Activists detained after Hmong surrender
Arrested as “troublemakers” by the communist Laotian government, humanitarians Ed and Georgie Szendrey are expected to be on their way back home to Oroville on June 10 or 11.
The Szendreys, along with two Hmong-Americans, were there to witness and aid in the surrender of 170 Hmong women, children and elderly men to the Laotian government. The Hmong, most of them relatives of men who fought on behalf of the United States during the Vietnam War, had been hiding out in the jungle but agreed to turn themselves in because they had begun to starve.
But the Laotian government is saying the Americans were there without proper visas, seeking to make Laos look bad. Officials maintain the government never wanted to hurt the Hmong, only help them get established in villages with food and health care.
“Those people did not surrender as the news said but joined a government program for poverty elimination,” said Sisavath Inphachanh, first secretary for the Laotian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
The Laotian government-influenced newspaper Vientiane Times wrote that the Szendreys “confessed that their acts were illegal and not condoned by the U.S. government,” and, “All four Americans were charged with having interfered in the internal affairs of Laos, causing social disruption and creating misunderstanding between the authority and people.”
Before Laotian authorities decided Monday to deport the couple, who were escorted over the border into Thailand, the Szendreys’ families spent a scary weekend wondering if their loved ones were safe.
“We’re so excited,” said Randi Lewis, Georgie Szendrey’s niece. “They’re supposed to be coming home this weekend.”
Although one of the Szendreys’ companions was released, Sia Cher Vang, described by Reuters as a U.S. businessman based in Laos, is still being held, and the couple is concerned for his safety.
The Szendreys, who were named “local heroes” by this paper in 2002, are leaders in an Oroville-based organization called the Fact Finding Commission, which seeks to expose wrongs done to the Hmong people during the Vietnam War and rescue Hmong who are still persecuted in their home country.
Two weeks ago, the Szendreys flew to Laos, following up on trips during which they interviewed refugees and smuggled in equipment that was then used to videotape atrocities by the government. In 2002, the couple joined Hmong veteran Ger Vang of Oroville in testifying to Congress about what they had learned.
During the Vietnam War, the CIA recruited the Hmong, farmers who lived in the hills of Laos, to fight the Viet Cong on behalf of the United States. Despite promises that the U.S. would look after the Hmong after what’s called the “secret war,” they were essentially abandoned and left to escape over the Mekong River to Thailand in hopes of immigrating to America.
While some Hmong have integrated into Laotian society, others fled to the wilderness, where they have been targeted by the Pathet Lao communist regime, hurt and even killed in retaliation for backing the U.S.
Several thousand more Hmong had planned to give themselves up if the initial surrender went well.
Ed Szendrey told the Associated Press that the surrender, in which the Hmong were welcomed by local authorities at a Hmong village, did go well. But afterward, the group’s bus was stopped at a military checkpoint and the four American activists were detained.
On Sunday, June 5, Randi Lewis contacted sources, including the News & Review, asking for help. The Szendreys’ group had never made it to the scheduled meet-up point.
“My cousin got a phone call from the U.S. Embassy telling him that they were missing,” Lewis said. Sunday night, the family got a call “telling us that they had located them; that they had been arrested by the Laotian government.”
Ed Szendrey is a retired chief investigator for the Butte County District Attorney’s Office.
District Attorney Mike Ramsey spoke with Szendrey just before the group left for Laos, and the activist had joked about the possibility of getting into trouble with the Laotian government.
“His passion was to help save the CIA fighters that were left behind,” Ramsey said. “They were trying to prevent this genocide.”