BANGKOK, Thailand – More than 400 members of the Hmong hill tribe minority who have been on the run for decades from the communist government of Laos surrendered to the authorities there on Wednesday, supporters of the group said.
The group, which came out of the jungle to Ban Ha village in the central province of Xieng Khouang at about 5 a.m., are one of several ragtag bands of Hmong who during the Vietnam War served a pro-American government that fell to the communists in 1975.
Details of their surrender were provided by the U.S.-based Fact Finding Commission, which lobbies on their behalf and is in touch with the Hmong through satellite telephones. Though it could not be independently verified, information provided in the past by the commission has proven to be accurate.
Fearing persecution, many Hmong fled Laos after the 1975 takeover, and some accommodated themselves to the new regime. Others fled to the jungles, where they faced intermittent attacks from Laotian government forces.
In recent years, facing more isolation and starvation as well as continued military pressure, several bands of Hmong have turned themselves in.
The surrendering group's chieftain, Moua Tua Ter, accompanied the 405 people — mostly children — to Ban Ha before withdrawing back to the jungle with a few of his guerrillas, said a dispatch from the commission, based on information received by satellite phone.
The group appeared to be "very hungry and tired," the commission said.
Fifty Lao government soldiers showed up a couple of hours after the group arrived and began interviewing and registering those who surrendered, in preparation for resettling them, the commission said. At the same time, the village chief served them a meal of rice and pig.
The mood turned cooler as soldiers separated the Hmong from the villagers and refused to say to where they would be moved, according to the latest information the commission received.
Thousands more Hmong are believed to have remained in the jungle, and unconfirmed reports say they continue to face attacks by the government.
The two founders of the Fact Finding Commission, Ed and Georgie Szendrey of Oroville, Calif., witnessed a similar surrender in June last year of about 170 people, also from Moua Tua Ter's group.
That was also accomplished peacefully, and the returnees resettled. However, independent aid agencies and foreign diplomats were not allowed access to that group, and the Szendreys said that many fled to Thailand afterward because of poor living conditions.
The Hmong, advised by the CIA, fought on behalf of a pro-American government during the Vietnam War, only to find themselves all but abandoned after their communist enemies, the Pathet Lao, won a long civil war in 1975.
More than 300,000 Laotian refugees, mostly Hmong, fled after the takeover, with many resettling in the United States. Thousands stayed behind, some adjusting to the new hard-line regime and others staying in the jungle.
Several highly critical reports by Amnesty International accused the Lao government of gross human rights violations in persecuting the Hmong.
The Lao government denies any human rights violation and usually labels the armed Hmong groups as "bandits."