Hmong In Transition


The Hmong lived in northern China, in an area near Beijing, over one thousand years ago. As the Han peoples moved into the area the Hmong were forced to move south. Eventually, they relocated into the higher mountain regions for security where they pursued slash and burn agriculture.

The Han Chinese tried to weaken the strength of the Hmong culture by requiring that Hmong clan names be changed from Hmong to Chinese. There were over eighteen Hmong clans in China and each clan was a powerful social and military force. Because there wasn’t a current written form of the Hmong language, when their clan names were changed, Hmong feared that they would eventually become seamlessly integrated into the Han culture.

The Han also tried to weaken the strength of the clan structure by creating Hmong groups based on clothing designs which cut across clan lines. Thus, in addition to being designated by clan, Hmong were also designated as blue, black, white, green or flowery Hmong.

At the beginning of the 19th Century when they began to have increasing disputes with the Chinese about land and self-determination , thousands of Hmong fled to Laos, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam. Again, in the middle of the 19th Century, when the provincial Chinese government increased its attempt to regulate and tax them, Hmong conducted wars of resistance and thousands fled to neighbouring countries.

In Laos they lived in mountainous areas where they practised slash and burn agriculture, moving every two to three years to more fertile land. Their cash crop was opium which they bartered in an unrefined form with Chinese traders for household items or fabric made of hemp which they made into ceremonial clothing.

In the early 20th Century, two clans emerged as strongest, the Ly and Lo clans. A problem emerged between these clans due to a tragic death, which resulted in the other Hmong clans becoming allied with one of these two clans. In the 1940s, when the Viet Minh and Pathet Lao began to challenge the French for control of the country, the Ly clan became allied with the French and the Lo clan became allied with the communists.

The French entered Laos in the mid 19th century and officially began administrating the country after 1893. Their rule was briefly interrupted when the Japanese took control during WWII. The French reasserted their power after the war and remained in control until 1954 when they lost the war at Dien Bien Fu and withdrew from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

After decades of French colonialism and years of extensive American aid, in 1960, the country had no railways, two doctors, three engineers and 700 telephones. In 1963, imports were forty times the country’s exports in terms of value. Economic development was virtually non-existent and attempts by Americans to stabilize a right-wing, pro-western regime by lavish aid programs led to corruption, inflation and new gradients of wealth within the country.

The United States’ domino theory that all of Southeast Asia could be taken over by the communists, led to increased U.S. presence in the region. By 1960, over 25,000 people, mainly Hmong, were enlisted in the Royal Laotian Army, the only army in the world entirely funded by an external source, the United States. Vang Pao, a Hmong fighter who had distinguished himself during the 1950s, led the Hmong army.
Ultimately, over 30,000 Hmong were enlisted by the CIA to fight with the Royalists because they were strong, knew the terrain, were excellent tacticians, and were trustworthy. Often Hmong who fought with the communists or the Royalists lived in villages near their armies and were enlisted in the war against their will. Most Hmong remained apolitical and had little understanding of or interest in being involved in the war.

While U.S. involvement in Laos had begun before 1960, the U.S. Congress received its first formal presentation of information about the war in 1969, when the war was in full swing. And this information included numerous distortions designed to defuse congressional criticism. No action regarding Laos had been openly requested by the executive branch and the war had been conducted in secret almost entirely by executive order to bodies such as the CIA, USAID, USIS and the armed forces, which are responsible only to the President. The United States had no treaties or written agreements with Laos which would have required congressional scrutiny or approval.

By January, 1968, the bombings were so numerous that farmers could only farm at night. By January, 1969, the bombings were so intense that they could not farm at all, for the bombs fell over the entire twenty-four hour period and the intensity of the bombing exceeded bombings that had taken place in Vietnam or Korea. In some areas everything was burned and ruined and life was confined to caves.

Even candlelight brought bombers. Phosphorous bombs were used at cave entrances. The smoke of the phosphorous bombs slowly crawled into caves, blinding those inside and causing loss of consciousness and death. Those who escaped the caves were attacked with high explosive bombs.

But people spoke most often about 1969 after the bombing halt in North Vietnam and the diversion of jets into Laos. During this period jets came over daily, bombing day and night, dropping 500-pound bombs, delayed-action bombs, napalm, phosphorous bombs and CBU anti-personnel bombs. They reported that American jets bombed both the villages and their outskirts, that they spent most of their time in holes or caves, and that they suffered numerous civilian casualties. Everything was attacked – buffaloes, cows, rice fields, schools, temples and tiny shelters erected outside villages.

The aim of disrupting the socio-economic fabric of life in the Pathet Lao zones and demoralizing the civilians was achieved through saturation bombing. One evacuee explained, “There never was a night we would go to bed when we thought we would live ‘til the morning, never a morning we would wake up when we thought we would live to the night.” Hundreds of thousands of people lived underground for years hiding from the bombs.

Robert Shaplen in the April, 1970, issue of “Foreign Affairs” estimated that the United States carried out an average of 200-300 sorties a day over northern Laos and 1,200 daily sorties over south-east Laos. A moderate estimate of the cost of all phases of the air war in Laos was $2 billion a year. The American rationale behind the escalation, as enunciated by the U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Stearns at Senate Hearings in 1969, was simply: “Well, we had all those planes sitting around and couldn’t just let them stay there with nothing to do.”

In the early 1960s, 20,000-30,000 Hmong and other tribal peoples resided in the area of Long Cheng Air Base. By 1970, 250,000 Hmong and other tribal people had moved to this area. By 1970, because of the bombing escalation, over 250,000 refugees were dependent on USAID food drops.

By 1971, almost 150,000 refugees had been resettled in the Ban Son area which served as a buffer zone blocking enemy advance on Vientiane. If the Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese chose to move on Vientiane they had no choice but to fight their way through the resettlement area. The Hmong leaders were well aware of this and pleaded with USAID to begin resettling the Hmong on the Vientiane Plane or shift the resettlement area to the east or west, out of the probable line of enemy advance.

Knowing that the Hmong fight better when their families are threatened, USAID refused to accept either alternative and seemed intent on keeping them in the Ban Son area for a final, bloody stand against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao.

Hmong losses were enormous. Most of the families of the Hmong fighters moved at least five times and some villages moved fifteen times after 1968. And over one-quarter of the 30,000 men in Vang Pao’s army were killed or wounded between 1967-71.

By the time the war ended in 1973, hundreds of thousands of Hmong had been killed and over one quarter of the population in Laos had been displaced. The United States had promised the Hmong to help them should they lose the war. However, in the spring of 1975, the Americans fled leaving the Hmong who had fought for the Royalists and the CIA without any means of defending themselves. After 1977, the Pathet Lao began to capture Hmong who had fought against them.

By 1978, hundreds of thousands of Hmong fled across the Mekong River into Thailand, where they lived in refugee camps until they were resettled. Thousands of Hmong who remained in Laos were captured and placed in reeducation camps for years. The Royal Laotian first family was killed after the war.

Ban Vinai Camp, the largest Hmong refugee camp, was established in the late 1970s in Thailand. Chiang Kham, a detention camp, was established in 1983, for people who continued to flee from Laos were designated by the UNHCR as ‘economic’ rather than ‘political’ refugees. Expert observers say that this designation of ‘economic’ refugees was inaccurate and that throughout the 1980s Hmong had to flee Lao military assault. Today over 15,000 Hmong are stranded in the jungles of Laos and are being hunted by the current regime.

In 1992, most of the camps in Thailand were closed and most of the residents were settled in United States, France, Canada, or Australia or forcibly repatriated to Laos. While the Lao government promised to give them land, tools and money to build a life, Hmong were often resettled in places where the land is poor, there is little water and they have limited access to markets. In those villages each person must grow his/her own food to survive and people are on the verge of starvation.

The last large camp to disband was known as Wat Thamkrabak. It was located in the jungle area adjacent to a Buddhist temple compound with this name. Hmong were not allowed to work at substantial revenue generating businesses or travel outside the camp. The only work available was seasonal agricultural or factory work. Both men and women did embroidery to sell in Thailand or the United States. In 2005, this camp was closed and the majority of its 13,000 residents immigrated to the United States.

The Hmong in the United States have typically shifted from animism to Christianity and changed from using herbalists and shamans as healers to using western medical doctors.

The clan system is much stronger in the United States than other countries and enables the Hmong to get established and endure difficult times. For instance, when Shawn Chang moved to North Carolina to find work, members of the Chang clan in the area where he moved helped him get established and provided community support.

When Teng Moua married, he moved into his brother’s home in Goleta, California, and occupied one of the four bedrooms. When Teng became ill with cancer, his brother and extended family supported him, his wife and child for a year and a half until he was again able to work.

Shawn Chang was my guide in Chiang Kham Refugee Camp in 1990. He had been born during the war and had spent his early childhood in the jungles of Laos. His family fled across the Mekong River in 1978. He had lived in refugee camps from age 8 – 20. He and his family moved to Fresno, California, in 1992. In 1996, because of an inability to find work, he moved his family to North Carolina where he and his wife worked 8 -12 hours a day to support their three children.

However, after NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) took effect, many companies in the United States moved off shore. In 2002, he lost his job. In 2003, his wife lost her job and the family was forced to live on unemployment. Finally in the winter of 2006, they moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to look for work because they believed that the aircraft industry is more stable. At this writing they are starting their new life. Shawn’s brother and his family as well as their mother, have just moved in with Shawn while his brother and sister-in-law search for work. In this sense, Shawn and his family are still a people in transition.



More bombs were dropped by the United States on Laos from 1960-1975 than the United States and Great Britain dropped during all of WWII and 30% of them did not explode. Today most of the agricultural land in Laos is not usable due to unexploded ordnance (UXO). Signs like the one above made by the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) from England are posted throughout the country. Even though fields are cleared of explosives, after the rains they often return.


Sheila Pinkel is an artist whose work has been exhibited nationally in the United States and internationally and included in major national and international collections. She is a Professor of Art at Pomona College and an international editor of Leonardo, the publication dedicated to the intersection of art, science and technology. Her work addresses unseen aspects in nature and culture. Since 1990, she has been working on an image/text study entitled “Indochina Document,” about the Indochina Wars and their effects on the people who survived them.

This text was first published by NeMe as a double sided A3 leaflet and was distributed during the In Transition Cyprus 2006 exhibition at the Lanitis Foundation, Limassol and was also included in the catalogue of the same exhibition.