A total of 10 people are in custody in California, accused of plotting to overthrow the government of Laos. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, the alleged plotters include a former Laotian general and a retired US military officer.
A six-month undercover investigation, dubbed "Operation Tarnished Eagle," led to charges against nine people Monday, with charges pending against a tenth. Investigators say the accused met in hotel rooms and restaurants in California's Central Valley, where they plotted to buy hundreds of automatic rifles, antitank missiles, rockets, mines, C-4 explosive and smoke grenades.
Authorities say the conspirators were planning to ship the arms by way of safe houses and drop zones in Thailand and Laos. Mercenaries would retrieve the weapons, then blow up government buildings and assassinate officials in Laos in an attempt to overthrow the country's communist government.
The accused include Vang Pao, 77, a former Laotian general who is a leader in California's ethnic Hmong community. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Pao led Hmong tribesmen, backed by the United States, in fighting against communist guerillas. He now lives in Orange County, near Los Angeles, which is home to many Southeast Asian immigrants.
Also charged is Harrison Jack, 60, a U.S. army veteran and former Lieutenant Colonel in the California National Guard. Jack is a 1968 graduate of the U.S Military Academy at West Point.
THE SECRET WAR and Our Allies
In the early 1960s, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began to recruit the indigenous “Hmong” people in Laos to join fighting the Vietnam War, named as a Special Guerrilla Unit led by General Vang Pao. Over 80% of the Hmong men in Laos were recruited by the CIA to join fighting for the U.S. Secret War in Laos. The CIA used the Special Guerrilla Unit as the counter attack unit to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main military supply route from the north to the south. Hmong soldiers put their lives at risk in the frontline fighting for the United States to block the supply line and to rescue downed American pilots. As a result, the Hmong suffered a very high casualty rate; more than 40,000 Hmong were killed in the frontline, countless men were missing in action, thousands more were injured and disabled.
General Vang Pao lead the Region II (MR2) defense against NVA incursion from his headquarters in Long Cheng, also known as Lima Site 20 Alternate (LS 20A). At the height of its activity, Long Cheng became the second largest city in Laos, estimated at 300,000, with 200,000 ethnic Hmong and 100,000 people of other ethnic backgrounds. Long Cheng was a micro-nation operational site with its own bank, airport, school system, officials, and many other facilities and services in addition to its military units. Before the end of the Secret War, Long Cheng would fall in and out of General Vang Pao's control.
The Secret War began around the time that the United States became officially involved in the Vietnam War. When the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, the Lao kingdom was overthrown by the communists and the Hmong people became targets of retaliation and persecution. While some Hmong people returned to their villages and attempted to resume life under the new regime, thousands more made the trek to and across the Mekong River into Thailand, often under attack. This marked the beginning of a mass exodus of Hmong people from Laos.
Of those Hmong who did not leave, somewhere between two and three thousand were sent to re-education camps where political prisoners served terms of 3-5 years. Many people died in these camps, enduring hard physical labor and harsh condition. Thousands more Hmong people, mainly former soldiers and their families, escaped to remote mountain regions - particlarly Phou Bia, the highest (and thus least accessible) mountain peak in Laos. Initially, some Hmong groups staged attacks against Pathet Lao and Vietnamese troops while others remained in hiding to avoid military retaliation and persecution. Spiritual leader Zong Zoua Her rallied his followers in a guerilla resistance movement called Chao Fa (named for the most senior class--technically, three classes--of the Thai royal family after the royal couple). Initial military successes by these small bands led to military counter-attacks by government forces, including aerial bombing and heavy artillery, as well as the use of defoliants and chemical weapons.
Small groups of Hmong people, many of them second or third generation descendants of former CIA soldiers, remain internally displaced in remote parts of Laos, in fear of government reprisals. Faced with continuing military operations against them by the government and a scarcity of food, some groups have begun coming out of hiding, while others have sought asylum in Thailand and other countries.