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Human Rights Forgotten - The Hmong people, LaosInterview with documentary maker Ruhi Hamid

Laos in South-East Asia, with a population of 5.6million, is the scene of a conflict between the ethnic minority ‘Hmong’ people and the government which has been running for almost 30 years.

Amnesty International has serious concerns about human rights violations perpetrated both against the Hmong people, who live in inaccessible jungle areas of Laos, and by armed insurgent groups who have indiscriminately bombed areas crowded with civilians.

Documentary makers Ruhi Hamid and her partner Misha Maltsev have recently visited a Hmong camp in the Laos jungle and have made a documentary, Frontlines.

The documentary will be shown on digital channel BBC 4 at 10.30pm on Thursday 27 May 2004 (immediately following the special BBC documentary One Day of War (9pm, BBC 2) which also features excerpts from Ruhi and Misha’s film).

Here Ruhi talks specially to Amnesty International about the conflict and the making of the film.

Ruhi, can you explain a little of the background of the conflict between the Hmong people and the Laos government? How was it related to the VietNam war, and why has it gone on for so long?

The ethnic Hmong hill tribes were trained and used by the CIA in America’s covert war in Laos against the North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao armies from 1962 – 1975.

They were trained to halt the advance of the North Vietnamese army and disrupt their supply lines through Laos – the Ho chi Min trail.

After the war ended in 1975, and the Communist Pathet Lao took power, many Hmong fearing persecution fled to neighbouring Thailand and subsequently to the USA.

The remaining Hmong, seen as traitors by the governing power, retreated into the mountainous jungles for their safety and have remained there since.

There are continuous reports claiming atrocities and human rights abuse against the Hmong – Lao military offensives on the settlements using assault helicopters and ground troops, systematic shelling and spraying the areas adjacent to the camps with chemical agents.

How many people are the Hmong community compared to the rest of the Laos population?

The 1974 census indicated that there were 350,000 Hmong living in Laos. Today there are only about 200,000 left in Laos including 12,000 former CIA soldiers and their families, still living in the jungle and resisting the Lao authorities.

The Hmong ‘rebels’ live in groups of 250 and up to 800 people, concentrated in the provinces of Bolikhamsay, Xaysomboune, Xieng Khouang and Luang Prabang.

Many of the people in the film are very young. Why are they involved in this conflict?

The group we visited led by Waleng Lee live in the Bolikhamsay province numbering about 250, mainly Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights and Children's rights. We were the first outsiders they had seen in over 28 years.

Chong-Cha Lee, our main character, lives with his wife Vue and their seven Children's rights. His elderly mother lives within his compound with his older brother Waleng Lee, the chief of this group.

About 25 fighters made up of young men and teenagers are armed with AK-47 machine guns and old American rifles. There are only five actual old veterans left from the CIA war, the rest were born in the jungle but carry the burden of their fathers’ and grandfathers’ involvement.

They are a hunted people being chased by the Lao government troops. This group was forced to move camp 15 times last year and so far this year they have already moved five times.

Men and boys mostly patrol surrounding areas, guarding the settlement and scouting new routes. They don’t use maps or compasses and move stealthily through the jungle, many with only flip-flops on their feet.

How do the people survive from day-to-day when subject to such repression? How do they get food and other essentials to such inaccessible locations? Can Children's rights go to school?

Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights and young girls spend most of their time gathering food. Unable to cultivate and maintain permanent fields, they are forced to live on what they can forage for in the jungle.

Many have been ambushed and killed while collecting food.

Their basic everyday diet consists of cassava roots, palm tree husk and leaves.

The Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights spend hours in the preparation of food, shredding cassava into a rice substitute and pounding the sawdust like husk from the Asian palm trees, laboriously washing it to soften it and rid any poisons before it is strained and resourcefully turned into a noodle like meal.

Occasionally they add fish to their diet, and only consume chicken and pigs on special occasions like sacrificial rites.

In the village, most Children's rights suffer from poor health, the most common ailments being respiratory problems (constant coughing) and malnutrition. They have no education and most are illiterate.

Shamanic practices are very much alive among the Hmong and enjoy great significance in the community we visited. This is for both medicinal as well as spiritual purposes.

Despite their conditions they continue musical traditions and play a reed instrument the Keej (pronounced Kheng). They also pass on oral history through songs of lament.

Aren’t the Hmong totally overwhelmed by the power and military capability of the government forces? Why don't they give themselves up?

This is a humanitarian rather than a military issue. Though armed with AK 47’s and antiquated left over American rifles, they lack ammunition often with only 5 bullets per person.

To protect our journey out of the jungle, the fighters gathered the collective bullets in the group and handed them to the six commanders walking us out. They were left with six bullets to defend their village.

They pose no real threat to the government forces but will defend if attacked. There are many wounded soldiers including teenage boys and even babies.

Many Hmong have given themselves up in the hope of amnesty to live as citizens in Lao society, however reports indicate continuous persecution and torture and through a lack of trust they are now reluctant to give themselves up.

What are the chances for the future? What do you think will happen in Laos?

The Hmong simply ask for freedom and democracy and to be left alone with a piece of land to farm and education for their Children's rights.

They mistrust the government and so fear surrender. They ask for the international community to intervene in supervising their exit from the jungles to live as equal citizens in Lao society.

They are running out of food supplies and if the international community, human rights organizations and the Red Cross don’t gain access to these desperate people, they will eventually die out.

What are other governments in the region and around the world doing, or what should they be doing? Is it worth lobbying the UK government to put pressure on Laos?

Unfortunately there is little interest in this forgotten conflict. Laos is a poor and repressive communist country suffering years of isolation.

There are now talks and trade agreements being signed by the Americans and others, who now see Laos as a friendly country and no longer the enemy.

This, however, doesn’t help the Hmong - neither the Americans want to acknowledge their responsibility, and nor do the Lao authorities want to solve their ethnic problem for fear of a collapse in their new tourist economy.

It is imperative for all countries, including the British government, to engage with the Lao government with diplomatic sensitivity to solve this humanitarian crisis of a people with a food supply fast diminishing.

Amnesty International recommends that people write to their MP asking them to raise this matter with the Foreign Secretary. The government of Laos should be pressured to urge the Lao government to provide unfettered access to the rebel groups for UN humanitarian agencies, and to ensure that all those who put down their arms and their civilian non-combatant family members are treated humanely and with dignity and respect.

Why did you decide to make this film? How long did it take? What difficulties did you encounter? What have you learnt?

Earlier this year, the BBC approached me to go into the rebels’ camp in Laos with cameras, and make a documentary film about this forgotten conflict.

Sixteen BBC camera directors were asked to record a day in the life of a soldier on 22 March 2004. Because the Laos government impedes journalistic access, my husband Misha and I entered Laos undercover posing as tourists.

Through the Fact Finding Commission, the US-based organisation devoted to the US veterans’ cause, we established contact with the underground rebel network operating inside Laos and began planning our journey.

It took nearly two months for the network to find a safe route through the jungle by which we could trek and access one of the groups.

There was also concern as to which group we should try and reach, particularly after a terrible incident in 2003, when three foreign journalists were detained after a firefight in Xaysomboune province, when several “blackbird” (local Laos) guides were captured and tortured.

So it was decided that we should go to the group under command of Wa Leng Lee (former Regiment 25) in Bolikhamsay province, north-east of Vientiane.

We left the capital Vientiane driving off road to the edge of the jungle where we were to meet our rebel commanders waiting to take us to their secret hideout in the mountains.

The two commanders leading us in, Chong Cha and Pa Yeng, we learnt, came from the camp we were heading to, and the four others (Wa Txia, Jou Wa and two 18 year old boys, Toua and Thai) came from another village near the Vietnam border. They were very gentle, polite and humble men, not the hard and fierce anti-communist guerillas I imagined them to be.

We trekked through impenetrable jungle, scrambling through thicket, thorns, crossing rivers and climbing mountains for 12 hours at a time often in the night to avoid ambush by the Lao troops who patrol the areas.

The resilience and strength, calmness and helpfulness of our Hmong guides was amazing. They knew their environment extremely well, and could hear and see things that were invisible to us.

As we were getting closer to the camp we came across abandoned and burned villages, ruined plantations, sites of ambushes and the traces of the Lao military presence.

It was evident that these people were constantly harassed and not allowed to settle properly and have a normal village life.

On the third day we finally got to the village and the emotional meeting was beyond any comprehension. Adult men and elders, Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights and Children's rights, with their hands clasped were weeping and prostrating themselves to us, showing their wounds and pleading for help - “We waited 30 years for you to come here, like Children's rights waiting for parents”. Even our guides broke down.

I have never experienced anything like this before, and the emotional impact of this first encounter will stay in my psyche forever.

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