[IWAR] US treatment of Laotians

From: Michael Wilson (MWILSON/0005514706at_private)
Date: Sat Dec 27 1997 - 09:45:16 PST

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       Posted at 6:59 p.m. PST Friday, December 26, 1997 
                    To some Laotians, U.S. is land of false promises
       N.Y. Times News Service
       WASHINGTON -- From 1961 to 1974, the Central Intelligence Agency,
       carrying out the foreign policy of the United States, enlisted the
       mountain tribes of Laos as guerrillas in the Vietnam War.
       Some 36,000 Laotians battled North Vietnamese troops, rescued downed
       American pilots and guarded the radars that guided Air Force bombers.
       Thousands of the tribesmen died. In return, the United States gave the
       tribespeople rice and promised them refuge if things went badly.
       After the war, thousands of Laotian veterans and their families
       resettled in this country as refugees. But in last year's welfare reform
       act, Congress voted to deny some forms of federal assistance to the 1.8
       million legal immigrants in the United States.
       Now the Department of Agriculture, carrying out the domestic policy of
       the United States, has cut off food stamps to the Laotians. The cutoff
       has led to despair and suicides among the refugees as it took effect in
       recent weeks, according to the Laotians' community leaders and lawyers.
       The Laotians, most of whom are members of the Hmong tribe, were
       migratory slash-and-burn farmers with only the rudiments of a written
       language when the CIA arrived to teach them the art of modern war in
       1961. They were left behind when the the United States left their
       country in 1974. Thousands of them, many physically or mentally wounded
       by war and exile, trekked through jungles to refugee camps in Thailand
       in the late 1970s. They settled in California, Minnesota, Wisconsin and
       a handful of other states, and have tried to overcome high barriers of
       skill, education, language and culture in a land far from their roots.
       ``It's very difficult for our people to get a job,'' said Xia Cao Vang,
       director of the Lao Family Community Center in Sacramento, Calif. ``The
       people who were involved with CIA in Laos are 45, 50, 55 years of age,
       and the companies here in the United States won't accept anyone of that
       Two Hmong women in California, one in Fresno and one in Sacramento,
       committed suicide this fall, leaving messages blaming the welfare
       cutoff. A third suicide of a Hmong elder was reported in Wisconsin, and
       social-services providers say suicide threats are commonplace, despite
       strict cultural taboos.
       After the suicide of Chia Yang, the woman in Sacramento, one of her
       sons, Toby Vue, told The Sacramento Bee: ``The number-one reason she
       took her life was welfare reform.'' The article drew many letters to the
       editor, most of them hostile to the Hmong (pronounced Mong).
       ``You can't believe the level of desperation and the level of betrayal
       they feel,'' said Jayne Park, an attorney for the Laotian veterans.
       This summer, Congress put a formal statement in the 1997 budget act,
       saying that the Laotians who fought for the United States were in effect
       Vietnam veterans whose families deserved continued federal assistance.
       But the statement did not amend the welfare reform act, and thus lacked
       the force of law. So the Clinton administration cut off the refugees'
       food stamps, affecting an estimated 16,000 Laotian veterans and tens of
       thousands of their family members.
       The Laotians present ``an extraordinarily compelling case,'' said Julie
       Paradis, the acting deputy undersecretary for food and nutrition at the
       Department of Agriculture, which administers the federal food stamp
       ``The administration is committed to finding some way to take care of
       these people,'' Ms. Paradis said. But, she added, it may be up to
       Congress, not the White House, to solve the problem with new laws.
       Lawyers who represent the Laotians, however, say the secretary of
       agriculture, Dan Glickman, has the authority to make food stamps
       available to the Laotians if he wishes.
       The cutoff of food stamps to the Laotians saved an estimated $9 million
       a year, or about one-thirtieth of one percent of the annual federal food
       stamp budget. But the costs have been high for the refugees.
       In California, home to more than half the roughly 170,000 Laotian
       refugees, the effects have been especially harsh.
       This summer, California officials who administer the federal program and
       the state's own food assistance shut off food stamps for nearly 20,000
       Laotians between the ages of 18 and 65. The state denied appeals from
       4,000 of them this fall, and ordered them to pay back the benefits they
       received during the months that their cases were appealed.
       The lieutenant governor of California, Gray Davis, asked the state's
       Social Services director last month to ``restore the benefits Hmong
       veterans in California recently lost and so unquestionably deserve.''
       The request was denied.
       The veterans say their prospects for moving from welfare to work are
       Khao Insixiengmay, a veteran of the CIA's secret war and head of the Lao
       Parents and Teachers Association in Minneapolis, said: ``Those who were
       trained and equipped by the CIA and the American advisers and fought in
       the war had little time for education, and it was a long war.''
       ``When they came here they have little education, little skill,'' he
       said. ``Many became mentally and physically unstable.''
       Now, with the cutbacks, ``people are under the poverty line and they
       have a problem to survive in this new society,'' he said. ``They do not
       know who to turn to.''
       In Minnesota, where the state has provided some funds to make up for the
       federal cutbacks, hundreds of Laotians have nonetheless been forced to
       turn to food banks for basic subsistence, said Daniel Krotz, executive
       director of Minneapolis' Center for Asians and Pacific Islanders. The
       heads of their families -- which, on average, include eight to 10 people
       -- can find jobs paying little more than the minimum wage, he said.
       A sense of bitterness among people who served the United States in
       covert Cold War operations is not unique to the Laotians. Vietnamese
       commandos captured behind enemy lines during the war were written off as
       dead by the United States, only to reappear after many years in prison,
       asking for $2,000 a year in back pay.
       But the Laotians are a special case, according to CIA veterans who
       worked with them during the Vietnam war. They fought so hard and so long
       in a losing cause that many families were down to the last surviving
       male, often a boy of 13 or 14, by the time the United States began
       pulling out.
       ``Survival of the tribe was becoming a major concern'' by the time the
       United States began withdrawing from the war, according to an Air Force
       study. A quarter-century later, the Laotians say their prospects for
       survival have been damaged by welfare reform.
       ``We feel that we have been betrayed,'' said Blong Lo, a leader of the
       Coalition for Hmong and Lao Veterans in Chico.
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