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Arrest greeted by disbelief

Vang Pao, `the General,' a terrorist? Not possible, say many in Fresno's Hmong community where Pao is respected and revered.

June 06, 2007|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

FRESNO — It's been decades since Gen. Vang Pao saw combat, but many in the sizable Hmong community here still reverently refer to him as "the General."

Straining to explain to outsiders how shaken they were by Tuesday headlines, some likened Pao to a wise uncle, a godfather, to Colin Powell, even Abraham Lincoln.

After news broke of Pao's arrest Monday with nine other men allegedly plotting to overthrow the government in Laos, the Hmongs' ancestral home, an anguished question resounded:

"They're all asking, 'Is it true? Is it true?' " said Trace Yang, Hmong news director of KBIF-AM, which markets itself to many segments of the Asian community here.

"Everybody has such faith in him," she said.

Some community activists were bracing for anti-Hmong repercussions with each coming installment in the saga of the federal sting code-named "Operation Tarnished Eagle." Prosecution documents filed in Sacramento allege the group compared the violence it had in mind to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, planned to spend nearly $10 million on machine guns and Stinger missiles and conspired to recruit Laotians to the cause.

"All of us who work with the refugee communities are concerned," said Peter Vang, a Fresno County official who directs Hmong resettlement. "We want to make sure there are no misconceptions about the community, that there is no backlash."

Pao, 77, lives in Orange County but is a legendary figure in the Central Valley, where more than 55,000 Hmong have settled in the decades since the Vietnam War. He made his name in Laos as a fierce anti-communist fighter, allying with the French and then the Americans.

The general also was instrumental in helping thousands of Hmong escape Laos after the kingdom fell to communist rule and the Hmong, among other groups, were targeted for extermination.

"He's not just a figure in the Hmong community of the Central Valley or the U.S.," said Yang, who Tuesday received worried inquiries at her radio station from as far off as France. "He's a world figure."

Yang said her small station had never received so many calls.

Others arrested include a former police officer who worked in Clovis, outside Fresno; the head of the organization that organizes the Hmong New Year's festivity in Fresno, one of the community's most important celebrations; and a former aide to a Wisconsin state senator. Wisconsin and Minnesota have many Hmong residents.

Over the last three decades, the Hmong and other Southeast Asians poured into Fresno from Thai refugee camps. Those in the older generation mostly farm small plots within the sprawling city, sometimes eking out enough to send their children to college. Younger Hmong often enter professional life, but traditional belief remains strong in the authority of the 18 Hmong clans.

When they're ill and troubled, some people still seek the help of shamans.

On Tuesday, a note from a Hmong reader to the Fresno Bee underscored a kind of generation gap.

"These old men are idiots who dwell in the past," the reader wrote. "I just hope the general population does not judge the Hmong people by these old geezers' actions."

In the largely Hmong shopping center Asian Village, Molly Vang, who said she is Pao's niece, was angry. Serving smoothies and boba tea in a tiny shop she runs with her sister, Vang said Monday's indictments must have been arranged by Pao's enemies to settle old scores.

"He is so loved," she said. "And he loves the American people. After 9/11, he went on Hmong radio and said, 'Our friends are in trouble. We need your donations -- no matter how small.' " From miles around, they converged on the Asian Village parking lot, handing over more than $60,000 for victims' families.

In a downtown park outside the Fresno County Courthouse, a statue unveiled in 2005 shows a downed U.S. airman being aided by a Hmong soldier and a Lao soldier. A plaque honors Vang Pao for his role in rallying thousands of his people on such frequently fatal missions.

"Those that were 'allies' are now called friends, neighbors and fellow citizens," the plaque reads.

Pao gave an oration in Hmong at the statue's dedication, speaking of the "nobility" of the anti-communist effort.

According to federal prosecutors, Pao and others were mounting a sophisticated undercover operation that included leveling Laotian government buildings in order to establish a democracy in Laos. They allegedly met to hone the conspiracy in locales as unassuming as the parking lot of a Kmart in Stockton.

Although Pao made no secret of his desire for a more representative government in his homeland, his friends and supporters said Tuesday that he would not resort to terrorism.

"People who are ill ask for his blessing," said Pao Fang, director of the Lao Community Foundation of Fresno, a social services agency that was founded by the general. "People want him at their weddings. They want him to say a word at funerals. How can he be a terrorist?"

From his office in Asian Village, Fang pondered the question but offered no answer.

Throughout the shopping center, people in the ordinarily reserved community made similar assertions.

At a folding table outside a grocery store, 44-year-old Kay Yang sold plastic bags of powders meant to ease kidney stones, stomach upset, low blood pressure and insomnia.

In heavily accented English, she declared her skepticism of the government's case. "I don't care what they say," she said. "I'm on his side."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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