Even though he’s 22 years old, Chi Vang looks like your typical Orange County teenager. On a hot day in late June, he sits quietly on the couch inside the living room of his childhood home, a modest two-story stucco house in a Westminster cul-de-sac bordered by a small park with a swing set and jungle gym. He’s wearing a Billabong T-shirt, shorts and a sober expression. He’s surrounded by portraits of his father. The more recent photographs show an elderly man in a business suit; the older ones depict a fierce-looking warrior decked out in the white uniform of the now-defunct Royal Lao Army.
The person in the portraits is Chi’s father, Vang Pao, now 77, a former Royal Lao Army General and the leader of the CIA’s so-called Secret Army during the Vietnam War. Back then, Vang Pao was the most powerful man in Laos. For more than a decade, he helped the CIA secretly wage war against the communist Pathet Lao guerrillas and the North Vietnamese Army, which infiltrated Laos to move troops and supplies along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the battlegrounds of South Vietnam. Vang also used his position to help rescue hundreds of American pilots who were shot down over Laos.
When the U.S. pulled out of Laos and South Vietnam in 1973, after dropping tens of millions of tons of bombs on both nations, Vang continued to fight the war on communism in Southeast Asia. He kept fighting until 1975, when he and what was left of his Secret Army fled for refugee camps in Thailand. To the estimated 250,000 Hmong who followed Vang to America—most of them were resettled in California’s Central Valley, Wisconsin and Minnesota—Vang is a hero. They call him “Our General” and “Our Father.”
Vang Pao isn’t home, but evidence of his prominence in the family household is everywhere. On the coffee table is a spread of Vietnamese sodas and snacks, a testament to the steady stream of visitors who have been stopping by during the past few weeks, ever since Chi’s father was arrested by federal agents in Sacramento on June 4, charged with plotting to overthrow the Laotian government. After a few weeks in a federal holding cell, Vang had to be rushed to the hospital for chest pains on June 22. The Vang family’s telephone has been ringing off the hook since then.
“He’s better now,” Chi says. “He’s had bypass surgery before, though, so people are worried. We’ve been receiving lots of phone calls and letters.”
Chi seems less worried about his father’s health than his legal future. Dubbed Operation Popcorn—the latter word is an acronym for Political Opposition Party’s Coup Operation to Rescue the Nation—the plot Vang allegedly led involved the secret purchase of millions of dollars’ worth of AK-47s, C-4 explosives and Stinger missiles. Along with hundreds of American mercenaries, the weapons would be smuggled from Thailand to Hmong insurgents still in Laos, who have for decades been skirmishing with the Laotian military.
According to the federal government’s criminal complaint against the participants, government buildings would quickly topple in massive explosions that would “look like the results of the attack upon the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001.” Military aircraft would fall out of the sky after being struck with missiles, and any Laotian officials whom the plotters could not “neutralize” would be subject to “in-house arrests or assassination.”
If convicted, Vang faces a possible sentence of life in prison. Thousands of Hmong gathered in Sacramento to protest his arrest, many of them chanting, “Free Vang Pao!” and charging the U.S. government with betraying Vang, who has for decades openly advocated a violent overthrow of the Laotian government. As recently as February 2007, the New Republic quoted Vang bragging that he would pull off a coup in Laos sometime this year. “The U.S. has better rifles, better guns than the communists,” Vang said. “If they give me the guns, I can conquer Laos in 2007. I still believe I can do it.” Despite this, Vang’s lawyer, John Balazs, quickly released a statement declaring Vang’s innocence. “General Vang Pao stands wrongly accused of the criminal charges against him,” Balazs asserted. “We look forward to a trial where we can demonstrate General Pao’s [sic] innocence of all charges.”
On June 18, the Los Angeles Timespublished an opinion piece by Jeffrey Brody, a Cal State Fullerton professor, denouncing the government’s arrest of Vang as “a final, contemptible act of betrayal.” In an interview with the Weekly, Brody calls Vang’s arrest “bizarre and hypocritical,” adding that he interviewed Vang Pao about his plans to liberate Laos when Brody was an Orange County Register reporter in the early 1980s.
“The U.S. government has been aware of his activities,” Brody says. “Vang Pao has been open and active about it. I’ve been at the rallies and spoken to him about it. It’s the dream of exiles to reconquer their homeland. A lot of people in the Hmong community doubted his sincerity and wondered where the funds were going. Now he’s a martyr.”
Chi Vang has become something of a family spokesperson for reporters covering his father’s arrest. He comfortably fields questions about the evidence against his father, adding that talk of a presidential pardon is premature. “This was a six-month-long investigation, and my father’s name only came up once,” he says. “He had only one meeting with the other people named in this case. That doesn’t sound like much evidence for a six-month investigation. We are waiting for the facts to emerge.”
His father, Chi concedes, has publicly supported Hmong rebels who have continued to fight against the Laotian government after Vang left the country. A female family member standing nearby passes over a DVD called Starvation or Surrender, which includes footage smuggled out of Laos showing dead and wounded Hmong villagers allegedly targeted by Laotian government forces, as well as of half-starved columns of refugees marching out of the jungle to surrender. These are the people, the woman explains, that Vang Pao has always tried to liberate. “They are all dead now,” she says. “The Lao government kills these people. Vang Pao is a friend of America. His people died for America—they sacrifice everything. Now we don’t know why America has done this to us.”
Chi denies that the rebels have any connection to his father, but he acknowledges that they look up to him. “They see my father as a beacon of hope, and that is what my father is doing: voicing their concern to the world,” he says. But Chi points out that his dad has also supported peaceful dialogue. “The U.S. government itself has recognized my father’s peaceful stance when he publicly announced he has no violent intentions to overthrow the Laotian government, which is impossible anyways,” he says. “My father is a smart guy. The U.S. government just assumed he was the ringleader in this [plot], but there are lots of things going on around my father that he doesn’t know about.”
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Whatever the facts of Vang’s involvement, his arrest represents the death of his decades-long dream of returning to Laos and a surprising twist of fate for a man who was once the most fearsome and effective U.S. ally in the Vietnam War. Born in December 1929 as the scion of an influential Hmong clan in the central Laotian province of Xieng Khouang, Vang came of age during World War II, at which time most Hmong were still living a stone-age existence with no written language. He fought against the Japanese, who had invaded Laos, then part of the French colonial Indochina—while still a teenager.
Immediately after the war, when the French re-occupied Laos, Vang attended colonial military school and quickly rose through the ranks. A staunch anti-communist, he eagerly joined the French in their unsuccessful campaign against the communist Viet Minh in neighboring Vietnam. In 1954, France granted autonomy to Laos, which became a constitutional monarchy, and Vang became an officer in the newly created Royal Lao Army. He became the country’s first Hmong general in 1964.
By then, the CIA had already recruited Vang to help lead a so-called “Secret Army” in Laos against the communist Pathet Lao guerrillas and their North Vietnamese allies, who were using Laos to transfer soldiers and weapons into South Vietnam. Although Laos was supposedly a neutral nation where U.S. soldiers were prohibited from fighting, American involvement there was a secret only from the U.S. Congress and the American public. To the average Laotian, it was pretty obvious the Americans were around. From 1965 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more bombs there than on any other country in history, resulting in the estimated deaths of 250,000 Laotians.
Meanwhile, Vang led tens of thousands of Hmong militiamen in a campaign to wipe out the Pathet Lao, harass travelers of the Ho Chi Minh trail, and help rescue any American pilots who were shot down while bombing it. By all accounts, Vang was a brilliant tactician who ruthlessly engaged a numerically larger and better-equipped enemy. But by 1968, the North Vietnamese Army had effectively destroyed the Royal Lao Army, leaving only Vang and his diminishing Hmong militia to fight. Their only support came from Air America, the CIA-run airline that helped transport and supply Vang and his lieutenants, and American bombing, which reduced much of Laos to a moon-like landscape of craters. By 1971, most Hmong had fled the mountains and were living in lowland refugee camps.
In the early 1970s, allegations began to surface—from Hmong villagers, Air America pilots, U.S. advisers in Laos, even French and American narcotics reports—that Vang was involved in the local heroin trade. In his 1972 book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia, Alfred McCoy, now a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, cites interviews with federal narcotics agents who claimed Vang “was operating a heroin factory at the CIA’s Long Tieng [Cheng] headquarters” and who considered Vang and other Secret Army officials “the leading heroin dealers” in Laos. “Vang Pao relied on air transport to deliver his people for slaughter in the CIA’s secret war,” McCoy wrote. “And the agency in turn did not object when his officers used Air America to transport the Hmong opium crop.”
In a recent interview, McCoy said he first came across evidence of Vang’s heroin ties in August 1971, when he was conducting field research in central Laos, touring Hmong villages that had broken with Vang over his desire to recruit their children into his militia. As in most Hmong villages, their primary cash crop consisted of poppies, which the villagers told McCoy they harvested and then transported for processing by Vang’s network. “Vang Pao, through his relationship and alliance with the CIA and Air America, gained an economic stranglehold over every Hmong household, transporting this scattered group of villages and clan networks into a single force,” McCoy said. “It was a small but politically significant part of the Golden Triangle because it involved a covert CIA operation.”
Shortly after completing his interviews, McCoy was ambushed by Hmong militiamen. “I decided not to seek an interview with [Vang] after his militia forces ambushed me in the middle of Laos,” he said. “There were two bursts of automatic weapons fire from the ridge above us. We had a shootout for 45 minutes.” Although nobody was harmed in the incident, McCoy says he received a direct threat from someone who knew Vang; he told McCoy that if he continued his work, his interpreter would be killed. “So for the rest of my time in Laos, I found myself under extraordinarily close surveillance.”
Vang has always denied involvement in the heroin trade. In a January 1974 National Geographic article, he even complained that Hmong villagers were blaming him for aerial crop spraying after Laos banned the heroin trade in 1971, a charge he also denied. “All I know is the Hmong blame me,” Vang said. “For years, I have been telling them to stop growing opium because the Americans don’t want them to grow it. Opium is America’s No. 1 enemy, the Communists No. 2. My passion is that my people should be free of opium, but I did not do this.”
McCoy’s Hmong-American critics, many of whom revere Vang, say McCoy is biased because he believes Vang tried to have him murdered. Furthermore, they say, McCoy relied upon hearsay by villagers who had broken from Vang’s leadership. “When you are in war, you create enemies both abroad and within your own people,” said one Hmong-American who asked not to be identified. “The drug trade is everywhere,” he added. “I’m not discounting that people were doing it—probably the CIA and Air America and a couple of captains here and there, but not a cartel.”
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During the Vietnam War, Vang Pao earned a reputation as a commander who was both tough and, in the eyes of some Americans who witnessed his leadership, brutal. “Vang Pao was exceptional,” remarked former CIA pilot Wayne Linnen in the book Air America. “He did a lot of things people didn’t like—he’d summarily execute somebody who didn’t do their job. But he kept the whole thing together, and if they hadn’t had him, it would have fallen apart long before it ever did.”
In another book, Tragic Mountains: The Hmong, the Americans, and the Secret Wars for Laos, 1942-1992, another Air America pilot, Fred Walker, described what he claimed was a typical treatment of prisoners. “Vang Pao comes in and eats lunch. While he’s eating, one of his aides comes over and says something and points to the young guy squatting in the corner. Suddenly Vang Pao spits out the sound ‘Ba!’ A couple of soldiers stood up and took the prisoner outside. Vang Pao continued eating. A few minutes later, I heard four shots.”
Other criticism of Vang Pao stems from his treatment of his own soldiers. Air America includes details of an alleged summary execution: “A Meo [Hmong] soldier on the ridge watched the plane crawl slowly toward him and, in a moment of boredom, fired off a shot,” author Christopher Robbins wrote. “The bullet went straight through the pilot’s heart and killed him instantly while the plane crashed into the mountain and burned, killing everybody onboard. The soldier was executed on the spot by Vang Pao.”
Vang Pao continued to fight the Pathet Lao, even after 1973, when American forces abandoned the field. By then, however, his Secret Army had been decimated by the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army. (An estimated 40,000 Hmong soldiers died during the war.) As a result, Vang increasingly recruited child soldiers for his militia. “General Vang Pao’s tribal units are weary from years of fighting, and casualties have been replaced with recruits that knowledgeable sources say are 13 to 15 years of age,” The New York Times reported on Feb. 11, 1971. “The number of 12-year-old and 13-year-old fighting men in the general’s forces appear even higher than among Laotian units. Although there is no draft, youngsters are impressed under clan and family pressure.”
Vang carried on until 1975, when he reluctantly fled to Thailand. With the help of the U.S. government, which ultimately resettled tens of thousands of Hmong in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin, Vang moved to a farm in Montana. Having grown weary of Montana’s cold climate by the mid-1980s, Vang moved to Orange County’s Little Saigon, home of the largest group of Vietnamese exiles in the world.
Tan Phung, Vang’s next-door neighbor on the quiet Westminster cul-de-sac where Vang lived for 17 years, emigrated to the United States from Vietnam 27 years ago. He says he barely got to know Vang because he was hardly ever home. “He would just come for a while, and then go somewhere else, to Minnesota or Fresno,” Phung says. A refugee who himself fled communism in Southeast Asia, Phung doesn’t understand why the Americans would arrest Vang Pao. “I feel very bad because he is America’s friend,” he says. “I don’t know what America thinks of him now.”
Shortly after moving to Orange County, Vang formed Neo Hom, also known as the United Lao Council, to raise money to lobby the U.S. Congress for support for overthrowing the communist regime in Laos. The group raised millions of dollars from Hmong exiles for that effort. At least some of the cash went to purchase weapons and supplies for the scattered groups of Hmong rebels who remain in Laos. Although the U.S. government paid lip service to Vang’s heroism during the Vietnam War, it never gave official support to his goal of overthrowing the Laotian government.
Vang had more luck in building alliances with right-wing politicians from Orange County who wanted his help in proving that American soldiers who had been listed as “missing in action” during combat in Laos were still being held by the communists. Shortly after arriving in Orange County, Vang hooked up with Republican Congressman Robert K. Dornan, the politician most closely aligned with the POW-MIA movement.
Dornan’s interest in Laos seems to have stemmed from the death of his “best friend in the Air Force,” David Hrdlicka, an American pilot shot down over Laos in 1965 who was initially listed as missing. U.S. intelligence reports later revealed Hrdlicka had been captured by Pathet Lao guerrillas and imprisoned in a camp, where he died of natural causes before being buried near a cave that was obliterated in an American B-52 bombing raid. But Dornan was convinced Hrdlicka and other Americans were still languishing in communist tiger cages.
In 1982, the Los Angeles Daily News reported that two groups of U.S.-backed Hmong rebels in Laos “loyal to General Vang Pao” were “searching part of Laos for evidence of Americans left behind at the end of the Vietnam War.” Dornan told the newspaper that “a top Defense Intelligence Agency official confirmed he had knowledge of the reconnaissance sweeps during a closed-door congressional hearing.” Nothing came of the venture. Although the U.S. Defense Department has investigated tens of thousands of reported sightings, no live American serviceman has ever been found in Laos or elsewhere in Southeast Asia after the war’s end.
Dornan left office in 1996 after losing his seat to Democrat Loretta Sanchez. But another Orange County Republican, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, also maintained close ties to Vang and the Hmong resistance. Rohrabacher did not respond to an interview request for this story, but in 1997, he and several other Republican congressmen formally protested a U.S. State Department report that claimed to find no evidence of the use of chemical weapons on or torture or murder of Hmong villagers by the Laotian government.
A July 2001 article in Foreign Policy in Focus also tied Rohrabacher to Vang, who, it noted, had been connected to several efforts to smuggle weapons across the border from Thailand to Hmong rebels in Laos in the late 1990s and that Vang’s nephew had disappeared during one such operation. “Following this still-unresolved incident, supporters of Hmong-American groups formed the U.S. Congressional Forum on Laos, which has held a series of closed-door, secretive meetings on Capitol Hill beginning in 1999,” the magazine reported. “This group has no formal link to the U.S. government but has gained support from members of Congress, including . . . Dana Rohrabacher.”
Vang Pao’s relationship with Rohrabacher, who once shouted, “Free Laos! Free Laos!” during a Capitol Hill reception for Vang and other uniformed Hmong resistance leaders, is especially noteworthy given the evidence that has already emerged that Vang and his fellow coup plotters apparently believed they had U.S. government backing. A government affidavit filed in the case notes that the plotters claim they had consulted about their plot with an unnamed “CIA guy” as well as a “congressman.”
Justice Department spokesperson Rosemary Shaul refused to comment on whether her agency was investigating the identity of the mystery politician, but Rohrabacher was quick to deny it was him, adding that he hadn’t spoken with Vang or any other Hmong leaders for some time. “A year and a half ago or so, I remember—maybe two years ago—there were a couple of guys in my office talking about Laos,” he told an AP reporter a day after Vang’s arrest. “I don’t know if they were with this group or not.”
But Rohrabacher was just as eager to defend Vang’s plot. “I don’t think that’s anything that should worry Americans, that some people who believe in democracy are trying to overthrow a dictatorship in their homeland,” Rohrabacher said. “This seems to be a situation where they’re targeted because they are engaged in an effort to forcefully bring down the Laotian dictatorship. . . . No one is suggesting they should be able to break our laws, but at the same time, they shouldn’t be targeted and intentionally brought down.”
Mark Reichel, a Sacramento-based defense attorney for alleged coup plotter Lo Cha Thao, claims he will prove the CIA knew about the plot all along. “There is no dispute that the CIA knows about these insurgents, and I’d like to know whether or not this [operation] was cleared,” Reichel said. “These guys have been bragging for the past 25 years that they have ties to the CIA. They openly brag about it. There are Hmong conventions all over the U.S., and they bring out generals and go to Congress, and their sole existence is to overthrow the Laotian government.”
Vang Pao’s arrest has already unified the notoriously fractious Hmong, many of whom resented him for raising millions of dollars to overthrow the Laotian government without producing any results. They feel that his arrest is the final slap in the face to the Hmong people. “America should have rescued these helpless freedom fighters in the deep jungles of Laos a long time ago,” observed one Hmong-American. “They’re hunted like animals without any support from their former American allies. Right now, the American people view these freedom fighters as terrorists, not knowing what mess they have caused 30 years ago. . . . General Vang Pao is man of honor and peace.”
“Vang Pao isn’t really representative of most Hmong,” countered another Hmong-American who asked not to be identified. “My position is that whether or not Vang Pao survives his ordeal is something for the courts to decide. But a chapter in American history needs to be told. Vang Pao is charged with violating the neutrality of Laos, but if you take his name off the indictment and replace it with ‘United States government,’ then it would accurately describe exactly what the U.S. did to Laos. It’s a double standard, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens if Vang Pao starts naming names.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).