BANGKOK – For 24-year-old Pa Kou Vang, home is a shared room in the heaving alleys of Bangkok where she shields herself with silence so locals don’t hear her accent and call the police.
Selling fried chicken on the streets for about $4 a day, she does her best to care for and protect her 5-year-old daughter.
A Hmong immigrant from Laos, Vang learned to hide from vengeful authorities as a child, because decades ago her ancestors were armed by the US to fight against communists during the Vietnam War.
Since the war ended, the US had resettled more than 253,000 persecuted Hmong refugees like Vang, who typically sought asylum through camps set up in Thailand. Some Laotian authorities persist at seeing Hmong as conspirators for the US, harassing and tormenting them.
“The Lao government continues to view the Hmong with suspicion and in some cases outright hostility, and are inclined to believe the worst about them,” Deputy Director Phil Robertson for Human Rights Watch in Bangkok wrote in an email.
Representatives of the Laotian government did not respond to GlobalPost’s requests for comment.
In 2009, the Thai government stopped hosting the refugees in an effort to improve diplomatic relations with Laos. Authorities destroyed the remaining camps and deported about 4,500 Hmong, including Vang and her 1-month-old daughter.
Vang is among the thousands of forgotten Lao Hmong who have lived in this grim limbo since, either ducking attention in their homeland because of the danger there, or living in the shadows in Thailand, in fear of deportation.
When she was deported from Thailand in 2009, Vang was already an experienced migrant.
She first fled Laos around 2005, as a pre-adolescent with her adoptive mother after her father died from illness. She was arrested soon after and returned with 26 other children. Upon crossing the border, Laotian police singled her out, she said, because she shared the surname of a general who commanded the secret Hmong army in the 70s. She says she was nearly interrogated to death.
“They kept telling me I was a spy for the US, but I wasn’t,” said Vang in broken Thai. Crying, she recounted waking up naked in an isolated room after being starved and beaten for several days. “I was sure they were going to kill me.”
After about two months of incarceration she and the other children were released. Vang had lost contact with her mom, so in fear of the Laotian police she made another dash across the Mekong River to Thailand, where she remains today, scraping by, worried her daughter will not be able to go to school.
A refugee director at the US Department of State says there are two avenues into the country for people like Vang. One is to trudge to America on her own and apply for asylum once she’s there. The other would be to acquire a reference from the United Nations High Commission of Refugees (UNHCR) based in Bangkok. However, that’s the same agency that Vang says has ignored her case and many others’ since the 2009 deportations.
Between January of 2010 and July of 2012, the US had only granted Laotians asylum in 77 cases, a total of 268 people. The country has not taken another Laotian Hmong case since then.
“What’s happened in the last couple years is that the UNHCR has not referred any cases,” said US State Department Deputy Director of Refugee Admissions Kelly Gauger.
But human rights lawyers in Bangkok say cases like Vang’s continue to accumulate, on top of an emerging list of Vietnamese Hmong ones, and they are all being dismissed. They claim that the UNHCR since the 2009 cutoff has enabled Thailand to be selective about who can stay in the country by denying Hmong requests while accommodating others’.
The UNHCR, however, denies those claims.
“There is no formal agreement (with the Thai government), but in recent years newly-arriving Lao Hmong have not approached UNHCR’s office in Bangkok to seek asylum,” spokeswoman Vivian Tan wrote in an email.
GlobalPost asked Tan about Vang’s case and that of Xiong Mai Ka Yang, a mother of six whose husband was arrested in Thailand on his way to his construction job despite her family already being granted refugee status.
Both have files with UNHCR, but Tan said that UNHCR does not comment on individual cases for confidentiality reasons.
Vang and Yang, 35, were nervous to meet GlobalPost because they said other Hmong neighbors grow suspicious and worry for their safety. When people within this hidden community leave the premises, they might draw unwanted attention back to them.
Vang translated Hmong to Thai for Yang, who came with her brother to a mall because it was an unlikely place to see and worry other Hmong. Yang did not touch her mocha the entire time she spoke. But all three asked that their actual names be published in hopes of provoking movement with their cases. Yang’s brother said they have family who made it to Wisconsin and Australia through UNHCR, before 2009.
“We are still hoping the UN can help us,” Yang said in Hmong.
With a face stained from tears, Vang said that the visit to the mall was one of the happiest days she could remember because it was a break from hiding. She said she felt that her only option is to hope for resettlement in “any country.”
“I cannot go back to Laos. They will jail me again,” she said.
It is not entirely clear where the Hmong originally came from. Most probably their ancestors lived in Tibet and China. The Hmong have a very strong urge to remain independent. Attempts from Chinese authorities to subjugate them and force them to integrate has led to a real Hmong diaspora.
By the end of the 19th century the first Hmong villages were established in Northern Thailand.Many Hmong fled from Laos to Thailand and were resettled in the United States after 1975.
Where do they live?
Laos, Vietnam and China have very sizable Hmong populations. Many Hmong live in the United States with large Hmong populations in Minnesota, California and Wisconsin.
The Hmong have lots of subgroups. These vary in the different countries.
The sub groups in Thailand are the Black Hmong, White Hmong and Striped Hmong.
The Black Hmong are located in Nan, Chiang Rai, Tak, Phrae, Phetchabun and Phitsanulok. They are distinguished by their costume. Their women wear their hair in a bun and wear dark blue and white pleated knee length skirts with embroidered borders. The men wear a black or dark blue jacket without collar and have wide sleeves and cuffs. Both women and men wear a lot of jewelry made of silver.
The Striped Hmong can be found in the west of Nan. They wear Black trousers with a dark jacket with embroidered collars and green, white and blue stripes on their long sleeves.
The White Hmong are to be found in Nan and Chiang Rai. Their women wear long loose dark blue trousers with plain long sleeved jackets with embroidered collar flaps and a turban. On festive occasions they wear a white skirt with stripes of embroidery down the front [ thus their name ].
The Hmong People belong to the Austro-Thai linguistic family of the Miao-Yao sub group.
The Hmong in Thailand believe in a mixture of animism and shamanism with ancestor worship. Villages have spirit shrines to protect from evil. There are village and house spirits. The Hmong bury their dead and believe each person has three souls, and that upon death, one goes to heaven, one goes to be reincarnated and the other remains in the grave with the corpse.
Culture and lifestyle
The Black Hmong are located in Nan, Chiang Rai, Tak, Phrae, northern Phetchabun and Phitsanulok. They are distinguished by their costume. Their women wear their hair in a bun and wear dark blue and white pleated knee length skirts with embroidered borders. The men wear a black or dark blue jacket without collar and have wide sleeves and cuffs. Both women and men wear alot of jewelry made of silver. If you have Comcast cable deals you may have seen documentaries on the Hmong sub groups and have seen their traditional outfits.The Striped Hmong can be found in the west of Nan.
They wear Black trousers with a dark jacket with embroidered collars and green, white and blue stripes on their long sleeves.The White Hmong are to be found in Nan and Chiang Rai. Their women wear long loose dark blue trousers with plain long sleeved jackets with embroidered collar flaps and a turban. On festive occasions they wear a white skirt with stripes of embroidery down the front.
Traditional rice growing and gardens in the hills is being replaced by emphasis on other cash crops — cabbage, potatoes, tomatoes and strawberries — which were introduced as a substitute for opium growing. Hmong are involved in several royal projects such as the Doi Inthanon Royal Project and the Huay Luek Development Centre near Chiang Dao which focus on crop substitution.
Read About the History of the Hmong at http://www.hilltribe.org/hmong/