US agents thwart planned Laos coup plot

Respected leader in the Hmong community among those arrested and charged in southern California investigation.

By , Staff writer

The Laotian government has urged US officials to issue the most extreme punishment possible for ten men charged with conspiring to overthrow the nation's communist regime, reports the Daily Telegraph.

"This is the great news that Laos has waited for for so long," said the foreign ministry spokesman Yong Changthalansy. "We hope the United States will prosecute them strictly under the Patriot Act and punish the violators of the law severely."

The failed coup was hatched in southern California and crushed there on Monday in a series of arrests by federal agents. According to charges filed in federal court, nine ethnic Hmong and one retired lieutenant colonel from the California National Guard planned to train a militia, equip them with $9.8 million worth of weapons, smuggle them into Laos through Thailand, attack key government installations, and seat themselves as the new ruling regime, reports the Associated Press.

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Investigators say former General Vang Pao, a Hmong who lead the CIA-backed Royal Army of Laos during the 1960s and 70s, developed the plot along with retired Lieutenant Colonel Harrison Ulrich Jack, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran. The Associated Press reports the two men's plan was ill-fated.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives was in on the plot almost from the beginning because the agency was tipped off by a Phoenix-area weapons dealer. The dealer told federal agents that Jack had approached him seeking to buy 500 AK-47 automatic weapons, according to a sworn affidavit by the agent.

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On Feb. 7, the agent said he secretly recorded his luncheon meeting with Jack, Vang Pao and 10 associates at a Thai restaurant a few blocks from the state Capitol in Sacramento. They then walked to a recreational vehicle parked nearby to examine machine guns, grenade launchers, antitank rockets, antipersonnel mines and other weapons. On Feb. 15, Jack called the agent to report that the plot was "in motion," the affidavit says.

The Times reports that Mr. Jack and Mr.Vang attempted to recruit former US special forces soldiers and Navy SEALs to fight in their militia. Additionally, the Los Angeles Times reports that they planned to securetraining for Hmong-Americans through the California Highway Patrol.

An affidavit filed by an undercover agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives alleges that the group planned to use CHP training to develop a cadre of officers to help with the military operations and provide security in the new regime.

According to the affidavit, Jack told the agent the group wanted as many operatives as possible to attend the CHP Academy, a rigorous 27-week course.

After the coup, "the newly trained Hmong CHP officers would abandon the CHP and move to Laos to take positions of trust in the law enforcement departments" of the new Laotian government that would be headed by Gen. Pao, according to the ATF agent, whose name was redacted from the affidavit.

Federal agents moved in to arrest the conspirators as they allegedly prepared to receive their first weapons shipment.

Pao is known in California and Minnesota — Hmong hubs in the US — as a prominent community leader who has helped countless immigrants since his arrival in 1975. He has also proved a powerful lobbyist for Hmong causes.

The Merced Sun-Star reports that Pao had developed a number of strong ties inside the US government.

"The contributions that Gen. Vang Pao has made to the Hmong and Laotian people of California have been invaluable," Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, declared in a House statement on May 8, 1996.

Pao's lawyer says his client was "wrongly accused," and many Hmong community members as well as his family have offered him their support. Reuters reports that Pao's lawyer has gone so far as to call him a "hero."

"General Vang Pao stands wrongly accused of the criminal charges against him," his court-appointed attorney, John Balazs, told reporters. "Since immigrating to the United States in 1975, General Vang Pao has been a tireless advocate for democracy, human rights and the Hmong people. (He) has worked actively to pursue peaceful solutions to the problems in Laos and has disavowed violence."

Although many in the Hmong-American community are well assimilated, for those who survived the Vietnam-era there often remains a lingering bitterness. The US guaranteed asylum to those who helped them during the war. However, the Associated Press reports that thousands of Hmong suffered under the communist Laotian regime after the US pulled out.

After fighting as U.S.-backed guerillas in Laos, members of the ethnic minority were all but abandoned when the country fell to communist forces in 1975. More than 300,000 Laotian refugees, mostly Hmong, fled into Thailand.

About 145,000 members of Laotian ethnic groups resettled in the U.S., establishing large enclaves in Fresno, St. Paul, Minn., cities across Wisconsin and in small towns throughout Arkansas' Ozark mountains.

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"People of my father's generation have hoped one day that they could go back to a free Laos and farm the plot of land they left 30 years ago," said Minnesota state Rep. Cy Thao of St. Paul. "Vang Pao is sort of their last hope. You hear them talk about it, but you don't ever think it will come to this point."

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