The plight of Laos' Hmong people

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The BBC's Alastair Leithead reports on Thailand's efforts to repatriate Hmong refugees to Laos. The refugees fear they will be persecuted because of their history of helping the US during the Vietnam War.

DAVID BARON: Now to another hazy chapter in American history. During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited and trained a group of Hmong hill people in Laos. They secretly helped the U.S. against the North Vietnamese. After the Communist gained control of Laos, the Hmong were persecuted. Many fled to Thailand. Now the Thai government has a program to send them back to Laos. The Hmong say they fear for their safety in Laos and feel forgotten by America. The BBC's Alastair Leithead has more from Thailand.

ALASTAIR LEITHEAD: It was a war fought in the jungles of the Laos and Vietnam border, a secret war. In 1961, [SOUNDS LIKE] He Syeong, not his real name, became one of them. He's now 70 and in hiding in Thailand.

HE SYEONG: I was given a gun by the U.S. government and deployed on foot along the border. It was very hard for us. I was very afraid fighting the Vietnamese who had artillery. We had no reinforcements from the Americans. Many of my friends were killed.

LEITHEAD: They sabotaged the Ho Chi Minh trail and slowed down the North Vietnamese Army. Joe Davy is an American activist who's devoted his life to demanding rights for the Hmong.

JOE DAVY: They held up some of the biggest or best fighting North Vietnamese divisions. If it wasn't for the Hmong, they would have gone down the Ho Chi Minh trail. Another 50,000 U.S. troops could have died because of that, you know.

LEITHEAD: When the Communist rebels became the government of Laos, they vowed to hunt down the Hmong insurgents. He Syeong never wants to go home again.

SYEONG: Even though the war is long over, I am still CIA so if I was sent back to Laos, I would be killed for sure. My former CIA friends who went back were killed.

LEITHEAD: He's afraid one day the trucks will come and the ties will force them back. That's what happened to thousands of Hmong refugees in December. Among them were around 150 classed as refugees in need of protection by the U.N. Despite that, they were taken to a remote, insecure camp controlled by the Lao military. The BBC was denied access to enter Laos to cover the story. [SOUNDS LIKE] Paitan Watinygon is the acting Thai government spokesman. He says the Hmong are considered illegal immigrants and Thailand does not sign the United Nations convention on refugees.

PAITAN WATINYGON: As a sovereign country, we reserve our rights to implement our own law and their government is asking them to be returned.

LEITHEAD: You're essentially sending people back to their deaths.

WATINYGON: There's no proof of that. At the moment there's no proof that they're in danger of their lives.

SUNAI PASUK: I wouldn't be satisfied with the claim of the Thai government that the returnees would be treated properly.

LEITHEAD: Sunai Pasuk is from Human Rights Watch.

PASUK: The Lao government has a track record of prosecuting anti-government groups, including Hmong insurgents so for those of the Hmong who were sent back to Thailand who are considered as part of the insurgency, they may face prosecution to the very least and without transparency, without credible monitoring, we fear for the worst of mistreatment, including torture of the returnees.

LEITHEAD: [SOUNDS LIKE] Jak He shows me around the tiny room in Bangkok where he, his wife and five children live, eat and sleep. His father was a CIA Hmong fighter. He has all the paperwork to move to America, except a signature from the Thai government, which they won't give him. Please help me he says, help me U.N., help me America. Don't let them send me back. I will be killed if they send me back, he says. My father was killed, my uncle, my two brothers. The U.N. has refused to comment. The Thai government has said it will continue its policy of repatriations.

BARON: The BBC's Alistair Leithead.