Posted at 10:43 PM on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2011
By Bethany Clough / The Fresno Bee
Gen. Vang Pao has been compared to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. and George Washington.
When the general died three weeks ago of pneumonia at age 81, the Hmong community lost an iconic figure regarded as the leader of the Hmong people worldwide.
Plans for his six-day funeral reflect his standing: Up to 40,000 people are expected to attend his memorial in Fresno, including members of the Lao royal family, former CIA operatives and American politicians. His death brought tears to people who never met him and inspired a congressman to push for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
The general often is referred to as “father” or “grandfather,” said Fresno City Council Member Blong Xiong, who attempted to explain the devotion accorded Vang.
“I know it’s hard for mainstream America to understand, and it’s even harder for them to grasp that the Hmong community views him as a figurehead like George Washington, but that’s the type of reverence that he has with a strong segment of our community,” he said.
Members of the Fresno Hmong community join hands in a prayer of thanks around a portrait of Gen. Vang Pao, wrapped with strings of blessing, during a rally at Courthouse Park in 2009 to celebrate the dismissal of federal charges against Gen. Vang. He was revered as a leader of the Hmong people.
Vang is described as a charismatic leader who guided his people through war, flight from Southeast Asia and life in new lands.
Just his presence could turn a losing battle around during the Vietnam War, according to people who served with him.
Vang was a general in the Royal Lao Army in the early 1960s when he teamed with the CIA in the “secret war” against communism in Laos.
Vang led Hmong guerrilla fighters in the jungle, rescuing downed American pilots and protecting U.S. military installations.
His forces saved countless American lives, holding off North Vietnamese soldiers from reaching American troops via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, said Robert Noble, a flight mechanic for Air America, the CIA-run air wing.
Noble, 65 and living in Washington state, sat next to Vang in a helicopter as Americans flew him to battles the Hmong were losing.
“The presence of him on site turned everything around,” Noble said. “It was like, ‘OK, the shining knight is here.’ … Just his presence could carry a battle.”
The Hmong people, who had fled China more than a century ago, still were a small ethnic minority — many of them uneducated — in Laos and surrounding countries during the war.
Vang was the first significant leader the Hmong had ever had, said Pao Fang, executive director of the nonprofit organization Lao Family Community in Fresno.
“He was able to bring the Hmong to global attention. He was able to build lasting relations [with the] neighboring countries,” he said. “No one had done that in history.”
Tens of thousands of Hmong died during the war and after, when the U.S. withdrew from Laos and the country fell to communism. Vang was evacuated to the U.S. and thousands of Hmong with refugee status followed.
His leadership continued here, where he pushed the importance of education and jobs, Fang said.
The general lived in Santa Ana in recent years, but made frequent visits to family in Fresno, home to one of the largest Hmong populations in the country.
Vang founded the first Lao Family Community organization, six of which still are operating around the country, helping refugees learn English and basic life skills.
He helped Hmong people get training through the federal Job Corps program. And he attended celebrations honoring Hmong students who earned their doctorate degrees, telling gatherings of up to 500 people that education was the key to success in the U.S., said Lue Yang, executive director of the Fresno Center for New Americans.
Vang’s image was tarnished in 2007, when he and 10 other Hmong Americans were charged with an alleged conspiracy to overthrow the communist government of Laos. Many Hmong stood by him, with 8,000 showing up at a rally in Sacramento.
The charges were later dismissed.
Some young people don’t have as strong a connection with Vang as their parents do, said Doua Lor, 22, vice president of Fresno City College’s Hmong American Student Association. He said many didn’t experience the suffering the older generation did in Laos, Thailand and other countries.
Still, they respect him, Lor said: “He’s like a father figure to all the Hmong.”
Vang’s legend has been passed to new generations. And many Hmong hang pictures of the general in uniform on their walls, including Nancy Thao of Fresno.
Thao, 35, who hosts a talk show on KGED (AM 1680), learned about Vang from her parents while growing up in Thailand. She took her 16-year-old daughter to hear Vang speak at the annual Hmong International New Year celebration every year and plans to educate her toddler about him, too.
Thao said she never met Vang in person nor shook his hand, but she views him as a leader.
“It’s very emotional for us. The more I talk about him … I’m going to cry,” she said, her voice cracking.
The six-day funeral is expected to draw people from around the world. Members of the Lao royal family — akin to Britain’s royalty, but not recognized by the communist Lao government — will attend.
Fang said many southeast Asian countries are overloaded with requests for visas needed to travel to the U.S. He is working with embassies to obtain permission for those who cannot make it to the funeral to be able to come to a ceremony held later to release Vang’s spirit.
More than 1,000 people are expected to come to the Fresno funeral from the St. Paul-Minneapolis area, which also has a large Hmong population, said Long Yang, executive director of Lao Family Community of Minnesota Inc.
Hundreds of people continue to pay their respects at a vigil at the Lao Family offices there, with 400 people filling chairs on weekends, he said.
In Fresno, the community is preparing for the funeral at the Fresno Convention & Entertainment Center.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin signed a letter posted on a memorial website to help people ask their bosses for time off from work for the funeral.
And efforts to have Gen. Vang buried in Arlington National Cemetery continue, with Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, requesting a waiver from the Pentagon. A waiver is required because the general didn’t serve in the U.S. military.
Vang was lauded by people outside the Hmong community, too, including Jane Hamilton-Merritt, a journalist and expert on Southeast Asia who wrote “Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, The Americans, and The Secret Wars for Laos 1942-1992.”
When asked who in American history could be compared to Vang, she responded in an e-mail, “To answer this important question, one might ask: Who could inspire the hopeless, the destitute, the sad, the alienated to carry on? Who could speak with such eloquence that his remarks brought tears to those listening? Who in our history worked tireless and with unending energy and courage to make life better for his fellow man?”