to focus on crimes of
United States and
allies at Stockholm International Forum--
but little Laos is
a different story
The exhibition features a series of photographs purporting to depict the extermination of the Hmong by the Lao government.
|The government of Laos is accused of committing genocide against that countrys Hmong ethnic minority in a well-publicized exhibition scheduled to run from 17 January to 7 February 2004 at Swedens National Museum of History in Stockholm.
Entitled, Making Differences, the exhibition is being presented as a cultural complement to the Stockholm International Forum to be held during 26-28 January. That event is the fourth and last in series which has focused on genocide and related issues, all at the initiative of Prime Minister Göran Persson and financed by his government.
The stated theme of the final Forum is Preventing Genocide: Threats and Responsibilities, and the relevance of the exhibition is explained as follows: It has been said that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. . . . Making Differences will make sure that we do not forget.
The featured component of the exhibition is a series of photographs purporting to depict the extermination of the Hmong by the Lao government. They were taken in early 2003 by Australian photographer Philip Blenkinsop during a three-day visit to a small group of Hmong in northern Laos. The photos have previously been exhibited in other countries.
The journalists were on assignment from Time magazine, a conservative weekly that is well-known for its staunch support of U.S. foreign policy and its intimate relations with government agencies.
The rebel groups have continued to conduct sporadic guerrilla activities, with financial support from Hmong exiles and other interests opposed to the governments of Laos and Vietnam.
Together with reporter Andrew Perrin, Blenkinsop was on assignment from Time magazine, a conservative weekly that is well-known for its staunch support of U.S. foreign policy and its intimate relations with government agencies. During the Vietnam War, for example, the magazines vice-president served as head of the U.S. propaganda office in Saigon.
The group visited by the Time journalists is a remnant of the Hmong faction recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) to assist in its war against the three countries of Indochina. After the wars formal conclusion in 1975, members of that faction emigrated in large numbers to the United States and other western countries.
But some remained behind and continued to conduct sporadic guerrilla activities, with financial support from Hmong exiles and other interests opposed to the governments of Laos and Vietnam. The inevitable reaction of police and military authorities, in combination with the miserable living conditions of the rebel groups, has resulted in heavy loss of life.
According to Blenkinsop, the group of some 850 individuals he photographed once numbered 7000. He also reports that they have been so cut off from the outside world that at first they believed that the two Time journalists were C.I.A. agents come to rescue them after decades of desperate waiting.
This historical background is briefly noted at the Stockholm exhibition. But the emphasis is on what Time has reported as the governments persecution of the entire Hmong people. Andrew Perrins article in Times Asia edition of 30 June 2003 is headlined, Licensed to Kill, and alleges a military campaign launched by the communist leaders of Laos to eradicate the Hmong. According to the subheading: While Burma's junta is justly reviled, Laos' brutal leaders get away with murder.
I have been told to be careful in using the term, genocide, says Blenkinsop in a videotaped introduction to the Stockholm exhibition. But I dont know what else to call it when you try to execute a group of people because of their beliefs.
The accusation is
pure nonsense. I am
very, very certain that
the government is not systematically killing off the Hmong."
"It should also be kept in mind that the violence practised by some of the anti-government groups would be regarded anywhere else as terrorism. Is there any government in the world that tolerates armed rebellion?"
However, the accusation of genocide is sharply challenged by other observers with long experience of Laos and the stubborn conflict involving small groups of Hmong who apparently believe that they are still fighting on the side of the United States in a war that ended nearly thirty years ago.
One who does not agree is Jan Ovesen, a Swedish anthropologist who has been conducting field research in Laos since 1992: The accusation is pure nonsense,he says. I am very, very certain that the government is not systematically killing off minorities, including the Hmong. In fact, many government officials have been making sincere efforts to overcome problems of discrimination and to integrate the Hmong into Lao society.
Such efforts are not always successful, due to cultural conflicts and a severe lack of resources, observes Ovesen. But the results have been generally positive. The vast majority of Hmong have had plenty of opportunity to join mainstream society, and most of them have chosen to do so. Of course, there are problems; but there are also numerous success stories. The Hmong tend to be hard-working and many of them have become quite wealthy by Lao standards.
That view is shared by Britta Nordström, a Swedish physician who served as a public health advisor in Laos during 2001-2003, i.e. including the period when the Time journalists were visiting the Hmong rebels. I certainly never saw any indication of systematic persecution, she relates. Many of my colleagues were Hmong employed by the national health service, and there are Hmong sitting in the National Assembly. I also visited Hmong communities all over the province, and I saw no indication of anything that could even remotely be described as genocide.
It is very important not to generalize in such matters, notes Britta Nordström. As in all minority groups with the kind of history that the Hmong have experienced, there are several different factions. One faction of the Hmong is pro-government, and many of them have joined the ruling] Lao People's Revolutionary Party. Another faction is anti-government, with support from exiles in the United States and elsewhere. In between are all shades of opinion and belief.
It could well be that there are, or were, 7000 Hmong rebels who never stopped fighting after the American War, says Britta Nordström. But that would be a very small portion of the total: There are at least 200,000 Hmong in Laos. It should also be kept in mind that the violence practised by some of the anti-government groups would be regarded anywhere else as terrorism. Is there any government in the world that tolerates armed rebellion-- especially when it has been financed and possibly directed by external forces?
"The more radical elements have ambushed local police stations, small convoys, etc. with predictable retaliation from the Lao military."
"One could reasonably argue that, of the minorities, the Hmong are among those who are best educated and most prosperous."
There is no valid evidence to support the accusations of genocide, and much to contradict them. On the other hand, the people of Laos in general have been subjected to genocidal attacks by the United States and its allies.
Adds Ric Wasserman, a Sweden-based U.S. journalist who recently
spent two years in Laos: The more radical elements have ambushed local police stations, small convoys, etc. with predictable retaliation from the Lao military. This is an undisputed fact, but not anything like extermination, as the Time journalists would have it.
"A significant aspect of the conflict, says Ric Wasserman, is that Thailand has for years conducted an intensive disinformation campaign, using the media to agitate and provoke-- quite successfully at times-- ethnic tension along the northeast Laotian border with Thailand.
Such efforts are part of a broader pattern of disinformation and/or misinformation that has been remarked upon by Grant Evans, an Australian anthropologist currently at the University of Hong Kong, and author of A Short History of Laos: The Land in Between:
(Bangkok Post, 8 July 2003)
It thus appears that there is no valid evidence to support the accusations of genocide made by Time magazine and others, and much to contradict them. On the other hand, the people of Laos in general have been subjected to genocidal attacks by the United States and its allies, as pointed out in a report to the Environmental Conference on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam:
A nation that has itself been subjected to genocide is now being accused of committing that crime against one of its minorities, on the basis of an ethnic conflict which is a bizarre remnant of the genocidal war conducted by the United States.
"There has not been the slightest reference to the enormous massacres that have been committed in recent decades by Western superpowers and/or their proxies."
In short, a nation that has itself been subjected to genocide is now being accused of committing that crime against one of its minorities, on the basis of an ethnic conflict which is a bizarre remnant of the genocidal war conducted by the United States.
Similarly, the Historical Museums exhibition also includes a set of photos depicting the takeover of Cambodia in 1975 by the genocidal Khmer Rouge. Asked whether there would also be information regarding the strong support provided to the Khmer Rouge by the United States, England and China-- even long after the full extent of the genocide had been disclosed-- project director Thomas Nordanstad replied, Unfortunately not.
These circumstances appear to substantiate criticisms of Prime Minister Perssons costly project as heavily biased on behalf of Western powers, especially the United States.
Daniel Brandell, Martin Linde and Åsa Linderborg are the names of three Swedish historians who in a joint article have argued that, The pro-West tendency is obvious. Evil is consistently located outside the sphere of the Wests liberal-capitalistic civilization. Suggestions to take up the crimes of Western colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the like have simply been omitted from the agenda of the Stockholm International Forum. Likewise, there has not been the slightest reference to the enormous massacres that have been committed in recent decades by Western superpowers and/or their proxies (for example, in Indochina, East Timor, southern Africa and Central America).
Asked to address this type of criticism, Ambassador Krister Kumlin, Secretary-General of the Stockholm International Forum, first replied that he did not understand the question. What are you trying to say? he asked.
Pressed further to explain how it was possible to justify an exhibition which accuses Laos of a genocide it has not committed, while ignoring the well-documented genocide to which it has been subjected, Amb. Kulin finally said, Of course, you know it is politically impossible to address such issues.
-- Al Burke