Thousands of ethnic Hmong paid their last respects on Friday to Laotian general Vang Pao, who led a CIA-backed “secret army” in the Vietnam war, at the start of a six-day funeral service.
However, the gathering was clouded with anger when it was announced that US authorities have refused a request for the 81-year-old Hmong veteran to be buried with full honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
Military veterans who fought alongside him joined family and community mourners at the traditional funeral service in Fresno, California, where he died on Jan. 6.
Shortly after the initial two-hour funeral ceremony, however, a confidant of Vang Pao said US authorities had told him they were refusing a burial at Arlington, where top US military brass are laid to rest.
“They called a little while ago ... and they told me the committee turned the general down,” said Charlie Waters, a US military veteran and confidant of Vang Pao, adding: “So we’re appealing to the White House.”
“They gave me this lame excuse that it would take the place away from an American serviceman. That’s crap,” he said, adding he would offer to surrender his own place at Arlington.
Pentagon spokesman Gary Tallman said the family’s request “was thoroughly reviewed by a board comprised of senior military and civilian officials,” but the board “unanimously recommended denial of the request for exception to policy.”
Vang Pao led the CIA-backed force that assisted the US during its ill-fated war with communist forces in Vietnam’s north.
He died of pneumonia last month in Fresno, one of the major hubs of the 250,000-strong Hmong community living in the US, about 30,000 to 40,000 of whom live in California.
Draped in the Stars and Stripes flag, Vang Pao’s coffin was borne into Fresno’s convention center, where tens of thousands of Hmong from the US and abroad were expected to gather over the weekend.
Rows of black-clad mourners joined ranks of soldiers in uniforms and khakis, as well as bagpipers in kilts who had accompanied the casket into the hall, to the strains of Dvorak’s New World Symphony.
“Today our Laotian nation has lost ... one of its outstanding sons,” said Khamphay Abbay, a former Royal Lao official currently living in Australia, who was an adviser to Vang Pao during the war.
California US Congressman Jim Costa has led a group of lawmakers in Washington lobbying for Vang Pao to be buried at Arlington.