Vang Pao, a leader of the Hmong ethnic group of Laos who spearheaded a 15-year CIA-sponsored secret war in the Southeast Asian state during the Vietnam War, has died at the age of 81.
The outspoken opponent of the Lao government who immigrated to the United States after the communists seized power in his country in 1975, died of pneumonia with heart complications Thursday, according to a hospital spokeswoman.
Vang Pao had been in hospital since Dec. 26, 2010 and was with his family at the time of his death, according to Michelle Von Tersch of the Clovis Community Medical Center in California.
Tsong Pao Lee, director of the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, said Vang Pao would be greatly missed.
“We’re heartbroken. He paved the way for Lao refugees to resettle in the U.S. If it were not for him we would not have anyone to turn to for advice or help in the U.S.”
Dr. Khamlay Mounivong, a Lao-Canadian democracy activist, said Vang Pao was a tireless activist on behalf of the Hmong people.
“General Vang Pao fought for democracy, for the Lao country. He was a tremendous unwavering fighter. Even in his exile, he had not slowed down until his last breath. It is a great loss for all Lao people around the world.”
Houmphanh Saignasith, a former cabinet member of the now defunct Royal Lao Government who has since relocated to France, said Vang Pao was an intrepid military strategist and staunch nationalist.
“We have lost a great patriot. He was a true and faithful citizen of the Kingdom of Laos.”
Tens of thousands of ethnic Hmong are expected to attend his funeral, a date for which has not been set.
Negotiations are underway to decide where he will be buried.
While some said he would be laid to rest in the California city of Fresno, the home to a thriving Hmong community, his close friend Charlie Waters told AFP that Vang Pao’s family was pressing for his remains to be interred in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, in honor of the help he provided the U.S. during the Vietnam War.
"He worked for the U.S. government at their request, and it's his request ... he wants to be with the rest of the warriors," Waters said.
Mayor Ashley Swearengin of Fresno, said in a statement that Vang Pao had been “a hero to the Hmong community” throughout the country.
“General Vang Pao was courageous in times of war and a giant in the advocacy of citizenship within the Hmong-American community in times of peace,” Swearengin said, adding that he had been “an American patriot of the highest order.”
Former Minnesota State Senator Mee Moua called Vang Pao’s death a “great loss not only to the Hmong American community, but to all around the world who are friends of our Hmong family.”
“For far too long … Vang Pao carried the burden of a proud people longing to be free and independent. And today, in the United States of America, and as a proud American, Vang Pao has more than earned a well-deserved rest,” the former senator said in a statement.
Nearly 250,000 Hmong live in the U.S., with the largest concentrations based in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.
The Lao communist government issued a subdued statement about the general’s passing.
"He was an ordinary person, so we do not have any reaction," a government spokesman was quoted by AFP as saying.
Warrior and activist