The Hmong community in Spokane is mourning the death of the man they view as the father of their people.
They held a memorial service Saturday at the East Central Community Center for Gen. Vang Pao of the Royal Army of Laos, who led Hmong guerrillas in the CIA-backed fight against communists during the Vietnam War. Pao died Jan. 6 of pneumonia in Clovis, Calif. He was 81.
“He’s like a father,” said Mai Yang, vice president of the Spokane Hmong Association. “He’s the only great leader the Hmong people have ever had. I think for people close to him, there’s still that numbness, that disbelief that he’s gone.”
He gained the admiration of the Hmong – an ethnic group from Southeast Asia that has no homeland – when he led them out of Laos and into America, where they sought better lives. He has been credited with helping thousands of Hmong settle in America, from Minnesota to California to Washington. Many who knew him personally live in Spokane, and he visited the area frequently after he settled in Montana in 1976.
Yang said Pao sometimes used tough love to encourage and empower the Hmong to improve their lives through education and hard work.
“He expected people to be tough and not expect handouts,” she said. “He didn’t want to just give it to you. He wanted them to prove that they earned it.”
Still, many said Saturday he was approachable, generous and kind.
While living in Montana, Pao learned that Vangtou Xiong had to walk everywhere, so he bought Xiong a bicycle.
“This proves to me he cared about the little people,” Xiong said.
Paodoua Moua was one of many who spoke of Pao’s kindness.
“I was just a kid when I was in Laos, but I recall he was like a father figure to everyone,” Moua said. “He treats the well-to-do folks and the common people the same. That’s what I really admire about him.
“When I heard he died, my whole body ached,” she said.
The Hmong have been repressed culturally, religiously and politically throughout history, Yang said. In Laos, they were considered hillbillies, she said, because they didn’t wear shoes, spoke a different language and lacked education.
“They were made fun of,” she said. “That’s why he tried to have influence, to build schools to educate the Hmong people.”
In China, the name for the Hmong was “Miao,” which Yang said means barbarians.
“We were forbidden from speaking Hmong; we were forced to wear Chinese clothes,” Yang said. “In China, we were made to pay taxes, but none of it ever came back to the Hmong community.”
Pao played a pivotal role in changing all that by liberating the Hmong. Now, the venerated general’s death has left a void in the community and Yang said some fear the Hmong will become divided as others vie for leadership.
Vang Xiong, with the National Hmong Grave Desecration Committee, implored the Hmong to remain united and remember the lessons Pao left.
“Don’t lose heart, even though we’ve lost our great leader,” Xiong said. “Let’s use what he’s taught us, to make him truly proud.
“Let’s continue to bring the Hmong people together.”
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