ST. PAUL, June 9 — Year after year, Vang Pao, the most recognized leader of Hmong people in the United States, described his dream when he appeared at Hmong New Year celebrations, ceremonies for new refugees, memorial dedications. Someday, he said, he would carry his people home to a free Laos.
So when he was arrested on June 4, accused of conspiring to overthrow the government in Laos, many older Hmong-Americans said they were stunned — not so much at the accusations but at the American prosecutors for turning their backs on a war hero....
But the arrest of Gen. Vang Pao, 77, has also revealed a split in the Hmong population that has sprung up in this country: between old and young, between those who fled Laos and those who grew up here. A younger generation of Hmong- Americans, more skeptical of Gen. Vang Pao’s fund-raising tactics and controversial groups, said they respected the man but did not wish to return to a homeland they had never seen and worried that the charges might stain the Hmong people here.
Federal authorities said their six-month investigation revealed a plot to purchase AK-47 rifles, plastic explosives, anti-tank rockets and surface-to-air missiles in order to overthrow the government in a violation of the Neutrality Act, which bars Americans from taking military action against countries with which the nation is at peace.
“Candidly, we take no great joy in this,” McGregor W. Scott, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of California, where the arrests of Gen. Vang Pao and nine others took place, said in a telephone interview. “Our duty is to follow the evidence. These men had crossed the line and had committed very serious offenses.” ...
But young Hmong people here, those who grew up in the United States, saw Gen. Vang Pao as an outdated chapter from their grandparents’ memories. Others quietly questioned whether the organizations he helped create — one of which, Hmong people here say, was openly said to raise money for a military return to Laos one day — were properly spending the cash.
“The majority of young people didn’t really care what he was doing about going back to Laos,” said Paul Herr, a Hmong-American who runs an information technology company in Washington. “They just ignored him. America is their homeland.” ...
Mr. Herr said he attended a meeting in 2002 or 2003 where some among Gen. Vang Pao’s top aides were reminded by a State Department official that any violent plans for insurgency would be illegal. (State Department officials said they could not comment on Gen. Vang Pao’s case but said the department had long publicly discouraged insurgent action against countries, including Laos, with which the United States is at peace.)
Around the country, Hmong people said they feared that the arrest of Gen. Vang Pao might taint their image as a group.
“This isolated incident should not reflect on the Hmong community,” said Blong Xiong, a city council member in Fresno, Calif.
In Wisconsin, though, the echoes were already being felt. Long before the arrests, school officials in Madison had struggled over naming a school in Gen. Vang Pao’s honor. Alfred W. McCoy, a history professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, raised concerns, saying that Gen. Vang Pao had been controversial during the Vietnam War, linked to drug running and executions. He warned that the choice would embarrass the city.
Late last month, school officials held a groundbreaking. Dozens of Hmong residents proudly took photographs of themselves holding gold-painted shovels stamped with the words “Vang Pao Elementary.” Some carried home clumps of dirt from the site; they wanted to preserve such a crucial moment of recognition for a Hmong hero.
The board now says it will reconsider its choice next week.
Like all accused of wrongdoing in this country, Vang Pao is entitled to the presumption of innocence and to due process of law.
That said, I have my doubts that this is the best time to be naming public institutions for him. Those doubts extend to the proposition that school boards, or other public agencies, should "subcontract" naming rights to any particular group, however worthy the group may be of recognition, inclusion, and honor. The particular name chosen is properly a matter of legitimate public concern and responsibility, and should not be subject to delegation, ever. If it has been in the past, that was a mistake (in process, if not necessarily in result), and should be corrected in future decisions.