Hmong people

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"Hmong" redirects here. For the language, see Hmong language. For other aspects of the culture, see Hmong customs and culture and Hmong textile art. For the music, see Hmong music. For the cuisine, see Hmong cuisine. For funerary rituals, see Hmong funeral.
Not to be confused with Mon people.
Hmong women at Coc Ly market, Sapa, Vietnam.jpg
Flower Hmong in traditional dress at the market in Bắc Hà, Vietnam. 17 year old Lyne Hmong, positioned in the left.
Total population
4 to 5 million[1]
Regions with significant populations
 China 3 million
 Vietnam 1,068,189 (2009)[2]
 Laos 460,000 (2005)
 United States 260,073 (2010)[3]
 Thailand 151,080 (2002)
 France 15,000
 Australia 2,190[4]
 French Guiana 2,000[5]
 Canada 830[6]
 Argentina 600
 Germany 500
Hmong and Mong
Ua Dab (Hmong shamanism), Buddhism, Christianity

The Hmong (RPA: Hmoob/Moob, IPA: [m̥ɔ̃ŋ]) are an ethnic group from the mountainous regions of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. Hmong are also one of the sub-groups of the Miao ethnicity (苗族) in southern China. Hmong groups began a gradual southward migration in the 18th century due to political unrest and to find more arable land.

During the first and second Indochina Wars, France and the United States recruited thousands of Hmong people in Laos to fight against forces from north and south Vietnam and communist Pathet Lao insurgents, known as the Secret War, during the Vietnam War and the Laotian Civil War. Hundreds of thousands of Hmong refugees fled to Thailand seeking political asylum. Thousands of these refugees have resettled in Western countries since the late 1970s, mostly the United States, but also in Australia, France, French Guiana, Canada, and South America. Others have returned to Laos under United Nations-sponsored repatriation programs.


Hmong people have their own terms for their subcultural divisions. Hmong Der and Hmong Leng are the terms for two of the largest groups in America and Southeast Asia. In the Romanized Popular Alphabet, developed in the 1950s in Laos, these terms are written Hmoob Dawb (White Hmong) and Moob Leeg/Moob Ntsuab (Blue/Green Mong). The final consonants indicate with which of the eight lexical tones the word is pronounced.[7]

White Hmong and Green Hmong speak mutually intelligible dialects of the Hmong language with some differences in pronunciation and vocabulary. One of the most characteristic differences is the use of the voiceless /m̥/ in White Hmong, indicated by a preceding "H" in Romanized Popular Alphabet. Voiceless nasals are not found in the Green Hmong dialect. Hmong groups are often named after the dominant colors or patterns of their traditional clothing, style of head-dress, or the provinces from which they come.[8]


The Hmong groups in Laos, from the 18th century to the present day, are known as Black Hmong (Hmoob Dub), Striped Hmong (Hmoob Txaij), White Hmong (Hmoob Dawb), and Green Mong (Moob Leeg/Moob Ntsuab). In other places in Asia groups are also known as Black Hmong (Hmoob Dub or Hmong Dou), Striped Hmong (Hmoob Txaij or Hmoob Quas Npab), Hmong Shi, Hmong Pe, Hmong Pua, and Hmong Xau, Hmong Xanh (Green Hmong), Hmong Do (Red Hmong), Na Mieo and various other subgroups.[8] These include the Flower Hmong or the Variegated Hmong (Hmong Lenh or Hmong Hoa), so named because of the bright colorful embroidery (called pa ndau or paj ntaub, literally "flower cloth").[9]


Hmong living in the mountains of the Phi Pan Nam Range in Thailand
See also: Wat Tham Krabok

Many Hmong people migrated from Laos to Thailand following the victory of the Pathet Lao in the late 1970s. While some ended up in refugee camps, others settled in mountainous areas becoming one of the ethnic groups in Thailand referred to as hill tribes in that country.[10]


Vietnamese Hmong women continuing to wear 'traditional' clothing tend to source much of their clothing as 'ready to wear' cotton (as opposed to traditional hemp) from markets, though some add embroidery as a personal touch. In SaPa, now with a 'standardised' clothing look, Black Hmong sub-groups have differentiated themselves by adopting different headwear; those with a large comb embedded in their long hair (but without a hat) call themselves Tao, those with a pillbox hat name themselves Giay, and those with a checked headscarf are Yao. For many, such as Flower Hmong, the heavily beaded skirts and jackets are manufactured in China.


Main article: Miao people

Since 1949, Miao has been an official term for one of the 55 official minority groups recognized by the government of the People's Republic of China. The Miao live mainly in southern China, in the provinces of Guizhou, Hunan, Yunnan, Sichuan, Guangxi, Hainan, Guangdong, Hubei, and elsewhere in China. According to the 2000 censuses, the number of 'Miao' in China was estimated to be about 9.6 million. The Miao nationality includes Hmong people as well as other culturally and linguistically related ethnic groups who do not call themselves Hmong. These include the Hmu, Kho (Qho) Xiong, and A Hmao. The White Miao (Bai Miao) and Green Miao (Qing Miao) are Hmong groups.

Usage of the term "Miao" in Chinese documents dates back to the Shi Ji (1st century BC) and the Zhan Guo Ce (late Western Han Dynasty). During this time, it was generally applied to people of the southern regions thought to be descendants of the San Miao kingdom (dated to around the 3rd millennium BC.) The term does not appear again until the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), by which time it had taken on the connotation of "barbarian." Interchangeable with "man" and "yi," it was used to refer to the indigenous people of the south-western frontier who refused to submit to imperial rule. During this time, references to Raw (Sheng) and Cooked (Shu) Miao appear, referring to level of assimilation and political cooperation of the two groups. Not until the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) do more finely grained distinctions appear in writing. Even then, discerning which ethnic groups are included in various classifications can be problematic.[11]

This inconsistent usage of "Miao" makes it difficult to say for sure if Hmong and Mong people are always included in these historical writings. Linguistic evidence, however, places Hmong and Mong people in the same regions of southern China that they inhabit today for at least the past 2,000 years.[12] By the mid-18th century, classifications become specific enough that it is easier to identify references to Hmong and Mong people.

A Flower Hmong woman in Vietnam.
A typical rammed earth house building technique of flower Hmong in Vietnam.


In Southeast Asia, Hmong people are referred to by other names, including: Vietnamese: Mèo or H'Mông; Lao: ແມ້ວ (Maew) or ມົ້ງ (Mong); Thai: แม้ว (Maew) or ม้ง (Mong); Burmese: mun lu-myo (မံုလူမ်ိဳး). The xenonym, "Mèo", and variants thereof, are considered highly derogatory by many Hmong people and are infrequently used today outside of Southeast Asia.[13]

The Hmong people were also referred to by some European writers as the "Kings of the Jungle," because they used to live in the jungle of Laos. Because the Hmong lived mainly in the highland areas of Southeast Asia and China, the French occupiers of Southeast Asia gave them the name Montagnards or "mountain people", but this should not be confused with the Degar people of Vietnam, who were also referred to as Montagnards.

Hmong/Mong controversy[edit]

When Western authors came in contact with Hmong people, beginning in the 18th century, they referred to them in writing by ethnonyms assigned by the Chinese (i.e., Miao, or variants).[citation needed] This practice continued into the 20th century.[14] Even ethnographers studying the Hmong people in Southeast Asia often referred to them as Meo, a corruption of Miao applied by Thai and Lao people to the Hmong. Although "Meo" was an official term, it was often used as an insult against Hmong people and it is considered to be highly derogatory.[15]

In the middle of the 20th century, a concerted effort was made to refer to Hmong by their own ethnonyms in scholarly literature.[citation needed] By the 1970s, it became standard to refer to the entire ethnic group as "Hmong."[citation needed] This was reinforced during the influx of Hmong immigrants to the United States after 1975. Research proliferated, much of it being directed toward the American Hmong Der community.[citation needed] Several states with Hmong populations issued official translations only in the Hmong Der dialect. At the same time, some "Mong" Leng people voiced concerns that the supposed inclusive term "Hmong" only served to exclude them from the national discourse.

The issue came to a head during the passage of California State Assembly Bill (AB) 78, in the 2003–2004 season.[16] Introduced by Doua Vu and Assembly Member Sarah Reyes, District 31 (Fresno), the bill encouraged changes in secondary education curriculum to include information about the Secret War and the role of Hmong people in the war. Furthermore, the bill called for the use of oral histories and first hand accounts from Hmong people who had participated in the war and who were caught up in the aftermath. Originally, the language of the bill mentioned only "Hmong" people, intending to include the entire community. A number of Mong Leng activists, led by Dr. Paoze Thao (Professor of Linguistics and Education at California State University, Monterey Bay), drew attention to the problems associated with omitting "Mong" from the language of the bill. They noted that despite nearly equal numbers of Hmong Der and Mong Leng in the United States, resources are disproportionately directed toward the Hmong Der community. This includes not only scholarly research, but also the translation of materials, potentially including curriculum proposed by the bill.[17] Despite these arguments, "Mong" was not added to the bill. In the version that passed the assembly, "Hmong" was replaced by "Southeast Asians", a more broadly inclusive term.

Dr. Paoze Thao and some others feel strongly that "Hmong" can refer to only Hmong Der people and does not include "Mong" Leng people. He feels that the usage of "Hmong" in reference to both groups perpetuates the marginalization of Mong Leng language and culture. Thus, he advocates the usage of both "Hmong" and "Mong" when referring to the entire ethnic group.[18] Other scholars, including anthropologist Dr. Gary Yia Lee (a Hmong Der person), suggest that "Hmong" has been used for the past 30 years to refer to the entire community and that the inclusion of Mong Leng people is understood.[19] Some argue that such distinctions create unnecessary divisions within the global community and will only confuse non-Hmong and Mong people trying to learn more about Hmong and Mong history and culture.[20]

As a compromise alternative, the ethnologist Jacques Lemoine has begun to use the term (H)mong when referring to the entirety of the Hmong and Mong community.[1]

Hmong, Mong and Miao[edit]

Hmong people at the Can Cau market.

Some non-Chinese Hmong advocate that the term Hmong be used not only for designating their dialect group, but also for the other Miao groups living in China. They generally claim that the word "Miao" or "Meo" is a derogatory term, with connotations of barbarism, that probably should not be used at all. The term was later adapted by Tai-speaking groups in Southeast Asia where it took on especially insulting associations for Hmong people despite its official status.[21]

In modern China, the term "Miao" does not carry these negative associations and people of the various sub-groups that constitute this officially recognized nationality freely identify themselves as Miao or Chinese, typically reserving more specific ethnonyms for intra-ethnic communication. During the struggle for political recognition after 1949, it was actually members of these ethnic minorities who campaigned for identification under the umbrella term "Miao"—taking advantage of its familiarity and associations of historical political oppression.[22]

Contemporary transnational interactions between Hmong in the West and Miao groups in China, following the 1975 Hmong diaspora, have led to the development of a global Hmong identity that includes linguistically and culturally related minorities in China that previously had no ethnic affiliation.[23] Scholarly and commercial exchanges, increasingly communicated via the Internet, have also resulted in an exchange of terminology, including Hmu and A Hmao people identifying as Hmong and, to a lesser extent, Hmong people accepting the designation "Miao," within the context of China. Such realignments of identity, while largely the concern of economically elite community leaders, reflect a trend towards the interchangeability of the terms "Hmong" and "Miao."[24]


The historical migration of the Hmong.

The Hmong claim an origin in the Yellow River region of China.[25] According to Ratliff, there is linguistic evidence to suggest that they have occupied the same areas of southern China for at least the past 2,000 years.[26] Evidence from mitochondrial DNA in Hmong–Mien–speaking populations supports the southern origins of maternal lineages even further back in time, although Hmong-speaking populations show more contact with Han than Mien populations.[27] Chinese sources describe that area being inhabited by 'Miao' people, a group with whom Hmong people are often identified.

The ancient town of Zhuolu, is considered to be the legendary birthplace of the Miao. Today, a statue of Chi You, widely proclaimed as the first Hmong king, has been erected in the town.[28] The Guoyu book, considers Chi You’s Jui Li tribe to be related to the ancient ancestors of the Hmong, the San Miao people[29]

In 2011 White Hmong DNA was sampled and found to contain 7.84% D-M15 and 6%N(Tat) DNA.[30] The researchers posited a genetic relationship between Hmong-Mien peoples and Mon-Khmer people groups dating to the Last Glacial Maximum approximately 15-18,000 years before present.

Although the term 'Miao' is used today by the Chinese government to denote a group of linguistically and culturally related people (including the Hmong, Hmu, Kho Xiong, and A Hmao), it has been used inconsistently in the past. Throughout the history of China, the term was applied to a variety of peoples considered to be marginal to Han society. Christian Culas and Jean Michaud note: "In all these early accounts, then, until roughly the middle of the 19th century, there is perpetual confusion about the exact identity of the population groups designated by the term Miao. We should therefore be cautious with respect to the historical value of any early associations."[31] Nevertheless, the Hmong and Miao of China today believe they are one people with cultural and linguistic affiliations that transcend oceans and national boundaries. The educated elites of the two groups maintain close transnational contacts with one another.

A scene depicting the Qing Dynasty's campaign against the Miao people at Lancaoping in 1795.

Conflict between the Miao of southern China and newly arrived Han settlers increased during the 18th century under repressive economic and cultural reforms imposed by the Qing Dynasty. This led to armed conflict and large-scale migrations well into the late 19th century, the period during which most Hmong people emigrated to Southeast Asia. The migration process had begun as early as the late-17th century, however, before the time of major social unrest, when small groups went in search of better agricultural opportunities.[32]

The Hmong people have been subjected to abuse and killing by the Qing Dynasty government. Kim Lacy Rogers wrote: "In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, while the Hmong lived in south-western China, their Manchu overlords had labelled them 'Miao' ('barbarian' or 'savage') and targeted them for genocide when they defied being humiliated, oppressed, and enslaved."[33]

From July 1919 to March 1921 the Hmong of French Indochina revolted against the colonial authorities in what the French called the Madmen's War (La Guerre du Fou) and what the Hmongs call Rog Paj Cai (Paj Cai's War, after the rebel leader whose name was Paj Cai).

Many Hmong fought against the invading North Vietnamese Army and the Communist Pathet Lao in the Kingdom of Laos during the Vietnam War. Two thirds of the Hmong population were allied with the royalist faction in the Kingdom of Laos, with many Hmong men serving in the forces of the Royal Lao Army and as Special Guerrilla Unites trained and financed by the United States' Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Following Communist victory in 1975, the Pathet Lao responded by killing and arresting those on the royalist side. Many Hmong men were sent to seminar camps where they died. Hmong leader Touby Lyfoung was among those killed in the hard labor camps. A few survivors have immigrated to the US and other countries. Today they bear witness to the harsh treatments in the Communist seminar camps. Fear of reprisal stimulated the massive Hmong exodus to Thailand and then the West after 1975.

Han Chinese origin Hmong clans[edit]

Many Miao/Hmong clans and lineages were founded by Han Chinese men who married Hmong women.

A great number of Hmong lineage clans were founded by Chinese men who married Hmong women, these distinct Chinese descended clans practice Chinese burial customs instead of Hmong style burials.[34]

The Hmong children of Hmong women who married Chinese men was the origin of numerous China and South East Asia based Hmong lineages and clans, these were called "Chinese Hmong" ("Hmong Sua") in Sichuan, the Hmong were instructed in military tactics by fugitive Chinese rebels. [35]

Marriages between Hmong women and Han Chinese men is the origin of alot of Hmong lineages and clans.[36][37]

Hmong women married Han Chinese men to found new Hmong lineages which use Chinese names.[38]

Chinese men who married into Hmong clans have established more Hmong clans than the ritual twelve, Chinese "surname groups" are comparable to the Hmong clans which are patrilineal, and practice exogamy. [39][40][41][42][39]

Hmong women married Han Chinese men who pacified Ah rebels who were fighting against the Ming dynasty, and founded the Wang clan among the Hmong in Gongxian county, of Sichuan's Yibin district.[43][37]

Hmong women who married Chinese men founded a new Xem clan in a Hmong villlage (among Northern Thailand's Hmong), fifty years later in Chiangmai two of their Hmong boy descendants were Catholics.[44] A Hmong woman and a Chinese man married and founded the Lauj clan in Northern Thailand.[44]

A marriage between a Hmong woman and a Chinese man resulted in northern Thailand's Lau2 clan being founded, another Han Chinese with the family name Deng founded another Hmong clan, Han Chinese men's marriages with Hmong women has led some ethnographers to conclude that Hmong clans in the modern era have possible all or partly have been founded in this matter.[45]

Jiangxi Han Chinese are claimed as the forefathers of the southeast Guizhou Miao, and Miao children were born to the many Miao women married Han Chinese soldiers in Taijiang in Guizhou before the second half of the 19th century..[46]

Imperially commissioned Han Chinese chieftancies "gon native", with the Miao and were the ancestors of a part of the Miao population in Guizhou.[47]

The Hmong Tian clan in Sizhou began in the seventh century as a migrant Han Chinese clan.[48]

Non-han women such as Miao women became wives of Han Chinese male soldiers who fought against the Miao rebellions during the Qing and Ming dynasties since Han women were not available.[49][50][51]

The Ming dynasty Hongwu Emperor sent troops to Guizhou whose descendants became the Tunbao.[52] The origin of the Tunbao people traces back to when the Ming dynasty sent 300,000 Han Chinese male soldiers in 1381 to conquer Yunnan and the men married Yao and Miao women. [53]

The presence of women presiding over weddings was a feature noted in "Southeast Asian" marriages, such as in 1667 when a Miao woman in Yunnan married a Chinese official.[54] Some Sinicization occurred, in Yunnan a Miao chief's daughter married a scholar in the 1600s who wrote that she could read, write, and listen in Chinese and read Chinese classics.[55]

The Sichuan Hmong village of Wangwu was visited by Nicholas Tapp who wrote that the "clan ancestral origin legend" of the had the Wang Hmong clan, had said that several times they were married into be a Han Chinese and possibly one of these was their ancestor Wang Wu, there were two tpes of Hmong, "cooked" who sided with Chinese and "raw" who rebelled against the Chinese, the Chinese wre supported by the Wang Hmong clan.[35] A Hmong woman was married by the non-Hmong Wang Wu according to The Story of the Ha Kings in Wangwu village.[56]


The Hmong culture usually consists of a dominant hierarchy within the family. Males hold dominance over females and thus, a father is considered the head in each household. Courtships take place during the night when a man goes to visit a woman at her house and tries to woo her with sweet-talks through the thin walls of the house where the woman's bedroom may be located. If a man kidnaps an unwilling woman as a bride, she would have to marry him or risk having a tarnished reputation.

Today, bridenapping is uncommon because those marriages can end in divorce since women are no longer afraid of a tarnished reputation. During a marriage, the man pays the woman's family for taking away a daughter who is economically essential to her parents. Hmong women retain their own maiden names following marriage, but attends to the ancestors of their husbands. The children they bear take their husbands' clan names. Consequently, the Hmong favour having sons over daughters because sons perpetuate the clan.

The Hmong practice shamanism and ancestor worship. Like other animists, they also believe that all things are endowed with spiritual beings and so should be respected.

See Anne Fadiman's ethnography The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down for more info.

Hmong families in Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos practice subsistence agriculture, supplemented by hunting and some foraging. Although they have chickens, pigs and cows, the traditional staple of the Hmong consists mostly of vegetable dishes and rice. Domestic animals are highly valued and killed for consumption only during special events such as the New Year's Festival or during events such as a birth, marriage, or funeral ritual.


Roughly 95% of the Hmong live in Asia. Linguistic data show that the Hmong of the Peninsula stem from the Miao of southern China as one among a set of ethnic groups belonging to the Hmong–Mien language family.[57] Linguistically and culturally speaking, the Hmong and the other sub-groups of the Miao have little in common.[58]

In China the majority of the Hmong today live in Guizhou, Sichuan and Yunnan. The Hmong population is estimated at 3 million. No precise census data exist on the Hmong in China since China does not officially recognise the ethnonym Hmong and instead, clusters that group within the wider Miao group (8,940,116 in 2000). A few centuries ago, the lowland Chinese started moving into the mountain ranges of China's southwest. This migration, combined with major social unrest in southern China in the 18th and 19th century, served to cause some minorities of Guizhou, Sichuan and Yunnan to migrate south. A number of Hmong thus settled in the ranges of the Indochina Peninsula to practise subsistence agriculture.

Vietnam, where their presence is attested from the late 18th century onwards, is likely to be the first Indochinese country into which the Hmong migrated.[59] During the colonization of 'Tonkin' (north Vietnam) between 1883 and 1954, a number of Hmong decided to join the Vietnamese Nationalists and Communists, while many Christianized Hmong sided with the French. After the Viet Minh victory, numerous pro-French Hmong had to fall back to Laos and South Vietnam.[60]

Red Dao in Vietnam.

At the 2009 national census, there were 1,068,189 Hmong living in Vietnam, the vast majority of them in the north of the country. The traditional trade in coffin wood with China and the cultivation of the opium poppy – both prohibited only in 1993 in Vietnam – long guaranteed a regular cash income. Today, converting to cash cropping is the main economic activity. As in China and Laos, there is a certain degree of participation of Hmong in the local and regional administration.[61] In the late 1990s, several thousands of Hmong have started moving to the Central Highlands and some have crossed the border into Cambodia, constituting the first attested presence of Hmong settlers in that country.

In 2005, the Hmong in Laos numbered 460,000. Hmong settlement there is nearly as ancient as in Vietnam. After decades of distant relations with the Lao kingdoms, closer relations between the French military and some Hmong on the Xieng Khouang plateau were set up after World War II. There, a particular rivalry between members of the Lo and Ly clans developed into open enmity, also affecting those connected with them by kinship. Clan leaders took opposite sides and as a consequence, several thousand Hmong participated in the fighting against the Pathet Lao Communists, while perhaps as many were enrolled in the People's Liberation Army. As in Vietnam, numerous Hmong in Laos also genuinely tried to avoid getting involved in the conflict in spite of the extremely difficult material conditions under which they lived during wartime.[62]

After the 1975 Communist victory, thousands of Hmong from Laos had to seek refuge abroad (see Laos below). Approximately 30 percent of the Hmong left, although the only concrete figure we have is that of 116,000 Hmong from Laos and Vietnam together seeking refuge in Thailand up to 1990.[63]

In 2002 the Hmong in Thailand numbered 151,080. The presence of Hmong settlements there is documented from the end of the 19th century. Initially, the Siamese paid little attention to them. But in the early 1950s, the state suddenly took a number of initiatives aimed at establishing links. Decolonization and nationalism were gaining momentum in the Peninsula and wars of independence were raging. Armed opposition to the state in northern Thailand, triggered by outside influence, started in 1967 while here again, many Hmong refused to take sides in the conflict. Communist guerrilla warfare stopped by 1982 as a result of an international concurrence of events that rendered it pointless. Priority is since given by the Thai state to sedentarizing the mountain population, introducing commercially viable agricultural techniques and national education, with the aim of integrating these non-Tai animists within the national identity.[64][65]

Burma most likely includes a modest number of Hmong (perhaps around 2,500) but no reliable census has been conducted there recently.[66]

As result of refugee movements in the wake of the Indochina Wars (1946–1975), in particular in Laos, the largest Hmong community to settle outside Asia went to the United States where approximately 100,000 individuals had already arrived by 1990. California became home to half this group, while the remainder went to Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington, Pennsylvania, Montana, and North Carolina. By the same date, 10,000 Hmong had migrated to France, including 1,400 in French Guyana. Canada admitted 900 individuals, while another 360 went to Australia, 260 to China, and 250 to Argentina. Over the following years and until the definitive closure of the last refugee camps in Thailand in 1998, additional numbers of Hmong have left Asia, but the definitive figures are still to be produced.[67]

Outside of Asia, where about 5% of the world Hmong population now lives, the United States is home to the largest Hmong population. The 2008 Census counted 171,316 persons of Hmong Alone Population,and 221,948 persons of Hmong Alone Population or in Any Combination.[68] Other countries with significant populations include:[69]

Within the United States, the Hmong population is centered in the Upper Midwest (Wisconsin, Minnesota) and California.[70]


U.S. and Laotian Civil War[edit]

Main article: Laotian Civil War

In the early 1960s, partially as a result of the North Vietnamese invasion of Laos the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) Special Activities Division began to recruit, train and lead the indigenous Hmong people in Laos to fight against North Vietnamese Army divisions invading Laos during the Vietnam War. This "Secret Army" was organized into various mobile regiments and divisions, including various Special Guerrilla Units, all of who were led by General Vang Pao. An estimated sixty-percent (60%) of Hmong men in Laos were assisted by the CIA with support in order to join fighting in the "Secret Army" during the "Secret War" in Laos.[71][72] CIA case officers and a limited field operatives helped advise and organize key Hmong military divisions, regiments, battalions and units, including Special Guerrilla Units, as the counterattack North the Vietnam People's Army invasion of the Kingdom of Laos and to seek to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main military supply route from the North Vietnam to the Republic of South Vietnam.

While Hmong soldiers were known to assist the North Vietnamese in many situations, a fair number of Hmong soldiers were recognized for serving in combat against the NVA and the Pathet Lao, helping block Hanoi's Ho Chi Minh trail inside Laos and rescuing downed American pilots. While numbers of participating Hmong soldiers are largely exaggerated within Hmong communities due to tendencies of oral history, Hmongs have received a great deal of credit for their assistance in the United States, moreso than the families of South Vietnamese soldiers recruited by the United States military for combat inside of Vietnam. As inhabitants of the more mountainous regions of Laos, the Hmong people earned a special place in the hearts of American combat soldiers because of their strong support for the United States in its fight against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao communist forces.[citation needed] Though their role was generally kept secret in the early stages of the conflict, they made monumental sacrifices to help the U.S.[73]

General Vang Pao led the Region II (MR2) defense against Vietnam People's Army (NVA) incursion from his headquarters in Long Cheng, also known as Lima Site 20 Alternate (LS 20A).[74] At the height of its activity, Long Cheng became the second largest city in Laos. Long Cheng was a micro-nation operational site with its own bank, airport, school system, officials, and many other facilities and services in addition to its military units. Before the end of the Secret War, Long Cheng would occasionally, sometimes, fall in and out of General Vang Pao's and the Laotian and Hmong "Secret Army's" control.

The "Secret War" began at about the time the United States became actively involved in the Vietnam War. Two years after the U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam, the Kingdom of Laos was overthrown by communist troops supported and invading divisions of the North Vietnamese Army. The Hmong people became targets of retaliation and persecution. While some Hmong returned to their villages and attempted to resume life under the new regime, thousands more trekked across the Mekong River into Thailand, often under attack. This marked the beginning of a mass exodus of Hmong from Laos. Those who reached Thailand were kept in squalid United Nations refugee camps until they could be resettled. Nearly 20 years later, in the 1990s, a major international debate ensued over whether Hmong refugees remaining in Thailand should be forcibly repatriated to Laos, where they were still subject to persecution, or should be allowed to emigrate to the United States and other Western nations.

In the United States and Southeast Asia, the Lao Veterans of America, and Lao Veterans of America Institute, helped to assist in the resettlement of many Laotian and Hmong refugees and asylum seekers in the United States, especially former Hmong veterans and their family members who served in the "U.S. Secret Army" in Laos during the Vietnam War.[75]

Hmong Lao resistance[edit]

Hmong girls meet possible suitors while playing a ball-throwing game in Laos.

Of those Hmong who did not flee Laos, or could not flee, thousands were sent to re-education camps where political prisoners served terms of 3–5 years, or much longer sentences.[citation needed] Many Hmong died in these camps, after being subjected to hard physical labor, harsh conditions, torture and extrajudicial killings or execution by Pathet Lao officials or Lao People's Army and Vietnam People's Army soldiers and guards.[citation needed] Thousands more Hmong people, mainly former soldiers and their families, escaped to remote mountain regions—particularly Phou Bia, the highest (and thus least accessible) mountain peak in Laos. Initially, some Hmong groups staged attacks against Pathet Lao and Vietnamese troops while others remained in hiding to avoid military retaliation and persecution. For many years, the Neo Hom resistance and political movement played a key role in resistance to the Vietnam People's Army in Laos following the U.S. withdrawal in 1975. Vang Pao played a significant role in this movement. Additionally, a spiritual leader Zong Zoua Her, as well as other Hmong leaders,including Pa Kao Her, (or Pa Khao Her, rallied some of their followers in an additional factionalized guerrilla resistance movement called Chao Fa (RPA: Caub Fab, Pahawh Hmong: ChaoFaPahawh.png[76]). Initial military successes by these small bands led to military counter-attacks by government forces, including aerial bombing and heavy artillery, as well as the use of defoliants and possibly chemical weapons.[citation needed] These events led to the yellow rain controversy, when the United States accused the Soviet Union of supplying and using chemical weapons in this conflict.[77]

Small groups of Hmong people, many of them second or third generation descendants of former CIA soldiers, remain internally displaced in remote parts of Laos, in fear of government reprisals. Faced with continuing military operations against them by the government and a scarcity of food, some groups have begun coming out of hiding, while others have sought asylum in Thailand and other countries.[78]

Throughout the Vietnam War, and for two decades following it, the U.S. government stated that there was no "Secret War" in Laos and that the U.S. was not engaged in air or ground combat operations in Laos. In the late 1990s, however, several U.S. conservatives, alleging that the Clinton administration was using the denial of this covert war to justify a repatriation of Thailand-based Hmong war veterans to Laos, urged the U.S. government to acknowledge the existence of the Secret War and to honor the Hmong and U.S. veterans from the war. On 15 May 1997, in a reversal of U.S. policy, the U.S. government acknowledged that it had supported a prolonged air and ground campaign against the NVA, Pathet Lao, and VietCong. It simultaneously dedicated the Laos Memorial on the grounds of Arlington National Cemetery, as a result of the Lao Veterans of America, The Center for Public Policy Analysis, and others, in honor of the Hmong and other combat veterans from the Secret War.

Controversy over repatriation[edit]

In 1989, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with the support of the United States government, instituted the Comprehensive Plan of Action, a program to stem the tide of Indochinese refugees from Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Under the plan, the status of the refugees was to be evaluated through a screening process. Recognized asylum seekers were to be given resettlement opportunities, while the remaining refugees were to be repatriated under guarantee of safety.[citation needed]

After talks with the UNHCR and the Thai government, Laos agreed to the repatriation of over 60,000 Lao refugees living in Thailand, including tens of thousands of Hmong people. Very few of the Lao refugees, however, were willing to return voluntarily.[79] Pressure to resettle the refugees grew as the Thai government worked to close its remaining refugee camps. While some Hmong people returned to Laos voluntarily, with development assistance from UNHCR, coercive measures and forced repatriation was used to send thousands of Hmong back to the communist regime in Laos that they fled.[80] Of those Hmong who did return to Laos, some quickly escaped back to Thailand, describing discrimination and brutal treatment at the hands of Lao authorities.[81]

In 1993, Vue Mai, a former Hmong soldier who had been recruited by the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok to return to Laos as proof of the repatriation program's success, disappeared in Vientiane. According to the U.S. Committee for Refugees, he was arrested by Lao security forces and was never seen again.[citation needed]

Following the Vue Mai incident, debate over the Hmong's planned repatriation to Laos intensified greatly, especially in the U.S., where it drew strong opposition from Democrat, Republican, and Republican American conservatives and some human rights advocates. In an article published on October 23, 1995 in the National Review, Michael Johns, the former Heritage Foundation foreign policy expert and Republican White House aide, labeled the Hmong's repatriation a Clinton administration "betrayal," describing the Hmong as a people "who have spilled their blood in defense of American geopolitical interests."[82] Debate on the issue escalated quickly. In an effort to halt the planned repatriation, the Republican-led U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives both appropriated funds for the remaining Thailand-based Hmong to be immediately resettled in the U.S.; Clinton, however, responded by promising a veto of the legislation.

In the 1990s, many Flower Hmong switched from their traditional colourful dress to western clothing.

In their opposition of the repatriation plans, Democrats and Republicans also challenged the Clinton administration's position that the Laotian government was not systematically violating Hmong human rights. U.S. Representative Steve Gunderson (R-WI), for instance, told a Hmong gathering: "I do not enjoy standing up and saying to my government that you are not telling the truth, but if that is necessary to defend truth and justice, I will do that."[82] Democrats and Republicans also called several Congressional hearings on alleged persecution of the Hmong in Laos in an apparent attempt to generate further support for their opposition to the Hmong's repatriation to Laos. In bipartisan fashion, key Democratic and Republican Members of Congress opposed forced repatriation and human rights violations in communist Laos and Thailand directed against the Hmong and Laotian people including U.S. Congressman Bruce Vento, Senator Paul Wellstone, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher and others.

In the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, The Center for Public Policy Analysis, a non-governmental public policy research organization, and its Executive Director, Philip Smith, played a key role in raising awareness in the U.S. Congress and policy making circles in Washington, D.C. about the plight of the Hmong and Laotian refugees in Thailand and Laos. The CPPA, backed by a bipartisan coalition of Members of the U.S. Congress as well as human rights organizations, conducted numerous research missions to the Hmong and Laotian refugee camps along the Mekong River in Thailand, as well as the Buddhist temple of Wat Tham Krabok, to gather first hand information about human rights violations in Marxist Laos and the forced repatriation of Hmong refugees from Thailand back to the communist regime in Laos that they fled.[83]

In addition to the CPPA and Members of the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C., Amnesty International, the Lao Veterans of America, Inc., the United League for Democracy in Laos, Inc., Lao Human Rights Council, Inc. (led by Dr. Pobzeb Vang Vang Pobzeb, and later Vaughn Vang) and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights organizations opposed the forced repatriation of Hmong and Laotian political refugees and asylum seekers from Thailand back to the government in Laos that they fled.[84]

Although some accusations of forced repatriation were denied,[85] thousands of Hmong people refused to return to Laos. In 1996, as the deadline for the closure of Thai refugee camps approached, and under mounting political pressure, the U.S. agreed to resettle Hmong refugees who passed a new screening process.[86] Around 5,000 Hmong people who were not resettled at the time of the camp closures sought asylum at Wat Tham Krabok, a Buddhist monastery in central Thailand where more than 10,000 Hmong refugees were already living. The Thai government attempted to repatriate these refugees, but the Wat Tham Krabok Hmong refused to leave and the Lao government refused to accept them, claiming they were involved in the illegal drug trade and were of non-Lao origin.[87]

In 2003, following threats of forcible removal by the Thai government, the U.S., in a significant victory for the Hmong, agreed to accept 15,000 of the refugees.[88] Several thousand Hmong people, fearing forced repatriation to Laos if they were not accepted for resettlement in the U.S., fled the camp to live elsewhere within Thailand where a sizable Hmong population has been present since the 19th century.[89]

In 2004 and 2005, thousands of Hmong fled from the jungles of Laos to a temporary refugee camp in the Thai province of Phetchabun.[90] These Hmong refugees, many of whom are descendants of the former-CIA Secret Army and their relatives, claim that they have been attacked by both the Lao and Vietnamese military forces operating inside Laos as recently as June 2006. The refugees claim that attacks against them have continued almost unabated since the war officially ended in 1975, and have become more intense in recent years.[citation needed]

Lending further support to earlier claims that the government of Laos was persecuting the Hmong, filmmaker Rebecca Sommer documented first-hand accounts in her documentary, Hunted Like Animals,[91] and in a comprehensive report which includes summaries of claims made by the refugees and was submitted to the U.N. in May 2006.[92]

The European Union,[93] UNHCHR, and international groups have since spoken out about the forced repatriation.[93][94][95][96] At the time, after an international outcry by NGOs, humanitarian aid organizations, and Members of the [[U S Congress]] and others, the Thai foreign ministry claimed it would halt deportation of Hmong refugees held in Detention Centers in Nong Khai, while talks are underway to resettle them in Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and the United States.[97] However, the Thai government backpedalled on this promise and renewed its forced repatriation policy against Hmong refugees and asylum seekers in Nong Khai and Ban Huay Nam Khao.[98]

At the time, during the Nong Khai and Huay Nam Khao refugee crisis of 2006-2009, third countries willing to resettle the refugees were hindered to proceed with immigration and settlement procedures because the Thai administration would not grant them access to the refugees.[99]

On 27 December 2009, The New York Times reported that the Thai military was preparing to forcibly return 4,000 Hmong asylum seekers to Laos by the end of the year:[100] the BBC later reported that repatriations had started.[101] Both United States and United Nations officials have protested this action. Outside government representatives have not been allowed to interview this group over the last three years. Médecins Sans Frontières has refused to assist the Hmong refugees because of what they have called "increasingly restrictive measures" taken by the Thai military.[102] The Thai military jammed all cellular phone reception and disallowed any foreign journalists from the Hmong camps.[101]

Alleged plot to overthrow government of Laos[edit]

On 4 June 2007, as part of an investigation labeled "Operation Tarnished Eagle," warrants were issued by U.S. federal courts ordering the arrest of Vang Pao and nine others for plotting to overthrow the government of Laos in violation of the federal Neutrality Acts and for multiple weapons charges.[103] The federal charges allege that members of the group inspected weapons, including AK-47s, smoke grenades, and Stinger missiles, with the intent of purchasing them and smuggling them into Thailand in June 2007 where they were intended to be used by Hmong resistance forces in Laos. The one non-Hmong person of the nine arrested, Harrison Jack, a 1968 West Point graduate and retired Army infantry officer, allegedly attempted to recruit Special Operations veterans to act as mercenaries.

In an effort to obtain the weapons, Jack allegedly met unknowingly with undercover U.S. federal agents posing as weapons dealers, which prompted the issuance of the warrants as part of a long-running investigation into the activities of the U.S.-based Hmong leadership and its supporters.

On 15 June, the defendants were indicted by a grand jury and a warrant was also issued for the arrest of an 11th man, allegedly involved in the plot. Simultaneous raids of the defendants homes and work locations, involving over 200 federal, state and local law enforcement officials, were conducted in approximately 15 cities in Central and Southern California in the US.

The defendants faced possible life prison terms for violation of the Neutrality Acts and various weapons charges. They initially were denied bail, with a federal court ruling that they were likely flight risks, given their extensive connections, access to private aircraft, and resources.

Multiple protest rallies in support of the suspects, designed to raise awareness of the treatment of Hmong peoples in the jungles of Laos, took place in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Alaska, and several of Vang Pao's high-level supporters in the U.S. criticized the California court that issued the arrest warrants, arguing that Vang is a historically important American ally and a valued leader of U.S. and foreign-based Hmong. However, calls for then Californian Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former President George W. Bush to pardon the defendants were not answered, presumably pending a conclusion of the large and then still-ongoing federal investigation.[104]

On 18 September 2009, the US federal government dropped all charges against Vang Pao, announcing in a release that the federal government was permitted to consider "the probable sentence or other consequences if the person is convicted."[105] On 10 January 2011, after Vang Pao's death, the federal government dropped all charges against the remaining defendants saying, "Based on the totality of the circumstances in the case, the government believes, as a discretionary matter, that continued prosecution of defendants is no longer warranted," according to court documents.[106]


Main article: Hmong American

Many Hmong refugees resettled in the United States after the Vietnam War. Beginning in December 1975, the first Hmong refugees arrived in the U.S., mainly from refugee camps in Thailand; however, only 3,466 were granted asylum at that time under the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975. In May 1976, another 11,000 were allowed to enter the United States, and by 1978 some 30,000 Hmong people had immigrated. This first wave was made up predominantly of men directly associated with General Vang Pao's secret army. It was not until the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980 that families were able to enter the U.S., becoming the second wave of Hmong immigrants. Today, 260,073 Hmong people reside in the United States[107] the majority of whom live in California (91,224), Minnesota (66,181), and Wisconsin (49,240), an increase from 186,310 in 2000.[108] Of them, 247,595 or 95.2% are Hmong alone, and the remaining 12,478 are mixed Hmong with some other ethnicity or race. The vast majority of part-Hmong are under 10 years old.

In terms of cities and towns, the largest Hmong-American community is in Saint Paul, Minnesota (29,662), followed by Fresno (24,328), Sacramento (16,676), Milwaukee (10,245), and Minneapolis (7,512).[107]

There are smaller Hmong communities scattered across the United States, including those in Michigan (Detroit and Warren); Anchorage, Alaska; Denver, Colorado; Portland, Oregon; Washington ; North Carolina (Charlotte); Georgia (Auburn, Duluth, Monroe, Atlanta, and Winder); Florida (Tampa Bay); Wisconsin (Eau Claire, Appleton, Green Bay, Oshkosh, La Crosse, Sheboygan, Manitowoc, and Wausau); Aurora, Illinois; Kansas City, Kansas; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Missoula, Montana; Des Moines, Iowa; Southwest Missouri; and Arkansas.[107]

Canada's small Hmong population is mostly concentrated within the province of Ontario. Kitchener, Ontario has 515 residents of Hmong descent, and has a Hmong church.[109][110]

There is also a small community of several thousand Hmong who migrated to French Guiana in the late 1970s and early 1980s.[111]

Religious persecution[edit]

Significant numbers of Lao- and Viet-Hmong Animists and Christians, including Protestant and Catholic believers, who seek to worship independently of the Marxist government of the Lao People's Democratic Republic and Communist Socialist Republic of Vietnam have been subjected to military attacks, police arrest, imprisonment, extrajudicial killings, and torture.[112][113][114]

For example, in 2013, a Hmong Christian pastor, Mr. Vam Ngaij Vaj (Va Ngai Vang), was beaten to death by police and security forces.[115] In February 2014, in Hanoi, Vietnamese government officials have refused to allow medical treatment for a Hmong Christian leader, Duong Van Minh, who is suffering from a serious kidney problem.[116] In 2011, Vietnam People's Army troops were used to crush a peaceful demonstration by Hmong Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical Christian believers who gathered in Dien Bien Province and the Dien Bien Phu area of Laos, according to Philip Smith of the Center for Public Policy Analysis, independent journalists and others.[117]

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has documented official and ongoing religious persecution, religious freedom violations against the Laotian and Hmong people in both Laos and Vietnam by the government. As recently as April 2011, the U.S.-based Centre for Public Policy Analysis, the Center for Public Policy Analysis, has also researched and documented cases of Hmong Christians being attacked and summarily executed, including 4 Lao Hmong Christians.[118]

See also[edit]



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  • Fadiman, Anne (1997). The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0-374-26781-2. 
  • Forbes, Andrew, and Henley, David, 'Chiang Mai's Hill Peoples' in: Ancient Chiang Mai Volume 3. Chiang Mai, Cognoscenti Books, 2012. ASIN: B006IN1RNW
  • Hillmer, Paul. A People’s History of the Hmong (Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2010) 327 pp. ISBN 978-0-87351-726-3
  • [TYPN 1992] The section on nomenclature draws heavily on Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter, Number 17, June 1992, Department of Anthropology, Australian National University. Material from that newsletter may be freely reproduced with due acknowledgment.
  • W.R. Geddes. Migrants of the Mountains: The Cultural Ecology of the Blue Miao (Hmong Njua) of Thailand. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1976.
  • Tapp, N., J.Michaud, C.Culas, G.Y.Lee (Eds) 2004 Hmong/Miao in Asia. Chiang Mai (Thailand): Silkworm, 500p.
  • Vang, Chia Youyee. Hmong America: Reconstructing Community in Diaspora (University of Illinois Press; 2011) 200 pages; Combines scholarly and personal perspectives in an ethnographic history of the Hmong refugee experience in the United States.

Further reading[edit]

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