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Hmong lose revered leader, 81

Former Laotian Gen. Vang Pao,  who led Hmong mercenaries in a CIA-backed army during the Vietnam War, is shown with supporters in 2009.  (Associated Press)
Former Laotian Gen. Vang Pao, who led Hmong mercenaries in a CIA-backed army during the Vietnam War, is shown with supporters in 2009. (Associated Press)

Vang Pao led Laos guerrillas in fight against communists in Vietnam era

FRESNO, Calif. – Vang Pao, a fabled military hero and beloved father figure among the international Hmong refugee community, will be honored with a massive funeral “fit for a king” in central California, the general’s son said Friday.

Vang Pao led Hmong guerrillas in their CIA-backed battle against communists during the Vietnam War. He died Thursday night in a hospital near Fresno after battling pneumonia he caught while presiding over two Hmong New Year celebrations in California’s agricultural belt. He was 81.

Since immigrating to the United States once the communists seized power in Laos in 1975, Vang Pao has been venerated by his transplanted countrymen.

Chi Vang, the general’s 46-year-old son, said family elders decided to honor Vang Pao with a days-long memorial service in Fresno.

“When he traveled here the family was already talking to him about his health and the need to stay at home to relax, but his whole life was geared toward the Hmong community,” said Chi Vang, one of the general’s 32 children. “We are planning an enormous international event fit for a king.”

The general had been hospitalized for about 10 days at Clovis Community Medical Center, where a crowd gathered Thursday night following the news of his death. Many sobbed and knelt on the ground as his body emerged to be transported to a nearby funeral home.

During World War II, while still a teenager, Vang Pao fought to prevent the Japanese from seizing control of Laos.

In the 1950s, he joined the French in the war against the North Vietnamese who were dominating Laos and later, as a general in the Royal Army of Laos, worked with the CIA to wage a covert war there.

Former CIA Chief William Colby once called Vang Pao “the biggest hero of the Vietnam War,” for the 15 years he spent heading a CIA-sponsored guerrilla army fighting against a communist takeover of the Southeast Asian peninsula.

After his guerrillas ultimately lost to communist forces, Vang Pao came to the U.S., where he was credited with brokering the difficult resettlement of tens of thousands of Hmong, an ethnic minority from the hillsides of Laos.

“He’s the last of his kind, the last of the leadership that carries that reference that everyone holds dear,” said Blong Xiong, a Fresno city councilman and the first Hmong-American in California to win a city council seat. “Whether they’re young or old, they hear his name, there’s the respect that goes with it.”

Regarded by Hmong immigrants as an exiled head of state, Vang Pao made frequent appearances at Hmong festivals, advocated on behalf of Hmong veterans and often was asked to mediate disputes or solve problems.

In 2007, however, he was arrested and charged with other Hmong leaders in federal court with conspiracy in a plot to kill communist officials in his native country.

The charges against Vang Pao were dropped in 2009, “after investigators completed the time-consuming process of translating more than 30,000 pages of documents,” then-U.S. Attorney Lawrence G. Brown wrote in a statement.