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Claiming that liberation is at hand for thousands of ethnic Hmong trapped in the jungles of Laos and in a Thai refugee camp, Gen. Vang Pao announced this week he’ll return to Laos after nearly 35 years.

“We have to make a change right now. The government of Laos has tried to open the door. We should put something on the table and sit down in peace,” Vang said Tuesday night, in what the Sacramento Bee called a passionate 30-minute speech in Fresno, Calif.

Chai Vang, one of Vang’s 18 sons, told the newspaper his father will take part in a reconciliation event on Jan. 10 at the Freedom Bridge between Non Kai, Thailand, and Vientiane, Laos.

Vang led a CIA-sponsored guerrilla army against Southeast Asian communists during the Vietnam War, and fled to the United States when Laos fell in 1975.

Jerry Daniels, a former smokejumper from Missoula and a CIA operative among the Hmong, aided Vang Pao and thousands of his fellow Hmong in their escape to Thailand and then the United States. Daniels and his family helped establish the general on a farm in the Bitterroot Valley and also helped settle many other Hmong refugees in the Missoula area.

Vang Pao, who turns 80 this week, lived in Montana until 1982, when he moved to Southern California. Daniels died under mysterious circumstances in Bangkok the same year.

In September, federal prosecutors dropped charges against Vang for plotting a violent overthrow of the communist regime in Laos.

An American citizen, Vang Pao is free to travel to Laos and return to the United States. But his plan to do so is drawing criticism, even among his own people.

“Many Hmong people think he’s crazy. All the charges and legal issues here, and now he goes back to Laos?” Atari Xion, a Sacramento television producer, said to the Sacramento paper.

Meanwhile, Thailand’s prime minister sought Thursday to quiet international concerns about the possible expulsion of 4,000 ethnic Hmong to Laos, amid objections by U.S. senators and human rights groups who fear they could face persecution.

According to the Associated Press, Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva declined to say when the Hmong would be deported but indicated it could happen soon.

“We will act according to the law, and we will be very careful,” Abhisit said. “We have measures to take care of this without human rights violations.”

Vang Pao spoke Tuesday at a dinner honoring him. He urged his people “to forget about the past so we can bring those back to a normal life. Right now the government of Laos thinks it’s time to live together peacefully with equal rights and equal opportunities.”

He promised liberation will be coming soon for the estimated 5,000 to 8,000 Hmong reportedly still in the jungles of Laos, “and I will be the one to be there.”

“I was the one in the beginning and I will be the one to finish it in the end,” Vang Pao said. “I’m not going to give up. I will carry my people on my back no matter how heavy they are.”

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at

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