Mon, Mar 08, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Displaced Hmong heading to the US for shot at a better life

Closing another chapter in its involvement in Southeast Asia, the US is about to accept 14,000 Hmong from a long-term refugee camp in Thailand

AFP , THAM KRABOK, THAILAND

Thousands of Hmong refugees who fled Laos for Thailand 30 years ago are preparing for a new life in the US, closing a long and painful chapter in the disastrous US intervention in Southeast Asia.

In December Washington announced it was launching a resettlement program for up to 14,300 Hmong living in squalor at this camp centered on a Buddhist temple in Saraburi province northeast of Bangkok.

But thousands of other Hmong living in Thailand, often on the margins of society, are being left behind and have little prospects for a better future.

US, Thai and humanitarian sources said the camp at Wat Tham Krabok erupted in cheers when the Hmong heard they had finally been given the right to move to the US.

"Anything is better than this place, so I'm happy to go," said Ya Chang, a mother of seven who looked far older than her 30 years.

"We have problems with food, health and education," the impoverished farmer said, adding that five of her children do not attend school because she has no money to pay the modest fees.

Earlier Ya Chang had met the glad-handing mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota, which hosts the US' biggest exiled Hmong community.

The city, with its 25,000 Hmong already comprising more than 10 percent of its population, is expected to take more than half the refugees at the camp, and visiting Mayor Randy Kelly was eager to meet some of his potential new constituents.

Ya Chang, who has lived here for 10 years, put on a brave face in front of Kelly and the crush of media cameras, but afterwards said she had no idea where she would go in the US or how she would earn a living.

After fleeing Laos as a toddler with her family, she said she has forgotten where they had lived in Laos, and her life has been a patchwork of misery.

Her case is repeated thousands of times over here, but Kelly was convinced that Ya Chang, her children and the rest of the community could turn over a new leaf in the US.

"The people in this camp are hopeful to leave as quickly as they can and have a lot more possibilities in the US than under these mountains and on this desolate patch of land where they are staying now," he said.

"It was a powerful moment to walk into the camp and see thousands of people assembled. They were looking with hope and question marks in their eyes," he said.

"I tried to provide them the hope of a better future," he said.

The mayor said the mass migration, which is expected to see the first Hmong depart for the US in August, was a key step towards resolving longstanding issues related to the 1970s conflict in Southeast Asia.

"There needs to be a very serious effort to resolve a number of the lingering issues that have existed since the Vietnam War ended," he said. "I think this is part of that process."

The refugees at Wat Tham Krabok are among 300,000 Hmong who fled to Thailand after the communist takeover in Laos in 1975. Their presence here has been a perennial source of aggravation in relations between Vientiane and Bangkok.

Thailand wants to close down the camp, which it has deemed a "unique security threat" in part because anti-communist insurgent activity along the border with Laos has been traced back to its residents.

Hmong guerrillas were used by the US to form a "secret" army when the conflict against communism in Southeast Asia spilled over into Laos during the Vietnam War.

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