Historical Overview

Hmong began moving into Southeast Asia during the 19th century to escape political instability and conflict in southern China. They established villages in mountainous northeastern Laos where they had to deal with Lao and French demands for tribute and labor. In reaction to these oppressive demands, a Hmong man instigated a rebellion that lasted from 1918 to 1922 by prophesying the return of the ancestors and the miraculous expulsion of the French from Indochina. Although French colonial authorities suppressed the uprising and executed its main leaders, they granted the Hmong a greater degree of self-governance. Becoming part of the official government created new problems for the Laotian Hmong when influential individuals and their followers took opposite sides in the political struggles that followed (see Quincy [1995] for more extensive history).

In the 1930s, two powerful Hmong families competed for French recognition near a key Laotian trading center situated near the border with Vietnam. The rivalry led to the formation of pro- and anti-French factions. The former transferred their allegiance to the Western-supported constitutional monarchy when it was established in 1949, and fought in defense of the Royal Laotian Government with extensive help from the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States (C.I.A.) beginning in 1961. The smaller anti-French faction joined with the Lao Issara (Free Lao movement) after World War II in agitating for complete political independence from the West. They subsequently became part of the communist Pathet Lao movement at the time of the Vietnam War when the Laotian military and the C.I.A.-assisted Special Guerilla Units, which were predominantly Hmong, opposed the Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese Army. Other Hmong tried to encourage the formation of a coalition government, but compromise proved impossible. Almost 15 years of warfare, which was conducted primarily in northeastern Laos, devastated the Hmong population. After the Pathet Lao assumed control of Laos in 1975, a great many Hmong fled to Thailand where they were placed in camps and forced to live under harsh conditions. Most of these refugees were eventually resettled in Germany, France, French Guiana, Australia, Canada, or the United States (Cha & Livo, 2000; Hamilton-Merrit, 1993; Pfaff, 1995).

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