses. When I interviewed Yong Chanthalansy,the spokesperson for LPDR, last winter in Thailand, he told me that the LPDR had never harmed Hmong people, which is not at all credible, coming from a country with no transparency and a history of human rights abuses against the Hmong. There's too much evidence to the contrary.
HANK: Please explain the potential role of third party nations in the resettlement process. Are Australia, the United States and Canada all willing to unconditionally accept the Hmong refugees? If so, how many would be accepted by the different countries?
Last winter, when the Thailand and Laos Governments teamed up to try and forcibly repatriate the 155 Hmong refugees in Nong Khai IDC, these third countries stepped forward and said they would each take some of the people and provide safe refuge for them and their families to live in. The process had begun already when Thailand halted it and refused to allow it. It has gone no further at this point and the people are living in degrading conditions in the detention center there to this day. The last I heard, they are not being treated well by Thai authorities. A lot of them are children. In the case of the U.S., I think that government is not too interested in taking more Hmong refugees.
HANK: How likely is it that the United Nations and human rights organizations will be allowed to take a roll in screening the refugees?
A P: The UNHCR has tried many times to get access to the refugees in Huay Nam Khao and Nong Khai IDC, but they have not been allowed. The High Commissioner has made statements many times asking Thailand to allow third party human rights organizations to monitor the people, and also to allow them their human rights and the assistance they need for their health and welfare. To the exclusion of other agencies, Thailand and Laos are working together to get rid of, as the Thai Prime Minister puts it, Thailand's "Hmong refugee problem."
HANK: How can the average person help the Hmong?
A P: At this point, individuals speaking out to people who can exert pressure on the Thai and Laos governments is one way for people to take action to try to help the Hmong. The United States is one government that has the potential to do something, though the government mostly has not seemed interested. However, thirteen U.S. Senators wrote a letter last year pleading with the king to stop the deportations. Economic sanctions seem the most viable method, but I haven't seen the U.S. moving in that direction. Thailand does not like to appear to be a human rights abuser. We noted this point last year when the government backed off with the IDC deportations after there was a lot of negative media attention. I think it is beneficial and right to call them on their behavior, and loudly. This could have some effect. However, it will be a perpetual risk until the refugees are allowed to go to third countries.