St. Paul Public Schools
Vang Pao visits Hancock-Hamline Collaborative Magnet School in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Finally, the Madison school board is showing signs it may back away from its wrongheaded decision to name a new elementary school for Hmong warlord Vang Pao.
To a remarkable degree, the board has stubbornly ignored all evidence of Vang Pao's bloody past. That's because Madison's emergent Hmong community has rallied behind the proposal, and the board, wishing to celebrate Madison's multicultural makeup, has decided that the Hmong's time is now, no matter what the objections.
Carol Carstensen has been the lone exception in her willingness to reconsider the naming decision.
Not surprisingly, Bill Keys, the former school board member and perhaps the city's most arrogant and self-righteous liberal, has been in the frontlines of Vang Pao's supporters. Disappointingly, several past and present board members who should know better also threw their credibility behind the school naming, despite serious accusations of Vang Pao's war crimes, drug dealing and suspect fundraising activities.
But the board's steely refusal to reconsider the naming decision finally began to bend Monday with news that Vang Pao and other leaders of Neo Hom back-to-Laos movement had been arrested on terrorism charges related to an alleged plot to violently overthrow the communist government of Laos.
This is clearly an untenable situation for the public schools. How quickly the school board picks a new school name and rebounds from the naming debacle are crucial concerns. Under intense budgetary pressure, the board needs all the public support it can muster for future spending referendums.
Yet it has sorely damaged the district's reputation through an ill-considered decision to name a new school for a man who, despite his accomplishments for the Hmong people, is linked to dark deeds of the Vietnam War and now a major terrorist plot.
If convicted, Vang Pao and eight other indictees face life in prison. Repeat: Life in prison.
For the general's many loyalists, this must be a dizzying turn of events. The Hmong's willingness to fight not just the Laotian communists but the North Vietnamese communists in the 1960s and 1970s was why the CIA recruited Vang Pao to lead a Hmong army in the so-called "secret war" in Laos.
But now U.S. goals have shifted to other concerns.
As UW-Madison historian Alfred McCoy explains, having the Hmong fight the communists furthered U.S. interests during the Vietnam War and the Cold War. (Like the Contras, the Hmong were considered "freedom fighters" in the Reagan years.) But those same guerrilla actions in an era of anti-terrorism vigilance are seen in a dramatically different light.
In a detailed and lengthy indictment filed in federal court in California, prosecutors lay out an alleged plot by Vang Pao and his associates to work with a retired California National Guard officer to buy Stinger missiles, AK-47s, mines, rockets and more to be used in a mercenary attack on Laos' capital, Vientiane.
The conspirators, according to prosecutors, said they wanted to blow up government buildings "and make them look like the results of the attack upon the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001."
For anyone who's following the school-naming issue, the charging shouldn't come as a surprise. McCoy in a set of briefing papers posted on TheDailyPage in April pointed out national news accounts that raised questions about Neo Hom's fund-raising activities.
For his efforts to alert the community, McCoy, the author of the authoritative tome The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, was subjected to fierce vituperation and attacks on his scholarship, climaxing on Monday with a highly critical story in The Capital Times that inexplicably failed to seek his side of events. [McCoy has responded with a letter to the paper.]
But before the day was out, McCoy's warnings were vindicated as news spread of the Vang Pao indictment. He had, after all, prophetically told the school board on May 7: "Your decision to name a school after General Vang Pao could prove, in the not-too-distant future, a major embarrassment to this city and community."
The indictment contains tantalizing references to Wisconsin. Prosecutors portray Lo Cha Thao, a former aide state Sen. Gary George (D-Milwaukee), as a pivotal figure in arranging the arms deal.
Prosecutors assert that he told an undercover agent that he wanted seven or eight Vientiane government buildings blown up "like September 11th."
It was Lo Cha Thao, as a member of the Madison Parks Commission, who pushed unsuccessfully in 2002 for the city to name a park for Vang Pao and who later led protests at McCoy's office after the professor spoke out about Vang Pao's mixed legacy.
"For weeks, Lo Cha Thao stood outside my office with a bull horn leading busloads of Hmong in demonstrations for my dismissal, for a book I wrote 30 years ago, and organized a day-long conference in the capital under Senator George's patronage to attack my scholarship," McCoy told The Capital Times.
Lo Cha Thao later circulated George's nominating petitions for governor in 2002 that were found to contain hundreds of forged signatures. George was subsequently removed from the ballot and soon after convicted of an unrelated kick-back scheme that sent him to federal prison. George, for unspecified reasons, is also cited as an unindicted conspirator in the Vang Pao case.
The conspiracy outlined by federal prosecutors virtually overlaps the Hmong campaign in Madison to name the new westside elementary school for Vang Pao. In February 2007, according to undercover agent's affidavit, the Neo Hom leadership had committed to "major fundraising" to pay for $9.8 million in weapons. Around that time, Lo Cha Thao and other Neo Hom leaders, the agent said, "had gone back to Wisconsin and Minnesota to generate political support."
That mysterious reference has already prompted speculation that the Vang Pao school-naming was part of a campaign to bolster the general's profile in the Hmong community and facilitate money-raising for the Laos operation.
A last thought: When the school board inevitably changes course and reopens the school-naming process, it should consider another Vietnam era figure -- Midge Miller, an idealistic anti-war leader who went on to a distinguished career in Democratic politics and progressive issues.
Midge represented the very best values of this town in a turbulent period and deserves the public honor of a school naming. You can't say the same for Vang Pao.
Marc Eisen is editor of Isthmus.