On Dec. 28, Thailand’s military packed more than 4,000 Hmong asylum seekers into trucks and drove them from refugee camps to neighboring Laos, a single-party state that’s been accused of persecuting the group since they backed U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. Thailand now maintains that Hmong living illegally in Thailand are economic migrants, not political refugees in need of international protection — but the decision to forcibly repatriate the Hmong drew international condemnation. Human Rights Watch called the expulsion “appalling,” while the U.S. State Department argued the refugees deserved to be protected from threats they faced in their homeland.
The incident is the latest step in a decades-old dance between Laos’ communists, the Hmong and the U.S. In the lead-up to the Vietnam War, North Vietnam carved a maze of transportation routes through the jungles of Laos, creating a crucial supply link later known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Laos was in the middle of a civil war between the Royal Lao government and the Communist Pathet Lao. Seeking to disrupt the North’s supply routes, the Americans enlisted the help of the Royal Lao government’s highest-ranking Hmong leader, Vang Pao. He welcomed American guns, money and expertise, assembling thousands of Hmong fighters from the hills. Together, they’d tackle a common enemy, the communists.