WASHINGTON — The 2007 U.S. arrest of the late Hmong leader Vang Pao hurt him, but it did wonders for U.S.-Laos relations, classified State Department cables show.
Vang Pao's arrest prompted dismay among Hmong-Americans; at one point, about 3,000 demonstrated outside a courthouse in Sacramento, Calif.
Lao officials were "pleased and surprised" by the arrest of the man who had long denounced their regime, a U.S. diplomat reported. Suddenly, Lao military officers began talking. Bureaucratic barriers shrank. Cross-cultural exchanges became feasible.
"Since the arrests, we have made a surprising amount of progress in areas of our relationship with the Lao government where we had previously experienced difficulty," Mary Grace McGeehan, who was then the U.S. charge d'affaires in Laos, wrote in a June 22, 2007, memo. The turnaround was such that some Western expatriates in the Lao capital of Vientiane "speculated to us that the arrests were a positive gesture toward the Laos government by the U.S.," McGeehan reported.
Two years later, federal prosecutors dropped criminal conspiracy charges against Vang Pao. In time, the other men arrested with Vang Pao likewise saw all charges dropped. Vang Pao died last January in Fresno, Calif., prompting widespread grief in the Hmong-American community he had led. Long-term U.S.-Lao relations remain a work in progress, though some Hmong-Americans see gradual improvement.
"It seems the government has opened up more; they're reaching out more to encourage tourism and to encourage business opportunities," said Fresno City Council member Blong Xiong, who visited his native Laos several months ago.
For their part, U.S. diplomats predicted in the 2007 memo that midlevel Lao officials eager for better relations with the United States eventually would "encounter bureaucratic resistance." In other words: Be prepared for stop-and-go.
The 2007 memo, classified "confidential," was obtained by WikiLeaks and passed to McClatchy Newspapers. It's one of many memos that shed light on the complicated relationship between the United States and Laos, a global odd couple with a war-torn past and many domestic offspring.
Lao Embassy officials in Washington didn't respond to requests for comment.