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Battle's not over when they come to the U.S.

Political outsiders have found sympathetic communities in some Southland suburbs.

June 07, 2007|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

When federal agents took an elderly Hmong man who relies on heart medication and a cane into custody this week, Vang Pao became the latest anti-Communist leader in Southern California's suburbs to be accused of trying to rekindle a long-ago war.

In recent years, the region has contributed a number of chapters to the annals of conspiracies that read like spy novels -- a reflection that for some people in immigrant enclaves such as Orange County's Little Saigon and Long Beach's Little Phnom Penh, the Vietnam War never ended.

Amid the foiled plots and bombs that sputtered are a cadre of Hmong, Cambodian and Vietnamese "freedom fighters" waging battles that most Americans have relegated to history books.

There was the Long Beach accountant blamed for orchestrating a deadly rocket-and-grenade strike on Cambodian government buildings. There was the Baldwin Park activist ordered sent back to Thailand for allegedly trying to blow up Vietnam's embassy in Bangkok.

They have tapped into sentiment that still resonates in places such as Little Saigon, where the flag of the former South Vietnam continues to rustle outside offices and where a retailer triggered 53 days of protests by hanging the current Vietnamese flag at his video store. A statue of an American and Vietnamese soldier -- fighting side by side -- is a focal point of the plaza at Westminster's civic center.

And the smoldering anger of the more radical activists is sheltered -- or at least tolerated -- in a culture that places great importance on showing respect toward elders. The militants are often celebrated, not dismissed as zealots as they might be in other communities.

"These military leaders are given the respect in general because of their past dedication and sacrifice during the war," said Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Garden Grove), California's highest-ranking Vietnamese official. But "it's much more complicated than that because it's combined with what they're doing toward democracy and their approach they're using."

The closest parallel is to Cuban Americans who have devoted years to trying to oust Communist mainstay Fidel Castro.

Last year, an Upland man's arrest was linked to a planned coup: Robert Ferro told authorities that the 1,500 or so guns he had stowed at his foothill estate were to arm Cubans prepared to storm the island.

After U.S. forces withdrew from Vietnam and the Cambodian and Laotian governments collapsed, almost 2 million people in the 1970s and '80s fled the war-torn region. Many of the anti-Communist leaders, once high-ranking military officers and bureaucrats, found themselves stripped of their status and economic means once they arrived in California as refugees.

"This is resistance bred out of suffering," said Jeffrey Brody, a Cal State Fullerton professor who teaches a course on the Vietnamese American experience. "There's a desire to avenge that defeat at the hands of the Communists."

A frail, wrinkled 77-year-old who took his medication thrice daily, Vang Pao held bland jobs -- as a farmer and at a bag company -- and moved into a two-story home on a Westminster cul-de-sac. After living in the United States for decades, he was charged this week in connection with a scheme to topple the Laotian government with a military arsenal that was to include machine guns and Stinger missiles.

"When you lose your country, you're bound to have harsh feelings toward your conquerors, and feelings linger," Brody said. Pao's arrest, along with those of several other Hmong leaders in the Central Valley, only surprised the professor in that Pao has for decades advocated forcefully muscling out the Laotian regime without U.S. authorities interfering.

In 1975, the Communist Pathet Lao seized control of the Laotian government from the monarchy and aligned his socialist regime with Vietnam. Many Hmong, members of an isolated farming community steeped in tribal traditions, were shepherded to U.S. metropolises.

A "very backward society landing in the most advanced country in the world" resulted in the Hmong clinging to a tribal structure in which Pao, a CIA-backed U.S. ally during the Vietnam War, kept his influence, said Michael Radu, an expert on insurgent groups. "They felt lost in a foreign world. He was, in a way, a symbol of their community."

With Laos still under Communist control and Pao in his twilight years, plotting an attack on Laotian government buildings might have been an "act of desperation," said Radu, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank in Philadelphia.

Pao and others allegedly wanted to buy $9.8 million in machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades to devastate the Laotian capital like "the attack upon the World Trade Center," court documents said.

In the Hmong community, allegations against Pao generally were greeted with skepticism, underscoring the community's admiration for a man known as "the General."

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