What follows is a letter Isthmus received on Tuesday, April 17, from Dr. Gary Yia Lee, a visiting professor at the Center of Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul. In it, he accuses UW Madison History Prof. Alfred McCoy of making misleading generalizations about Hmong General Vang Pao, for whom the Madison school board voted unanimously to name a new westside elementary school.
Below is Lee's letter followed by McCoy's response, received on Thursday, April 19. Both are included in their entirety and have only been formatted to fit this space. Nothing has been edited or removed.
The letter from Dr. Gary Yia Lee
Dear Editor and Mr. Mark Eissen,
This is the comments from Dr. Gary Yia Lee responding to Mr. McCoy's allegations. I am hoping that to be fair and balance to the Hmong community an the General, you will print this article to the public.
Re McCoy's briefing paper:
It is not the first time that Prof. Alfred McCoy of UW- Madison has stirred debates on Hmong General Vang Pao by making comments that stress only the negative. This is a major flaw in a scholar who should look at an issue without bias, exposing both the bad and the good together, so the public can decide on the pros and cons themselves.
In a recent article published on 17 April 2007 in the Daily Page in Madison, Wisconsin, McCoy was quoted as saying: "One would think before naming a school after someone, that they would have checked the available resources to make sure it's appropriate." We may turn the table around and ask if McCoy has checked all his available resources before opening his mouth for a few moments of self-glorification in the media.
In 1974 after McCoy published "The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia", I met with him at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, to discuss his allegations against Vang Pao and the Hmong, whom he has continued to call by the derogatory name "Meo" through the many editions of his book. My concern then was not for Vang Pao but for McCoy as a scholar who did not flinch from making sweeping generalizations about the involvement in heroin trafficking in Laos by military leaders in that country during the Vietnam War in order to discredit the CIA and those involved with its operations there. McCoy did not speak any local languages and could not communicate directly with his informants, spent only two weeks in Laos, visited a total of one Hmong village, and talked only to informants and Lao military leaders in the safety of Vientiane, the capital. Those were people who resented Vang Pao for his military successes and his close association with the American war machine. Seein g Vang Pao as a mere minority commander whom many of them had not even met, these Lao would not hesitate to describe him in the most unflattering terms, however untrue. McCoy took everything in as facts and even invented a few himself, such as the existence of a heroin factory in Long Cheng (Vang Pao's headquarters) when it was actually an ice-making factory. His "facts" were all second-hand, based on what other people told him and much of what he was told was further based on suspicion rather than confirmed evidence.
I informed McCoy that in all my 20 years of living in Laos, I had not seen many of the things he alleged to have occurred in areas inhabited by the Hmong. For sure, they did grow and trade in opium -- a practice that had been going on for generations and was not illegal in that country at the time. However, there certainly was no heroin manufacturing and distribution, as the Hmong did not know how to turn opium into heroin. I offered to take McCoy back to Laos to research the issue more professionally, with me acting as interpreter and guide as I speak five languages. He told me that he was "not interested" in my proposal, because the Hmong and Laos were not his "area of expertise", adding that his expertise was only in the Philippines. I was surprised that McCoy as a scholar was not interested in the truth, and was content with hear-says as his main sources of information.
Yet, during the past 30 years, McCoy has no hesitation in speaking negatively against the Hmong with unjustified arrogance and making the wildest comments based on his poorly researched sources, whenever the opportunity arises. If the Hmong are not McCoy's "area of expertise", as he himself admitted, then what is the purpose of his comments in this matter? Is he doing this to draw attention to himself rather than to bring unbiased information to the public? If he is not an expert in Hmong issues, then we have to refute what he has been saying? Where is his credibility? How could a true scholar spend two weeks in a country and claim to be an expert in that country forever? How could McCoy make allegations by going to other sources and refusing to get the facts directly himself? What have the Hmong done to McCoy that makes him so intent on opposing anything positive to do with them or their leaders?
McCoy has now changed tactics, quoting from writers other than himself to support his biased stand. The two main points in his latest "briefing paper" against the recent decision to name a primary school in Madison, Wisconsin, after Vang Pao clearly show this bias:
1. Vang Pao and Extra-judicial Executions.
This is a practice that is found all over the world in time of war and insurgency. During the Vietnam War in Laos, there was no judicial system and court to decide on the fate of enemy prisoners. All decisions were made by the local military commander. This continues to be the case today. Hence, the Hmong who resist the new Lao government now are still executed in this manner, despite outcries from Amnesty International. And what about those many people held without trial by the US military in Guantanamo Bay at present? Or what Thomas Jefferson and George Washington did during their times: were no parks, streets and towns named after them?
In war-torn Laos, there were no prisons to hold prisoners of war, except for foreigners. Vang Pao had to be tough in order to control the contingencies in his area of command. What he did was accepted as standard practice at that time. He was respected for these actions. The bombing of Hmong messianic leaders fell under the same category, as they were seen to cause division and instability in Hmong society. I am not advocating that we should accept such practices, but we should not use these emergency situations to judge a good leader who was only doing his job like so many others. As a historian, McCoy does not do himself much credit by not knowing military rules in war situations where a commander has to execute insubordinate soldiers. This is universal practice, not just with Vang Pao.
In peace time, we may not appreciate this, but McCoy should not use American values to judge practices from another era by another culture against those of today's United States of America where Vang Pao has not done anything of this nature since coming here in 1975.
2. Fund-raising and Corruption by Leaders Associated with Vang Pao.
All the allegations raised by McCoy involve people other than Vang Pao. Despite what many news reports say about lost political donations and corruption, no one has been able to pin anything on Vang Pao. Those helping him may have committed illegal acts, but no one can establish that he is directly linked to these people's actions other than being the patron or nominal head of their organizations. It is unfair of McCoy to point an accusing finger at him because people he associates with may have done something unacceptable. If we are to judge him, we have to be able to link him directly to some criminal acts, and this McCoy has failed to do.
During the last 30 years, Vang Pao has worked hard to rebuild the lives of Hmong refugees in America by setting up mutual assistance associations to deal with their needs and by visiting those in other Western countries to ensure their successful resettlement. He continues to provide leadership, to show concerns for his people. He inspires great respect and acts as the anchor that holds the Hmong here together, despite many factional differences between them. He works tirelessly to urge the young to study hard and be successful. He gives hopes to the Hmong elders in their moments of difficulties and joy, by traveling to different states to visit Hmong communities. McCoy's efforts degrade the Hmong and the self-respect of their community. He has taken every opportunity to conduct smear campaigns against them and their leaders -- most unusual for someone with "no interest" in, or "expertise" on the Hmong.
One must question his intentions as a fair-minded individual and a scholar. Scholars shou! ld resea rch far and deep to produce unbiased knowledge for other people to use, and not to select only negative information to actively influence public opinions.
If I were McCoy, I would think twice next time before attacking someone with such self-justification. Apart from the need to base one's statements on evidence verifiable by others and sound scholarship, there is also a moral question involved here. The Hmong had served well both Laos and the American government by sacrificing one fourth of their men to die in battles during the Vietnam War and by becoming refugees in this great country that leads the world as the voice of freedom and democracy. They have done more for this nation than McCoy and any arm-chair commentators. Yet, all McCoy can do in return is to marginalize the Hmong by smearing their leaders, and by excluding them from the mainstream society. He continues to lead a one-man campaign against the Hmong through his poorly researched commentaries. He said he was not an expert on the Hmong, yet does not hesitate to comment on them. McCoy's intentions are questionable. By focusing only on the negative, he cannot be trusted to give fair treatment in his public statements.
Is his the voice of the American people, the voice of justice and equality everybody around the world is told to emulate? No. As a Hmong scholar with many years of research experience on Hmong matters, I will continue to ask for a fair shake. You want respect from other people, McCoy? Give them a fair go, mate.
4/17/07 Dr Gary Yia Lee, Scholar-in-Residence, Center for Hmong Studies Concordia University, St. Paul 275 North Syndicate Street St. Paul, Minnesota 55104 www.csp.edu/hmongcenter Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. Gary Lee's Fabrications & Factual Errors Re. Professor McCoy
[19 April 2007]
Memo: Fabrications & Factual Errors in Dr. Gary Lee's Letter of 4/18/07.
From: Alfred W. McCoy, J.R.W. Smail Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison
To: Marc Eisen, Editor, Isthmus
Date: 19 April 2007
Dear Marc Eisen:
In response to my summary of sources about General Vang Pao's record as a Hmong leader posted on the "Isthmus" website, Dr. Gary Yia Lee, a visiting lecturer at Concordia University, has written a commentary that contains (1.) factual errors, (2.) a fabricated report of a conversation between us that never happened, (3.) a questionable justification for Vang Pao's alleged summary executions of captives in Laos during the Vietnam War era, and (4.) an unfortunate attempt to justify the cold-blooded murder of a brilliant Hmong religious leader.
In the first substantive sentence of his commentary, Dr. Lee manages an extraordinary combination of false accusation, factual errors, and a fabricated conversation. That sentence reads: "In 1974, after McCoy published the 'Politics of Heroin' in Southeast Asia,' I met with him at the University of New South Wales in Sydney Australia, to discuss his allegations against Vang Pao and the Hmong, whom he has continued to call by the derogatory term 'Meo' through the many editions of his book." As Dr. Lee's imaginative account of this conversation continues, we two are supposed to have met at the University of NSW in Sydney in 1974, he supposedly offered to take me back to Laos on a research trip that would reveal the falsity of my allegations about Vang Pao, and I allegedly declined his offer because I was supposedly "not interested" in the Hmong, Laos, or "the truth."
A few simple dates will establish, for any reasonable reader, that this purported conversation between Dr. Lee and myself in 1974 is not only improbable but impossible. First, I arrived in Sydney to start work at the University of NSW in July 1978 -- not 1974 as Dr. Lee would have it. That four year difference in dates is telling indeed. Such a research trip to Laos would still have been possible in 1974, the date Dr. Lee thus invents for our imagined conversation; but by mid 1978 when I arrived in Sydney, Laos was already in its fourth year of repressive communist rule that restricted Western researchers from access to the country, particularly the Hmong areas which were then wracked by guerrilla warfare and bloody government bombardment by artillery and aircraft. By 1978, any such research trip, particularly by an American scholar and his Hmong refugee interpreter, was so clearly impossible that no scholar or journalist would have wasted even a moment to entertain much less discuss such an impossibly absurd proposition. Second, during my years at University of NSW after July 1978, Dr. Lee never met with me on that campus and his account of our conversation is a complete fabrication. We did, however, speak once very briefly at a public gathering elsewhere in Sydney, and Dr. Lee asked only that I use the term "Hmong" rather than "Meo" in my future publications, something that I agreed to do. It is that very short conversation on a single semantic issue that Dr. Lee has woven into this elaborate fabrication.
Moreover, Dr. Lee charges incorrectly, in that same revealing sentence, that I have persisted in using the "derogatory term 'Meo" through the many editions" of my book instead of the more recent term "Hmong." Since the term "Meo" was still generally used by the people themselves at that time, I did use word "Meo" in the original 1972 edition of The Politics of Heroin. But I changed the term to "Hmong" in both the second (1991) and third editions (2003) of the work -- a fact that Dr. Lee could have checked by simply looking at the book's maps, text, index, or table of contents. The other statements that Dr. Lee makes about my work are similarly inaccurate and uninformed.
More substantively, Dr. Lee tries to defend General Vang Pao's reported summary executions of enemy captives by stating, incorrectly, that this is accepted international practice. Significantly, Dr. Lee does not deny these allegations about the general, and indeed affirms their accuracy. In defense of Vang Pao's alleged practice of "extrajudicial executions," Dr. Lee states: "This is a practice that is found all over the world in time of war and insurgency...Vang Pao had to be tough in order to control the contingencies in his area of command. What he did was accepted as standard practice at that time. He was respected for these actions. The bombing of Hmong messianic leaders fell under the same category, as they were seen to cause division and instability in Hmong society."
Although such summary executions do indeed occur in wars "all over the world," they are, under international law, serious war crimes for which military leaders, from German officers after World War II through Serbian commanders after the more recent Bosnian conflict, have been repeatedly arrested, tried, and convicted.
As for the messianic leader who was reportedly killed by Vang Pao's troops and whose church was reportedly bombed on the general's orders, this is the Hmong religious leader Shong Lue Yang, revered by many Hmong as "Mother of Writing" for his brilliant invention of a non-Romanized system of writing for the Hmong language. That Dr. Lee would condone such cold-blooded murder as necessary to extirpate "division and instability in Hmong society" raises serious questions about his objectivity and judgment so obvious that no further comment is necessary.
As for Dr. Lee's allegations of anti-Hmong bias, let me state here, as I have done repeatedly in public fora, that I strongly favor naming this new Madison elementary school after a Hmong leader to honor the Hmong sacrifice in the Vietnam War and the many Hmong contributions to American society. If a Hmong soldier is deemed appropriate, then I would suggest Lee Lue, the heroic Hmong pilot who died in Laos in 1969. If a Hmong educator is deemed preferable, I would suggest Dr. Yang Dao, the first Hmong-American to earn a Ph.D. and a tireless advocate for Hmong education. If a more traditional Hmong educator were deemed advisable, I would suggest Shong Lue Yang, "the Mother of Writing," that brilliant religious leader who invented a non-Romanized system for Hmong writing. There are just a few of the many accomplished Hmong and Hmong-Americans appropriate for this honor.
Alfred W. McCoy
J.R.W. Smail Professor of History
University of Wisconsin-Madison