WAT THAM KRABOK, Thailand -- They have no nation to call home. They live in constant fear the Thai government will deport them to Laos, their former homeland. But they do have one powerful man in their corner.
For the 15,000 Hmong illegally squatting on the back 40 acres of Wat Tham Krabok, a Buddhist temple, the powers of the abbot have kept the Thai government at bay -- so far.
The abbot has turned his temple into Thailand's major sanctuary for people unable or unwilling to qualify for U.S. political asylum.
"Nobody else helps, so I help," said abbot Pra Chamroon Parnchand, a former Thai police officer who now wears the saffron-colored robes of Buddhist monks. "The Lao will just kill them if they go back. I try to take care of them." He is a formidable adversary for the Thai government, which wants to kick out the 50,000 illegal Hmong immigrants in its nation of 56 million people.
The temple's illegal community, a two-hour drive north of Bangkok, is made up of Hmong who say they escaped persecution and ethnic fighting in Laos. Many went on the run a second time when they fled refugee camps in Thailand to avoid forced repatriation.
Many Hmong in the temple say they were veterans of the Indochina conflict, former members of the anti-Communist resistance encouraged by President Ronald Reagan during the 1980s, or family members of combat veterans.
Many say they fell victim to changing sentiment by nations, such as the United States, who are less willing to accept and resettle large refugee groups. Since 1989, an increasing number of people fleeing Laos have been labeled as economic refugees by Thailand -- and therefore fail to qualify for asylum to third nations such as the United States. Others in the temple simply want to stay in Thailand.
They live in a broad valley surrounded by mountains that are being dynamited into rubble for road construction. Villagers draw drinking water from wells, and the stench of raw sewage in
troughs is powerful. But as bad as it may seem, the villagers are doing better than many in Laos because of Thailand's growing economy and abundant job opportunities.
The temple's Hmong have their own pool halls, clothing and jewelry shops. They have a blacksmith, and cantinas that sell everything from batteries to toothpaste and instant noodles.
Jobs and medical care are lined up for them by the abbot.
Often, the jobs are hard and low-paying: They split rocks for a few dollars a day, or they rise at 3 a.m. and congregate at the village entrance where Thai farmers bid for their services.
"I try to help them when they first come," the abbot said. "After that, they help themselves. Seventy percent help themselves."
The temple's village formed in the 1980s. The population grew quickly after Thailand moved to close its camps in Ban Vinai in 1992 and in Chiang Kham in 1993.
Reflecting their shaky status, residents are hostile to outsiders, always wary they may be betrayed and the village raided.
The Thai government wants the village disbanded because it is full of defiant illegal immigrants. The village also has long been suspected of being a staging ground for resistance activities against the Lao government, with whom the Thais are trying to improve relations.
Despite its inability to stop the community from flourishing, the Thai government insists that the days are numbered for the abbot's flock.
"We won't let them stay there. We will keep them in a holding area," said Wannida Boonpracong, chief of the Thai government's refugee section. "If they cannot prove they are here legally, we will send them where they belong."