A revered former general in the Royal Army of Laos who led thousands of Hmong guerrillas in a CIA-backed secret army during the Vietnam War has died.
After moving to the US once the communists seized power in Laos in 1975, Vang Pao was venerated as a leader by the Hmong refugee populations who resettled in California’s Central Valley, Minneapolis and cities throughout Wisconsin.
Pao, 81, died 10 days after being admitted to hospital, said Michelle Von Tersch, a spokeswoman for Clovis Community Medical Centre, California.
As a teenager in the Second World War he fought the Japanese, who were attempting to take over Laos.
In the 1950s he joined the French in the war against the North Vietnamese who were dominating Laos and later worked with the CIA to wage a covert war there.
Former CIA chief William Colby once called Pao “the biggest hero of the Vietnam War” for the 15 years he spent leading a CIA-sponsored guerrilla army fighting against a communist takeover over the south-east Asian peninsula.
After his guerrillas ultimately lost to communist forces, Pao moved to the US, where he was credited with brokering the resettlement of thousands of Hmong, an ethnic minority from the hillsides of Laos.
“He’s the last of his kind, the last of the leadership that carries that reference that everyone holds dear,” said Blong Xiong, a Fresno city councillor and the first Hmong-American in California to win a city council seat.
“Whether they’re young or old, they hear his name, there’s the respect that goes with it.”
Regarded by Hmong immigrants as an exiled head of state, Pao made frequent appearances at Hmong festivals and major events across the nation and was often asked to mediate disputes or solve problems.
In 2007 he was arrested and charged with other Hmong leaders with conspiracy in a plot to kill communist officials in his native country.
Federal prosecutors claimed the Lao liberation movement known as Neo Hom raised millions of dollars to recruit a mercenary force and conspired to obtain weapons.
Even after his indictment, he appeared as the guest of honour at Hmong New Year celebrations in St Paul and Fresno, where crowds of supporters gathered to catch a glimpse of him as he arrived in a limousine.