Vang Pao was the first in 500 years to unite about 18 different Hmong clans. He led the Hmong, a remote, rural ethnic minority who lived in the mountains of Laos, into war, siding with the Americans against the communists in a secret front of the Vietnam War. When the United States lost the war, the Hmong were left hunted and on the run.
To others, Vang Pao's death marks the end of a contentious era. "People thought he was crazy," says Mai Der about Vang Pao's alleged coup to overthrow the Laos government in 2007.
Perhaps General Vang Pao's coup to overthrow the Lao government in 2007 was too extreme for some people. I do see a similarity between the Hmong people and the early American settlers who landed on North America. The American's did not want to be controlled by the British government and rebelled successfully. The Hmong people, however, were not so fortunate.
His men attacked Communist forces along the Ho Chi Minh trail that snaked through north-east Laos, and rescued downed American bomber pilots. Some 35,000 Hmong died in battle.
Rag-tag Hmong rebels remain in the remote jungles of Laos. For Vang Pao, it was unfinished business. In old age he may have dreamed of a comeback. In 2007 American prosecutors accused him of plotting the overthrow of the Lao government by recruiting mercenaries to seize the capital. The charges were later dropped, and the whole case then collapsed. Asked last week about his death, Laos said it had no comment. Its Communist rulers have other matters to attend to.
Hamilton-Merritt does mention in her book that General Vang Pao did order the execution of one of his soldiers, citing that “traitors were dealt with harshly in Laos” and executed one of his soldiers on suspicion of treason.
His father was Nengchu Vang and his mother was Sao Song Thao. He had eight sisters, four of whom still live in California and MN and two brothers who died before the Vietnam War ended. General Vang Pao raised not only his twenty-five biological children, he also raised all his brothers’ children.
General Vang Pao quickly organized 7,000 guerrillas, then steadily increased the force to 39,000, leading them in many successful battles, often against daunting odds. William Colby, C.I.A. director in the mid-1970s, called him ''the biggest hero of the Vietnam War.''
Vang Pao was a general in the official Laotian Army, the chief of a secret army financed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the undisputed leader of the varied factions of his people, the Hmong. Tens of thousands of them followed him in his flight to Thailand after the Communist victory in 1975. Later, in the United States, he was so revered that some of his people believed he had supernatural powers.
In 1975, after Saigon fell, Vang Pao and his fighters were all but abandoned. Thousands were killed, and tens of thousands took to the hills or traveled overland to camps in neighboring Thailand. Some languish there still...
..The government did not officially acknowledge Hmong fighters until 1997. That year, Washington recognized their heroism with a small copper plaque. Vang Pao and some 3,000 veterans attended the ceremony.
He was born in the Laotian jungle in 1929 and died Jan. 6 in suburban Clovis, Calif. Along the way, General Vang Pao, son of Hmong farmers, became a key, if controversial, American ally and the symbolic father of a persecuted people.