The Hmongs, 2003

In the 1960s and 70s, the Hmongs, living in the mountains between Vietnam and Laos allied with the United States in the Vietnam War. The Hmong migrated to Laos from China in the 19th century – to escape persecution and they were trained by the CIA to assist downed US pilots and disrupt North Vietnamese supply routes. In April 1975, when the United States withdrew its troops from Indochina, some Hmong officers and their families were evacuated from Laos to Thailand, but the American support for the Hmong quickly dried up. A third of the Hmong population left Laos and those remaining suffered the consequences of their support for the Americans, being forced to migrate to areas where they were unable to carry out their traditional agriculture practices.

Some small Hmong insurgents waged a low-level guerilla war of session against the Lao government.
In early 2003, two Australian journalists working in South East Asia, reporter Andrew Perrin and photographer Philip Blenkinsop, trekked into the mountainous jungles of Moung Xaysomboune Special (Military) Zone, midway between popular tourist destinations of Vang Vieng and the Plain of Jars.

For four days, they trekked through a bamboo forest to meet up with a remnant of a CIA-trained Hmong guerrilla group, which once numbered 7,000 people in 1975 but in 2003, down to around 800 people. To avoid the Lao government, the group was constantly on the move, largely surviving on tree roots. Perrin and Blenkinsop were the first westerners to make contact since the US Army left and when they arrived at the tribe’s camp, the guerrillas fell to their knees and wept, thinking that at last they were to be saved (lead photo).

At night, it was bitterly cold. The fire would die after about 30 minutes and I’d soon wake freezing and spend half an hour rebuilding it and warming myself through. I didn’t sleep more than 40 minutes at a stretch in 10 days The only meat we had on the walk in was venison from a deer that had tripped a booby trap and been ripped apart by shrapnel a week earlier. We cut pieces from it where it lay – flyblown, blue meat. My Hmong companions had no trouble with it at all, as it was a luxury for them, but it was hard not to gag.

Philip Blenkinsop

When the reporters were leaving, a crowd of women gathered with infants strapped to their backs to implore them to lead them out of the jungle. Hiking out of the mountains over the next days, the reporters were fired upon at twice.

The photos appeared in Asia edition of Time Magazine (May 5, 2003) and the Sunday Times Magazine (October 12, 2003) and won several awards. The Laos government was furious. In June that year, two journalists who tried to followed in Perrin and Blenkinsop’s footsteps and their guides were ambushed and jailed.

Persecution and killings of the Hmong continued. For the Communist government in Laos, they were officially traitors – and so were their children and grandchildren — to be mortared and attacked by helicopters and blown up by landmines. In 2005, nearly 200 members of the guerrilla group visited by Perrin and Blenkinsop surrendered to the Laotian government. Their fate was unknown

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23 thoughts on “The Hmongs, 2003

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