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Pao vowed to lead Hmong home

Revered by some, the Laotian general was a key CIA ally during the Vietnam War.

June 05, 2007|Tony Barboza and Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writers

Vang Pao, a key figure among those arrested Monday on suspicion of plotting the overthrow of the communist Laotian government, is so well-known in the local Hmong community that his family always keeps fruit, soda and water on the living room coffee table to greet the constant stream of visitors who drop by his Westminster home.

An aging Pao would often regale them with war stories while seated under portraits of the former Laotian king and other royalty -- and one of himself in military dress from his younger days.

But in addition to the nationwide image of patriarch and benefactor, Pao also has another reputation -- that of a tough leader who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency in its "secret war" in Laos during the Vietnam War more than 30 years ago.

Pao, who was arrested at his Westminster home Monday, has vowed for more than 20 years to lead his followers back to Laos.

Now 77, Pao led the CIA-backed Hmong forces in the 1960s and 1970s as a general in the Laotian army.

After coming to the United States in 1975, he spearheaded a movement that brought thousands of Hmong refugees to the United States -- work that made him an icon in the Hmong community nationwide.

But, federal officials say, he also has been plotting to overthrow the government of Laos.

The criminal complaint said Pao and other Hmong defendants formed a committee "to evaluate the feasibility of conducting a military expedition or enterprise to engage in the overthrow of the existing government of Laos by violent means, including murder, assaults on both military and civilian officials of Laos, and destruction of buildings and property."

Pao was in the news this year, though in a minor way, when a controversy erupted over whether to name a new elementary school in Madison, Wis., after him.

Last April, his name was chosen from among 39 people nominated by community members, largely because of lobbying efforts by local Hmong. But last month, the school board was faced with a packed room of disgruntled parents who objected to the name on the grounds that Pao's past was questionable. In the end, those who favored his name prevailed.

As a teenager, Vang Pao fought against the Japanese in World War II and later with the French in their ill-fated war against the North Vietnamese.

Vang Pao came to the United States in 1975 and farmed in Montana, his family said. In 1982, he moved to Southern California and began working at a company that made plastic bags.

His family declined to describe when he left that company or how he has made a living since.

Pao's son, Chi Vang, said his father has had heart surgery twice, walks with a cane and takes heart medications three times a day.

anthony.barboza@latimes.com

ashley.powers@latimes.com

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