Aaron Glantz and Ngoc Nguyen

HANOI, Dec 23 2005 (IPS) — This month marks the 30-year anniversary of the communist takeover of Laos on Dec. 2, 1975 and the journey of a group of Laotian-Americans back to Southeast Asia, some for the first time.

They travel to discover their roots; some seek to build business ties following the normalisation of trade between the United States and Laos late in 2004.

Among them, Pastor Seng Fo Chao is the peacemaker.

“Forgiveness is the key to success for everyone. Don’t hold onto what happened 30 years ago,” the pastor tells IPS as his delegation stops in neighbouring Vietnam. “A lot of our Lao people, especially the veterans, were 100 percent against normal (ising) trade relations. They thought that if normal trade was granted, then it would help the government instead of the poor.”

“But I am from a very poor family,” Chao continues. “I want to move forward, so the poor people can send their goods into the U.S. without tariffs.”

Chao belongs to the Iu Mien ethnic group, whose people are spread throughout Laos, China, Thailand and Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, North Vietnamese supply lines ran through Laos. In response, the CIA recruited ethnic minorities from Laos and Vietnam, including the Iu Mien, to fight on the American side.

Chao witnessed the execution of his father and was orphaned at age six. Ten years later, he was recruited to join the Royal Lao Army and served as a forward air guide side by side with the Americans until the fall of Laos in 1975. Then, like, several hundred thousand others, he was forced to flee his country. He was one of approximately 10,000 Iu Mien resettled in the United States.

Still, Chao has always felt a connection to his country and a desire to build bridges among the Iu Mien. He became president of the Iu Mien American National Coalition, and headed up an effort to create a uniform written script for their language.

He says the lack of such a script made it very difficult for him and other refugees to learn English. “When a group of people arrive in America without any ability to read and write everything is a shock. They were very frightened, panicked sometimes with that kind of situation.”

Chao hopes the written script will be useful in helping the Iu Mien preserve their language, but that’s only the beginning. He realises the Iu Mien must also grasp Laotian and English if they want to participate in the economy.

His group has started a school that teaches Laotian, and they hope to expand it to include English in the future. They are also hoping to create an exchange programme where Iu Mien from Vietnam, Laos and China can visit the United States.

“They have the poorest language and economy and education in the world,” says another member of the delegation, Pastor Seng Chao of California (no relation) after visiting three Iu Mien villages in northern Vietnam. He found that most villagers earn less than one U.S. dollar a day.

“Today we need to help each other by promoting education,” adds Seng Chao. “The way they live, the way they speak – they’re living life like 2,000 years ago.”

Estimates of the total number of Iu Mien vary widely, but there are approximately one million of the people spread across Southeast Asia and China. The biggest population is in southern China, with around 750,000, while tens of thousands of the tribal people live in each of Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.

In recent years, the governments of both Vietnam and Laos have attempted to reduce poverty among their marginalised ethnic communities. Whole towns have been built for previously nomadic peoples, where the governments provide schools, homes equipped with running water and irrigation for farming.

The efforts have been somewhat successful, according to Phan Van Ngoc, the director of Action Aid in Vietnam, an international NGO dedicated to alleviating poverty in rural areas.

“They are now getting used to this system of farming and irrigation,” he says of the tribal peoples. “They used to live shifting from one place to the other after thee or four years. They feel bored sitting in one place and getting less and less land for their farming, or in other words, they are not able to farm enough food to feed themselves due to the sudden change in their livelihoods.”

Phan says some Iu Mien have been unable to adjust to the rapid change – many have left the government villages and returned to their old ways. “To create or change livelihood systems takes time,” he adds, “and it must depend on changing the way people live slowly.”

A different set of problems confronts overseas Iu Mien like Pastor Seng Fo Chao. The Vietnamese government has accused certain tribal members of forming illegal mass organisations against the state and continues to keep close tabs on them.

This trip marks the third time in 10 years Seng Fo Chao has attempted to visit Iu Mien communities in Vietnam. It took that long before the Vietnamese government finally approved his request.

But Chao says he does not hold the delay against the government, adding that it is just a remnant of the war. In fact, he is encouraged by the cooperation of the government during this visit and hopes that future ones will be just as easy.

Mae Seng Chao (no relation), a drug abuse counsellor who works with the Asian community in Seattle, is making her first trip back to Laos since the Communist takeover. She has uncles, aunts and cousins there that she has not seen in decades.

To date she has only visited Iu Mien villages in Vietnam and China; she has not arrived at her final destination yet. But already Mae Seng feels the connection that Seng Fo Chao is hoping to achieve. “This is just the beginning for me,” she says.

“I am expecting that we will make more connections. I would like to find more of my relatives. I promised them I would send cloth. They requested cloth to make their traditional clothes.”

“I just want to be friendly,” she adds. “They are very, very poor in money but rich in heart. I don’t know how much I can do for them, but I love them.”

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