IN RECENT weeks, the likely last big wave of Lao Hmong refugees began arriving in the United States from a squalid encampment at a Buddhist temple in Thailand -- primarily bound for established enclaves in California's Central Valley, the Minneapolis-St. Paul area and Wisconsin.
Their exodus to America is very welcome and long overdue and underscores the United States' incomplete relationship with Laos some 40 years after America began waging covert war there with intensive bombing to disrupt North Vietnamese supply lines.
It also highlights continuing concerns over serious human rights abuses in Laos and, at the same time, the need to finally establish basic U.S.-Lao economic relations.
The Hmong, mountain tribesmen who served as CIA guerrillas, were abandoned in the U.S. exit from Indochina in 1975, some continuing to fight the communist Pathet Lao regime for years while hundreds of thousands fled to Thai camps. From 1975 to 1996, 250,000 Lao, including 130,000 Hmong, were allowed to immigrate to the United States.
The 15,000 Hmong coming now had sought sanctuary at the temple a decade ago when Thailand began closing its refugee camps, repatriating those remaining.
The new arrivals may encounter fewer problems and more help than their predecessors, who walked out of Indochina's jungles into modern America. In places such as St. Paul, large Hmong communities now not only boast remarkable success stories but also have reinvigorated entire areas. Also changed within this diaspora is a growing desire, particularly among younger Hmong, for expanded U.S.-Lao ties.
Laos is the only nation in the world with which America has diplomatic relations but not a basic economic agreement, known as Normal Trade Relations. North Korea and Cuba are the only other nations without NTR; even Myanmar and Libya have it. Without NTR, the United States imposes import tariffs of more than 40 percent. The Lao government is lobbying for this to change; the Bush administration supports it, and bills in Congress are for it. But the largest Lao veterans group vehemently opposes it -- citing allegations of Pathet Lao efforts to kill off the Hmong with systematic starvation.
No one should take lightly the repressive regime controlling Laos since 1975. The United States ought to exert more pressure on the Pathet Lao to stop any violence against the Hmong and allow in independent human rights monitors. But with that stepped-up political pressure, it also ought to grant Laos NTR status, which would open the way for Lao and Hmong entrepreneurs from this country to invest and trade with their countrymen, perhaps leveraging political changes there over the long term.
Today, U.S.- Lao relations are an anomalous relic of the Vietnam War. The Bush administration says Laos has been more cooperative on MIA and opium-control issues and is liberalizing its economy. As the last Hmong refugees arrive in America, it's time to end Laos' unnatural economic isolation.