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California and the West

Hmong American Disappears on Trip to Laos

Mystery: Friends of Californian Michael Vang, seeking more help from U.S. officials, fear his fate may be linked to opposition to Laos' Communist government.

September 28, 1999|RICHARD CHON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FRESNO — On the face of it, Susie Vang and her husband, Michael, seemed to have found their piece of the American dream.

High school sweethearts, they were raising four children in a quiet neighborhood in the northeast part of the city. They enjoyed a middle-class life: soccer and Nintendo for the children, family trips to Magic Mountain, a personal computer in the family room. For a family of Hmong immigrants from Laos, they seemed to have made the successful transition to mainstream American life that has been so difficult for many of their fellow refugees.

And then one day, the mirror cracked. Shortly after New Year's Day, Michael Vang abruptly told his wife that he was leaving his job as a security consultant and going on a vacation--by himself. Two days later, he boarded a plane for Southeast Asia.

"He just took off," Susie Vang said. "He told me he didn't know when he was going to come back."

Later came the bad news: Reports filtered back that Michael had been arrested in Laos. Since then, the FBI has moved in to investigate, the U.S. State Department has made inquiries, and the leader of a Hmong human rights group has traveled to Thailand to ask questions.

Five months after Vang vanished, his whereabouts remain a mystery.

Last week, 200 Hmong Americans demonstrated outside the Fresno federal building, demanding that U.S. officials do more to find out what happened.

The Laotian government says that it has no record of Vang entering the country. Officials there won't say if he is within their borders, according to the U.S. State Department.

Vang's disappearance is the latest chapter in a painful history for the Hmong that reaches back to the Cold War, when the Central Intelligence Agency conducted a secret war in Laos, fought largely by the Hmong, a group of mountain clansmen.

Vang, 36, was born into the predominant clan among the Hmong, the Vangs, whose leader is Gen. Vang Pao. The general led the CIA-funded war against the Communists and today leads the Hmong in exile from his Garden Grove home.

Since the 1975 victory of Communist forces in Laos, Vang Pao has sponsored an armed insurgency campaign there known as the United Front of National Liberation of Laos, or Neo Hom. Hoping for the overthrow of the Communist Pathet Lao government, the general envisions an end to the Hmong diaspora and a return of his people to their native country.

Mystery Surrounds Return to Laos

A naturalized American citizen, Michael Vang immigrated to the United States from a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand in the late 1970s. He settled in Fresno, where 30,000 Hmong Americans live.

Susie Vang said she does not know why her husband returned to their homeland. But a cousin of his, former Clovis Police Officer Hue Vang, said he believes Michael Vang was near the Laotian border to contact members of the Hmong guerrilla insurgency. The cousin was one of the last people to see Vang.

Vang vanished April 19 during a Lao new year celebration on the Mekong River, during which the border between Laos and Thailand was open and travelers could enter Laos without applying for a visa.

On that day, Vang crossed from Thailand to the Laotian city of Ban Houayxay with another Hmong American named Ly Houa, a former CIA soldier and veteran of the secret war against the Communists, Vang's cousin said.

Hue Vang said he was present earlier on April 19 in Chiang Khong, Thailand, where Michael Vang and Ly met with a man they believed to be a contact with the Hmong resistance. The man invited the two to a dinner party on the Laotian side of the river.

The cousin said he left the meeting for a few minutes to buy food, and upon returning saw Vang and Ly, a resident of Appleton, Wis., about to board a boat.

"When I started following them to find out where they were going, they were already in the boat and the boat had pretty much took off into the river itself," Hue Vang said. "At that point, it appeared that maybe they were taking a boat ride."

He said he saw his cousin and Ly shove off about 2:30 p.m. and he did not get alarmed until that night when his cousin had not returned.

Losing the Trail

Michael Vang and Ly had been accompanied on the boat by two other Hmong refugees, who later reported that both men were arrested in Ban Houayxay, according to the cousin and Vang Pobzeb, head of the Wisconsin-based Lao Human Rights Council.

In June, Vang Pobzeb traveled to Thailand to investigate the disappearances. In Thailand, the FBI also began an investigation.

"They [Laotian officials] have said there is no evidence of them entering the country," said Sooky Park, the Laos desk officer at the U.S. State Department.

On the Web site of the Laotian Embassy in Washington, the government said allegations that Vang and Ly were arrested are "a frame-up story aimed at slandering" the country and creating a misunderstanding between Laos and the United States.

Vang Pobzeb has met with the staffs of several members of Congress and is frustrated by the lack of progress in finding out what happened to the men. He organized this week's demonstration in Fresno. "We want to put some pressure on the Laotian government," he said.

In the meantime, Susie Vang grows increasingly angry and disconsolate, but still nurses the diminishing hope that her husband might return.

Without his salary, she is struggling to raise their children, ages 10 to 14. She is collecting welfare, works several hours a week as a law office receptionist, and struggling to make the $753 monthly rent on their three-bedroom house.

Susie Vang blames herself for letting her husband leave. "I feel like I'm too patient. I should have stopped him.

"It's really shocking to me," she said quietly. "I can't go after him. Nobody will watch my kids. I'm stuck in the middle."

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