Thailand has long been a safe haven for those fleeing Southeast Asia's wars and brutal regimes. But in an abrupt, shameful reversal of its internationally acclaimed asylum policies, the kingdom is forcibly repatriating about 4,000 Hmong to neighboring Laos, potentially putting their lives in jeopardy. Among those now facing imprisonment, torture or death: family and friends of Minnesota's large Hmong community.
To its credit, the United States has been at the forefront internationally in deploring this repatriation. U.S. senators from Minnesota and Wisconsin -- who represent thousands of Hmong constituents -- have also strongly registered their opposition. They must continue to make the Hmong asylum seekers' plight a priority and push to verify the safety of those forced across the Laotian border.
This is not just a human rights issue. It's about not turning our backs on a critical Vietnam War ally. The Hmong, a mountain tribe in the region, joined the United States in the doomed fight against Communism. When American forces pulled out, many Hmong fled to Thailand, with many eventually emigrating to the United States.
Decades later, dangerous levels of resentment still fester in Laos not only against the Hmong who actually fought with U.S. forces, but also against their family members and associates. The risk to the Hmong now being forced out of Thailand and back into Laos is both real and frightening.
"People are talking and shaking. People are frustrated,'' said Xang Vang, a Maplewood man who fought with U.S. forces and now works with a Twin Cities Hmong organization. The Twin Cities is home to one of the nation's largest Hmong communities. "I feel very disappointed that the United States let the Thai and Laos governments do such terrible things to political asylum seekers.''
Right now, both Laos and Thailand have essentially told the world, "Trust us. They'll be fine." Yet how the two countries have handled this does anything but inspire confidence. The decision to remove the Hmong from a camp about 200 miles north of Bangkok appears hasty, poorly reasoned and has been handled brutishly. At 5:30 a.m. Monday, about 5,000 Thai military officers began driving out the 4,000 Hmong with riot shields and batons, according to the New York Times. There are also reports that cell phones have been confiscated or service signals jammed. Minnesotans trying to contact friends and family have not been able to reach them -- heightening their fears about loved ones' safety.
Thailand claims the Hmong are an economic burden. Yet the Thai government has spurned offers to help those most at risk of political persecution emigrate to other countries. It claims it screened those at the camp to separate asylum seekers from those who left for purely economic reasons. But there was an alarming lack of transparency in that process. That so many people -- 4,000 -- are being moved from a camp where battle scars were commonplace suggests this was a sham. Reporters also have been kept out of the camp for several years.
Sadly, it's too late to prevent the repatriation. Most of the 4,000 Hmong will have been bused back to Laos by the end of this week. What's needed now is to pressure Laos into allowing international organizations to observe the resettlement process. The U.S. State Department and Midwestern senators have admirably advocated for these refugees and must keep the pressure on during the critical days and weeks ahead.