Bitter days for a fabled old ally

Times Staff Writer

He seems more fable than flesh and blood, a general who marched with serendipity at his side. Wartime comrades say he walked away from downed aircraft, defied bullets and dodged artillery shells. Once, the story goes, a barrage of bombs landed around him and not one exploded.

Even in defeat, Gen. Vang Pao of the Royal Lao Army consistently beat the odds. After the communists conquered his homeland in 1975, he fled with six wives and more than 20 children to the U.S., his old ally in the CIA-backed "secret war" in Laos. Trading combat fatigues for a business suit, he became the most recognizable leader of the Hmong in America, courted by congressmen, venerated by fellow immigrants. Elementary schools were named after him.

Now luck may be running out for this veteran survivor.

At 78, Vang Pao stands accused with 10 compatriots of plotting an armed overthrow of Laos from California's agrarian Central Valley.

An 18-page draft of the plan, dubbed Operation Popcorn, reads like the outline of an over-the-top spy novel: A group of aging men seeks to amass an arsenal of AK-47s, Stinger missiles and explosives, hire special-op mercenaries and reduce government buildings in the capital city, Vientiane, to rubble.

They've been branded as terrorists and charged with violating the U.S. Neutrality Act. Now they face trial here in the state capital and the possibility of life in prison.

Die-hard supporters in the refugee strongholds of Fresno and St. Paul, Minn., reacted with outrage to the arrests last June, particularly old-world Hmong who still hang his photo on their living room walls and have never felt at home in America.

Hadn't the general fought valiantly on behalf of the United States? Hadn't his Hmong troops rescued downed American pilots, battled communists along the Ho Chi Minh Trail?

To many, the arrest of Vang Pao was yet another betrayal by America. Though more than 100,000 Hmong resettled in the U.S., thousands of their kin remain hunkered in border refugee camps or trapped in highland jungles, still on the run from communist forces.

Chi Vang, 22, Vang Pao's youngest son, said his father had "no choice but to stand up for them."

It was these imperiled people Vang Pao sought to save, his supporters say, and it is these people who now will suffer or die, abandoned by America. The Hmong expected more from their old ally.

But the days of the domino theory and the fight against communism are long over, replaced by the war on terror and the Patriot Act and zero tolerance.

Even for faithful old allies bent on fighting a lost war.

Vang pao might have ended up just another impoverished Hmong kid in a land long torn by war.

But in the years after his birth in 1929 -- to a peasant family in a village near the Vietnamese border -- Vang Pao displayed a preternatural ambition not often seen among the Hmong's 18 bickering hill tribe clans still living as if in the feudal era.

Instead of becoming a Hmong farmer of sticky rice, he joined World War II resistance forces against the Japanese as a teenager, then was recruited by the French during the first Indochina War. Instead of falling into the faceless squadrons of the Royal Lao Army, he worked his way up the military ladder to become the army's highest-ranking Hmong.

"He became a great military leader and a remarkable politician, the first Hmong in 500 years to unite the clans," said Karl Polifka, a retired Air Force colonel who knew Vang Pao during the Vietnam War. "He's charismatic, forceful. His whole life was spent in warfare. And we helped create him."

In 1961, the CIA tapped Vang Pao, then an army major just turned 31, to command a clandestine military campaign against the communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese. His guerrilla army eventually grew to more than 30,000 troops, mostly Hmong tribesmen from highland villages, and waged a gutsy campaign that tied down communist troops for a decade.

Mercurial and sometimes brutal, Vang Pao was known to order the execution of prisoners and insubordinate troops. He enlisted under duress so-called "carbine soldiers," some no taller than their rifles and as young as 12. He sloughed off accusations of being a wartime drug lord in charge of opium and heroin traffic.

Despite the controversies, some military strategists came to regard him as the finest general of the war.

He routinely accompanied the rank and file into battle, and his ability to skirt death was legendary.

Polifka recalled the time Vang Pao was about to leave a Laotian air base in a Huey helicopter but suddenly refused to go. He ordered the pilot to stop the engines. His reason was simple:

Buddha says not to fly in this.

Half an hour later the helicopter exploded, Polifka said. An assassin had tossed a grenade in the gas tank, its handle bound by electrical tape that slowly dissolved in the fuel.

Still, Vang Pao could not dodge defeat. In 1975, after the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, the general had to be spirited out of his native land by the CIA.

Life in exile had begun.

Cia handlers settled him on a 400-acre ranch in Montana. He could have simply disappeared, a warrior without a war to fight.

But there were Hmong left in the Laotian jungles. And thousands had followed his path to the U.S. after the war, impoverished people bewildered by a modern land.

Vang Pao's own first years were challenging. "War is difficult, peace is hell," he would tell author Christopher Robbins for the book "The Ravens." Unaccustomed to frigid winters, he moved in the early 1980s to the Orange County suburb of Westminster, home to the immigrant enclave of Little Saigon.

He also recast himself as a Hmong man for all seasons: part philanthropic entrepreneur, part roving statesman and resistance leader. He traveled extensively to rally support for his people's cause. Hmong admirers bowed reverently in his presence. During feasts, the faithful often took turns fanning him. In a culture that in many quarters holds to tribal mysticism, he was seen as a sort of super-shaman: blessing wedding parties, curing infertility. When clan disputes erupted, he'd mediate.

Vang Pao's support for a Lao takeover was hardly hush-hush. He showed sympathetic Washington lawmakers videotapes of rebel armies. He visited resistance forces on Thailand's border with Laos. In 1992, the Thai government deported his brother after a failed incursion into Laos.

U.S. officials largely looked the other way. But as the years passed, their patience began to wane. Federal authorities -- among them congressmen and an ambassador -- warned the general not to overstep the legal limits. The war was over, and the U.S. was officially at peace with Laos, communist or not.

Government regulators began scrutinizing allegations that impoverished Hmong families were being strong-armed to fund the general's resistance movement, Neo Hom. Critics speculated that donations were going to support the globe-trotting lifestyle of the general and his coterie.

In 1990, his son-in-law Kao Thao pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $70,000 from a charity with ties to the resistance. Two years ago in Minnesota, one of Vang Pao's eldest sons agreed to a $32,000 legal settlement amid allegations that Neo Hom money paid for jewelry and vacations.

But in each case the general emerged legally unscathed. His kin may have taken a hit, his organizations may have been damaged, but Vang Pao dodged direct implication as easily as he had enemy artillery.

Fundraising, however, lagged badly. The resistance in Laos flagged.

The general might have faded into the background. Instead, Vang Pao altered his tactics. He began talking peace.

It started in 2003, at a clandestine meeting in Amsterdam with his old foes, the Vietnamese.

The interpreter was Stephen Young, a lawyer from St. Paul, son of a former U.S. ambassador and longtime advisor of Vang Pao.

The mood was conciliatory as the Vietnamese filled Vang Pao's teacup, an act of respect among Southeast Asians. They talked of his battlefield bravery. The general was touched, Young recalled.

But a 180-degree course change to embrace peace with the communists was fraught with personal risk. Vang Pao tested his "New Doctrine" a couple of weeks later. Traveling to Minneapolis for a Hmong gathering, he announced that the time had come for new investment in Laos, an end to warring with their old communist enemies.

Hmong veterans were outraged, particularly after news slipped out of the secret meeting with the Vietnamese. "It was viewed as a sellout," said Philip Smith, of the Center for Public Policy Analysis, who is a longtime Washington ally to the Hmong.

The anger boiled over in April 2004. In St. Paul, where nearly 10% of residents are Hmong, a gunman one evening riddled the home of a well-known Vang Pao ally. A day later, arsonists hit the offices of a charity with Vang Pao ties. Just four nights after that, someone burned to the ground the suburban St. Paul home of one of Vang Pao's sons, who barely escaped with his wife and young children. No suspects were caught.

In Laos, meanwhile, the situation was growing increasingly dire for the Hmong. Amnesty International reported escalating attacks by communist troops, calling the killings of unarmed women and children a massacre that threatened up to 17,000 Hmong still in hiding three decades after the war.

By early last year, Vang Pao began talking openly once again of military rebellion and of a hope that the U.S. might still help.

"If they give me the guns, I can conquer Laos in 2007," Vang Pao told the New Republic magazine. "I still believe I can do it."

He could have stepped away, another old man with lost dreams.

Instead, federal prosecutors say, Vang Pao tried to launch a war.

Harrison Jack, a Vietnam vet and former California National Guard officer who told friends he owed his life to the Hmong, had begun negotiating in January with a black-market weapons broker for 500 AK-47 assault rifles. Jack's link to Vang Pao was an ambitious Hmong activist named Lo Cha Thao.

The dealer actually was an undercover agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Talk was bold. By the time of the arrests in June, the discussion had turned to an outright coup d'etat and a $9.8-million weapons purchase.

Defense lawyers for the men contend that they believed the CIA was on their side. They say the federal ATF agent aggressively egged the men on, exerting pressure to buy more weapons. "He pushed them way farther than they otherwise would ever go," said Mark Reichel, one of the lawyers.

The general met with the undercover agent just once, accompanying his wife and a flock of subordinates to lunch at a Thai restaurant here. After the meal, everyone marched to an RV parked nearby to examine weapons for sale. Inside, Vang Pao picked up a gun as a veteran ballplayer might a beloved Louisville Slugger.

Vang Pao's family and supporters say the plot was driven by subordinates like Lo Cha Thao and Harrison Jack, not by the general himself. "They went outside the box and did things without my father's knowledge, and here we are," said Chi Vang, the general's son. "They lured my dad into it."

Soon after their arrest, the general had to be hospitalized for a heart ailment, and another of the men lost consciousness in court. In July a federal judge released them all under house arrest, rejecting prosecutor's concerns that Vang Pao -- who arrived in court in a wheelchair -- posed a threat to flee.

U.S. Atty. McGregor Scott, whose Sacramento office has amassed a 30,000-page file against the group, calls the case the most contentious of his career.

Scott, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, considers Vang Pao "a legitimate American hero." But the case is rock-solid, he said. "As much as it pains me, I have to go where the evidence takes me. It's that simple."

Vang Pao's supporters don't think so. Everything the general did over the years, "the Congress knew it, the American administration knew it," said Lt. Col. Wangyee Vang, 60, president of the Lao Veterans of America Institute. "I think this is a trap."

With trial perhaps a year away, Vang Pao spends his days confined to his 1,600-square-foot house on a Westminster cul-de-sac. The wartime general who dodged bombs now wears an electronic ankle bracelet. He reads books in French, talks of old times and watches TV news or L.A. Lakers games, his son says. The only concessions the court allowed were short trips to Fresno and Minnesota to preside over Hmong New Year celebrations.

Back home, he tries not to feel gloomy. After years of deftly juking danger in war and the new world, after sidestepping troubles that toppled lesser men, Vang Pao is dead in the sights of his old U.S. ally.

Now the general could be brought down by a case his friends call the preposterous whimsy of a few old men, a plan they never could have pulled off.

Strip away talk of weapons and warlord days, they say, and Vang Pao is little different from many other elderly Hmong -- lost in history, dreaming of former lives in a faraway homeland.

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eric.bailey@latimes.com

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