Pioneer Press: "Al Franken: Looking out for a U.S. ally -- the Hmong in Laos"
Last December, when thousands of Hmong in Thailand were forcibly repatriated to Laos, some Minnesotans may not have fully understood why I took the actions of these two foreign governments so seriously.
To explain, a little history is in order. During the Vietnam War, Hmong fought bravely on the side of the United States as members of a secret U.S.-funded army. Hmong men and boys helped rescue downed American pilots and disrupted North Vietnamese troops in Laos, resulting in high Hmong casualties.
It is safe to say that there are thousands fewer American names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. because of the Hmong's heroism.
Because of their alliance with the U.S., many Hmong were persecuted by the Communist Lao regime that remains in power today. Tens of thousands of Hmong fled into Thailand, and many resettled to the U.S., including Minnesota state Sen. Mee Moua.
Today, there are 46,000 Hmong-Americans in Minnesota, the second largest Hmong-American population in the country, and these 46,000 Americans contribute greatly to our state. They run businesses, own homes, attend college and hold elected offices. Two of my Senate staffers are Hmong-Americans.
Last December's forced repatriation of more than 4,500 Hmong to a country and regime that has long persecuted them understandably caused grave concern for Hmong-Minnesotans, many of whom have relatives among the returnees. As a U.S. senator who represents them, it is my concern as well.
And it is my job to use my office to ensure the safety and well-being of the Hmong returnees.
Since January, I have held two large forums with members of Minnesota's Hmong-American community. The first was in immediate response to the crisis - to hear their concerns and share the most current information. In June, I brought Ravic Huso, the U.S. Ambassador to Laos, to a second forum in St. Paul, where he discussed the conditions in the "development village" where most returnees had been resettled.
In July, my wife, Franni, and I traveled to Laos to meet the returnees. Our goal was two-fold: to investigate conditions in the village and to impress upon the Lao government the importance of the returnees' safety to future U.S.-Lao relations.
As we flew into the remote village via a Soviet-era helicopter, we could see the 600 rudimentary homes built for the Hmong returnees. Unfortunately, after we landed, the Lao government severely limited our access to just one two-hour meeting with about 150 obviously pre-selected returnees.
I later expressed my dissatisfaction to Lao officials and pressed for increased access, the delivery of future humanitarian aid, and a complete list of the returnees so family and friends in Minnesota and across the country could be in communication.
Upon my return to the United States, I urged Secretary of State Clinton to raise the issue in her next-day meeting with the Lao Foreign Minister, the highest-ranking Lao official to visit Washington, DC since 1975. Secretary Clinton and I, in separate sessions, both told him that his country's desire to improve U.S.-Lao economic relations depends on the treatment of the Hmong in Laos. I also successfully included language in this year's State Department funding bill to ensure regular international access to the returnees and to assist in their well-being and livelihood.
As the war in Southeast Asia recedes into history, it is important that all Americans remember the special debt we owe the Hmong. And as Laos seeks to improve economic relations with the U.S., it is crucial that we keep the well-being of the Hmong in Laos a central priority.
Al Franken represents Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.