FRESNO, Calif. – Vang Pao, a fabled military hero and beloved father figure among the international Hmong refugee community, will be honored with a massive funeral "fit for a king" in central California, the general's son said Friday.
Vang Pao led Hmong guerrillas in their CIA-backed battle against communists during the Vietnam War. He died Thursday night in a hospital near Fresno after battling pneumonia he caught while presiding over two Hmong New Year celebrations in California's agricultural belt. He was 81.
Since immigrating to the United States once the communists seized power in Laos in 1975, Vang Pao has been venerated by his transplanted countrymen who settled mainly in California's Central Valley, Minneapolis and cities in Wisconsin.
Chi Vang, the general's 46-year-old son, said family elders decided to honor Vang Pao with a dayslong memorial service in Fresno, but said there may also be an opportunity for mourners to pay their respects at a viewing in Minnesota.
"When he traveled here the family was already talking to him about his health and the need to stay at home to relax, but his whole life was geared toward the Hmong community," said Chi Vang, one of the general's 32 children. "We are planning an enormous international event fit for a king."
The general had been hospitalized for about 10 days at Clovis Community Medical Center, where a crowd gathered Thursday night following the news of his death. Many sobbed and knelt on the ground as his body emerged to be transported to a nearby funeral home.
During World War II, while still a teenager, Vang Pao fought to prevent the Japanese from seizing control of Laos.
In the 1950s, he joined the French in the war against the North Vietnamese who were dominating Laos and later, as a general in the Royal Army of Laos, 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 heading a CIA-sponsored guerrilla army fighting against a communist takeover of the Southeast Asian peninsula.
After his guerrillas ultimately lost to communist forces, Vang Pao came to the U.S., where he was credited with brokering the difficult resettlement of tens 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 councilman 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, Vang Pao made frequent appearances at Hmong festivals, advocated on behalf of Hmong veterans and often was asked to mediate disputes or solve problems.
In 2007, however, he was arrested and charged with other Hmong leaders in federal court with conspiracy in a plot to kill communist officials in his native country. Federal prosecutors alleged 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 honor at Hmong New Year celebrations in St. Paul and Fresno, where crowds of his supporters gathered to catch a glimpse of the highly decorated general as he arrived in a limousine.
The charges against Vang Pao were dropped in 2009, "after investigators completed the time-consuming process of translating more than 30,000 pages of pages of documents," then-U.S. Attorney Lawrence G. Brown said in a written statement. The government arrested the defendants before understanding all the evidence because they felt a threat was imminent, he said.
In November, a federal judge in Sacramento threw out parts of the case against 12 other defendants. The defendants were retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Harrison Jack and 11 members of California's Hmong community, many of whom fought for the U.S. during the Vietnam War. All 12 have pleaded not guilty since their arrests in 2007.
"Vang Pao was a great man and a true American hero. He served his country for many years in his homeland, and he continued to serve it in America," said attorney William Portanova, who represents one of the remaining Hmong defendants. "To think that these elderly men would be in a position to try to overthrow a country is, on its face, almost laughable."
Lauren Horwood, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office in Sacramento, said she had no immediate comment.
Vang Pao had been a source of controversy for several years before the case was filed.
In 2002, the city of Madison, Wis., dropped a plan to name a park in his honor after a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor cited published sources alleging Vang Pao had ordered executions of his own followers, of enemy prisoners of war, and of his political enemies.
Five years later, the Madison school board removed his name from a new elementary school named for him, after dissenters said it should not bear the name of a figure with such a violent history.
But such criticism meant little to Hmong families who looked to Vang Pao for guidance as they struggled to set up farms and businesses in the U.S. and assume a new, American identity. The general formed several nonprofits to aid the refugee communities and set up a council to mediate disputes between the 18 Hmong clans, whose president he hand-picked for decades.
Ka Houa Yang, president of the Lao Family Community of Minnesota, compares Vang Pao's role to that of the first American president, George Washington, and said his death is a huge loss for Hmong immigrants in the Twin Cities.
"I'm seeing seasoned older men cry. They're so heartbroken. So it's a really sad day," said Ilean Her, executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, a state agency.
Lar Yang of Fresno, who featured an interview with Vang Pao last month in his Hmong business directory, said no one could replace such a towering figure in the community.
"He's always been kind of the glue that held everyone together," he said.
Don Thompson in Sacramento and Steve Karnowski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
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