MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The Hmong community in the United States — from California to Minnesota to Wisconsin — was mourning Friday over the death of Vang Pao, a revered former general in the Royal Army of Laos who helped lead them to a new home in America after the Vietnam War.
Vang Pao died Thursday night in Clovis, Calif., near Fresno, following a battle with pneumonia. He was 81.
The general led Hmong guerrillas in their CIA-backed battle against communists during the Vietnam War. They faced persecution after the communists took over Laos in 1975, and he was credited with resettling tens of thousands of Hmong from the hills of Laos into American cities like Fresno, St. Paul and Milwaukee.
His death leaves a void in the political and cultural leadership of the Hmong diaspora with no clear successor, leaders of several Hmong-American organizations said.
“Everybody I’ve talked to in the last 12 hours has been really sad,” said Kou Vang, chairman of the Minnesota Hmong Chamber of Commerce. “They don’t know who’s going to fill that vacuum. He’s always been the backbone of the community.”
Vang Pao fought as a teenager to keep the Japanese out of Laos during World War II, then joined French forces in the war against communist North Vietnam. He later served as a general in the Laotian military backed by the United States.
“For far too long, from when he was a young officer in the French army in Indochina to becoming a general of the Royal Lao Army, Vang Pao carried the burden of a proud people longing to be free and independent,” said former Minnesota state Sen. Mee Moua, who held the highest public office of any Hmong-American before she decided against seeking re-election last year.
Ka Houa Yang, president of the Lao Family Community of Minnesota — a self-help organization the general helped found — said many Hmong equate Vang Pao with George Washington, the Revolutionary War general who became the first president of the United States.
“General Vang Pao will always be viewed as a father figure to the Hmong community,” agreed Kou Vang. “He was somebody who could do no wrong because he led us through thick and thin.”
The Census Bureau estimated the U.S. Hmong population at close to 240,000 as of 2009. Ger Vang, who was one of the first Hmong to settle in Milwaukee in 1979 and helped get the Lao Family Community in Milwaukee up and running, said the general will be remembered as the person who helped bring them to the United States.
Vang Pao led by example, and through his tireless community involvement he gave a new generation of Hmong in the U.S. a strong sense of cultural pride, said Thavisouk Phrasavath, a Laotian-American filmmaker whose father fought in forces allied with the general along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
“He was the one who helped to preserve that ethnic identity and beautiful cultural heritage for his people,” said Phrasavath, whose documentary “The Betrayal” about his own experience immigrating from war-torn Laos to New York, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008.
Kou Vang said Vang Pao was the closest thing the Hmong had to a president, so he was sure Hmong communities all over the world — including in Laos, Thailand and China — are also in shock.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley extended “our sincere condolences to Vang Pao’s family and his many friends inside and outside the Hmong community.”
Vang Pao’s relatives said Friday they were planning a huge funeral in California that will last several days.
Chi Vang, his 46-year-old son, said family elders decided to honor him with a memorial service in Fresno, but said there may also be an opportunity for mourners to pay their respects at a viewing in Minnesota.
“His whole life was geared toward the Hmong community,” said Chi Vang, one of the general’s 32 children. “We are planning an enormous international event fit for a king.”
Family members haven’t determined when the Fresno or Minnesota services would take place.
Ilean Her, executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, said she wasn’t privy to the funeral discussions, but that in the Hmong culture the most important thing in planning one is to get everything right, so it’s not uncommon to wait one, two or even three months.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., is willing to shepherd requests from the general’s family for him to be buried with full military honors in a national cemetery, spokesman Will Crain said.
Mark Xiong, executive director of the Lao Family Community of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, said people in the Hmong community there would discuss how to honor Vang Pao’s passing, too, but hadn’t decided anything yet.
Ilean Her said Vang Pao’s death is especially hard for the older generation of Hmong. Because the Hmong never had their own independent country, she said they’ve always felt a sense of impermanency, and a very strong image in their folklore is that of an orphan boy.
“They call General Vang Pao our father, so now that he’s really passed away they’re going back to that image of the orphan,” she said.