Members of Congress heeded the Hmong leader. His countrymen acted in his name. Diplomats once treaded carefully around him and his troops.
“They would come to Congress, dressed in their uniforms and carrying their banners,” Doug Hartwick, a former U.S. ambassador to Laos, said in an interview Friday, “and the politicians on Capitol Hill just ran from it.”
But even before Vang Pao’s death Thursday in Clovis, Calif., the 81-year-old former army general’s hold over the Hmong community had been weakening. The shrinking of his Capitol Hill stature had accelerated with his 2007 indictment in Sacramento on charges of plotting to overthrow the Lao government.
Federal prosecutors dropped the charges in 2009. By then, he and others who had largely promoted a hard line toward Laos were being overtaken by competition from fresher voices.
“These things take a while,” another former U.S. ambassador to Laos, Wendy Chamberlin, said of the way ethnic generations succeed another. “It takes people who will stand up.”
Vang Pao, Chamberlin noted Friday, “had an enormous impact on how we related to Laos.” Still, that influence didn’t last forever. In a hint of Vang Pao’s diminished Capitol Hill stature, only one member of Congress issued a news statement during the first 24 hours following his death.
In his prime, Vang Pao could mobilize organizations that included the Lao Family Community and, up until a 2004 split, the Lao Veterans of America, based in Fresno, Calif.
The organization rallied Capitol Hill receptions, demonstrations and presentations on behalf of the Hmong. Dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of Hmong men would appear dressed in military fatigues.
Personally, Vang Pao could rely on a vast network of former spies, soldiers, diplomats and journalists who had known him for decades.
“He didn’t have the body of a warrior, but he had the spirit of a warrior,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., in an interview Friday. “People wouldn’t think anyone as courageous as he was, and as inspiring a leader as he was, would be in that body.”
Born in 1929, Vang Pao had begun fighting as a teenager against the Japanese. He then fought with the French against the North Vietnamese. In 1961, he started fighting alongside the CIA and U.S. Special Forces. When communists took over Laos in 1975, he became a leader of many Hmong in the U.S.
Hartwick, who served as U.S. ambassador from 2001 to 2004, cautioned that it could be “hard to connect the dots between Vang Pao and the Hmong organizations.”
Still, Hartwick underscored how hard-line factions aligned with Vang Pao were “very effective in positioning themselves as the voice of the Hmong people.” For example, Vang Pao’s Capitol Hill allies succeeded in blocking the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Laos from 1999 to 2001.
Persistent lobbying also helped secure special citizenship benefits in 2000 for Hmong veterans and family members, enabling them to take the U.S. citizenship test in their native language. In 2001, further lobbying secured an additional 18-month extension for the unusual citizenship program.
Every passing year, though, seemed to undercut hard-line power.
“As the Vietnam War (generation) faded, it slowly but surely disappeared,” Rohrabacher said of Vang Pao’s political influence.
For much of the past two decades, Laos urgently sought the normal trade relations with the U.S. enjoyed by most other countries. The punishing U.S tariffs averaged about 45 percent.
Groups including the Lao Veterans of America consistently rallied opposition to changing the trade policy.
Outside Congress, resistance could be harsh. Once, Chamberlin recalled, she received a death threat before a Minnesota speech promoting better trade relations. Hartwick recalled that hard-liners tried to picket him in Fresno. Within the Hmong community, Hartwick said, there were “a lot of intimidation tactics, very ugly stuff.”
Finally, through legislative sleight-of-hand in 2004, Congress approved normal trade relations with Laos. At the time, overall trade between the U.S. and Laos totaled about $8 million.
By 2008, total trade between the two countries reached $60 million. Trade is still increasing, further aiding the country Vang Pao left long ago.
“I started to learn that the Hmong-American community is not monolithic,” Hartwick said. “It’s not of one voice.”