Behind Laos's yellow rain and tears

A controversial Radiolab episode opens old wounds and raises countless questions for Minnesota's Hmong

Mirocha recalls being "disgusted" by how the Hmong testimonies were treated, as the scientific and political narratives spiraled out of control.

"I remember reading an editorial that said something like, 'Well how can these Hmong people identify what planes were dropping the chemicals, they have no knowledge of planes,'" Mirocha says. "But we trained some of the Hmong people as pilots! They fought on our side. They might not have been educated, but they're intelligent."

Fred, who worked both with yellow rain victims and with Meselson and Seeley, agrees that bees take the cleansing flight, and that it can appear as rain. He also believes that some of the samples really were bee crap — especially later, as word got out that Americans were looking for the stuff, and people got less rigorous about what they were collecting.

Eng Yang and his niece, Kao Kalia Yang, at St. Paul's Hmongtown Marketplace
Mark N. Kartarik
Eng Yang and his niece, Kao Kalia Yang, at St. Paul's Hmongtown Marketplace
This Hmong boy reported that his stomach rash was a result of yellow rain
courtesy of Fred
This Hmong boy reported that his stomach rash was a result of yellow rain

"I'm pretty open-minded, because of my experience with both sides, frankly," Fred says. "But that doesn't mean that some of the other samples weren't chemicals. I can't imagine anyone saying that 100 percent."


As Jonathan B. Tucker, a chemical weapons expert, wrote in a definitive 2001 account on the science of yellow rain, "Whether or not toxin warfare agents were used in Laos and Cambodia between 1975 and 1983, and if so which ones, remains a mystery."

Both sides of the issue hold fast to their beliefs. Both the U.S. and the Russian governments still keep their separate secrets. On one side, information about the former Soviet Union's weapons program continues to emerge, and on the other, the State Department maintains that it has further research that proves once and for all that yellow rain was a chemical weapon. This evidence, however, remains classified.

When asked what that smoking gun might be, Mirocha says that to him, yellow rain has already been proven. The exact combination of toxin, or toxins, used in an aerial spray remains unclear, according to Mirocha. Not all of the symptoms the Hmong experienced can be explained. But, he says, "Indeed Hmong people were killed by some aerial spray."

"What proof would be enough?" he asks. "Well to me, the personal, first-hand information from the Hmong people is enough."

Through a spokesperson, Radiolab and WNYC declined to comment on this story. Dean Cappello, WNYC's chief creative officer, has written that Walters, the producer, spent "months reviewing nearly 20 years' worth of academic papers and media reports on Yellow Rain," and "completed an in-depth examination of competing theories to the 'bee feces' hypothesis." He says that, based on this research, the show "strongly believes...that the accumulation of evidence would not have served the story or Mr. Yang's version of events."

Thomas Seeley, the honeybee expert, is sympathetic to the show's aims. "You have to look at the body of evidence, not individual opinion," he says.

But Paul Hillmer, a history professor at Concordia University, is one of the people not buying it. In his view, even though Radiolab's segment was only 25 minutes long, it should have made more clear that what Cappello calls the "bee feces hypothesis" was just one theory, not fact.

"People for the most part are outraged that Robert Krulwich was rude, right?" Hillmer says. "When the real sin is that the bee dung theory is not open-and-shut, and they didn't tell their audience that."

Kao Kalia Yang isn't just upset because the show aired her breakdown, or even because it dismissed parts of her uncle's story and the Hmong experience. She's upset about the facts of the matter.

"They made it seem as though they were telling the truth, and we just couldn't handle it," Yang says. "But none of what they were telling us was new information. Really, it was that I knew what they were presenting as truth was not the full truth."

Yang received an email from Cappello two weeks after the podcast. Although Krulwich made a public apology, Yang has not heard from him directly. She says her emails to Krulwich and Walters, and her reply to Cappello, have gone unanswered.

"To be honest, I feel exploited," she says. "To be used as a pawn in a political debate — that's what happened in the war, and it happened again on the show." 

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15 comments
anniegreen852
anniegreen852

This is awful! We need to take care of our world.

Annie

www.shuttersnshades.com.au

garyplumber25
garyplumber25

All I keep thinking is the Hmong would have noticed and mentioned the bees in their account of yellow rain. How high do the bees fly during the cleansing flight? To high to see?

ksablug
ksablug

The reason every party is doing everything it can to censor this inhumane aggression against the Hmong is that the Hmong had been used as pawns for such parties to test their weapons, including chemical ones. And when evidences were found, everybody has an obligation to reverse the findings. However, no matter what scientists and powerful parties may argue, it is without doubt that the Hmong had been through a period of very inhumane chemical warfare. If it were not the Hmong, the world would have done something about it, but since it were the Hmong, it is nobody's business.  

tomak2010
tomak2010

My late dad said, "yellow rain" did fall from the sky when he was fighting the Vietcong and Pathet Lao near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Years later, my father died from hemorrhage.

I know Uncle Eng Yang and the Yang family, especially Uncle Soua. I grew up very close to the Yang family in the Ban Vinai camp. He and his brothers DIDN'T fight during the Vietnam War.  Their dad paid other villagers' sons to fight in placement of the sons. However, Eng did work or volunteer, as radio operator and security enforcer, for General Vang Pao's POST-WAR cause and Vue Mai and crossed the Thai-Lao border numerous times (est. roughly from 1975 to 1985). Was there chemical weapon/yellow rain used in the jungle or in Hmong villages during that time? The answer is: (though the US no longer involved) YES--there were chemical dropped on the Freedom fighters and Hmong escapees who took refuge in the jungle. The yellow rain came. The Hmong did experience this horrible act.  After the "yellow rain" most of them could not functional mentally or physically and left to die in the jungle and those with minor effects escaped to the camp. In the Ban Vinai Camp, some of them became mentally ill, some experienced strokes/hemorrhage, lung issues, and others died unexplained deaths. You just knew something strange's going on. Not even the shaman in our Section 3 Quarter 30 could save their souls. To say that the "yellow stuff" is bee excrement is politically motivated and hurtful.  It's very shameful to not recognize something that did happen to the Hmong. The CIA/State Department needs to declassified these information. The Russian needs to show responsibility and show the world the data, the T2 toxins, they sold to the Vietnamese government. 

lex.lee02
lex.lee02

carolinakoi. so...you're point is: Mr. Yang should consult with his past mentors/leaders if the topic is about yellow rain?? r.e.a.l.l.y.? LOL i don't want to sound like Robert Krulwich/ Radio Lab but, who'd want to listen about what hmong leaders think when the topic is about Yellow Rain and it's survivors????

 

I'll give you an idea, open up a blog and please carefully plan what you're going to say about Yellow Rain. And make sure you talk to your mentors or if you prefer, your leaders, about what happened during the war and of Yellow Rain. Remember, blogs are your only option because no is interviewing you if you are going to consult to your leaders and mentors first. Then why not just interview your leader and or mentor instead. A topic like yours when it doesn't suits any intrest. I might come and check your blog when I feel like I want to learn something about a hmong leader but make sure you carefully get every fact right. :)

yangmerlinda
yangmerlinda

Personally, I think that Mr. Yang has done his part, he has experinced Yellow Rain as a hmong, so I think he should be able to talk about it freely. I can understand why you might be concern, but I believe that in stating his experince, so honestly and clearly, we understood his message.  His message is that Yellow Rain has occured and during the time many hmong died. Whether or not, Yellow rain was chemical used for genocide or bee feces, Eng Yang's take home message is that Yellow Rain is forever memory, a memory of the war, a memory of the deaths of Hmong, and a memory of life before he came to US.

carolinakoi
carolinakoi

As a young refugee, I remember very well about this story being the topic of discussion in BanViNai Refugee.  As a Hmong, this story is not a story that Kao Kalia Yang nor Eng Yang can tell alone.  This is a story has many deep secrets.  Story such as this should have been more carefully thought and plan in telling the many sides of it.  There is even an documentary completed by National Public Radio and aired on television many years ago.  The Hmong elders/leaders who were directly involved in this story should have been consulted, particularly, the formers leaders of BanViNai Refugee camp during that time.  Evidences have been collected since late 1979s to mid 1980s.  I am very suprised that Eng Yang singly chosen to tell this story without consulting his past mentors/leaders.  This clearly show a poor planning on Eng Yang's part.  Just know that "Yellow Rain" is not a topic that the United States government does not want to deal with.  There is a book coming in Spring 2013 that will dscuss a little about this so called "Yellow Rain."  But for the future, evidences and people who were involved should be consulted and a careful planning needs to be thought out if we are going to have the world listen to our story. 

ksablug
ksablug

Dr. Mirocha's lab work said it all. 

bvang6974
bvang6974

I cried after reading this story, especially the part about how rude and inconsiderate the Radiolab folks were to the Mr. Yang. Fortunately, not all of the Hmong people had to deal with Yellow Rain as they fought WITH the United States, however for those who did have to experience Yellow Rain are not viewed as liars and uneducated people.  There are many secrets the United States does not want to reveal to their people about their role in the Secret War in Laos.

Paul
Paul

I would just like to clarify that the RadioLab folks had access to the work conducted by the scientists from Princeton and GWU before they ever went to interview Mr. Yang.  They never told their audience that there were any scientific views that cast doubt on Meselson's theories.  And they happily accepted the assumption that Dr. Mirocha's work was substandard in some way.  Did they ever even speak to him?  These are the attitudes and practices that made them feel comfortable treating Mr. Yang and his testimony the way they did.  If they'd just done their homework and been a little less eager to tell a story about Reagan, "alleged toxins," and bee poop, they might have avoided all of this.

yangmerlinda
yangmerlinda

Thank you for the insights and perspectives from each sides, this has helped clear up many unanswered-questions for me. You have done a great job of journalism here! WELL DONE

ConstantReader
ConstantReader

"What proof would be enough?" he asks. "Well to me, the personal, first-hand information from the Hmong people is enough."

 

Said no Scientist Ever. 

bvang6974
bvang6974

 @carolinakoi

 I am sorry to have to say that if a Hmong person experienced something, I am not going to doubt them and say, You never experienced this, maybe you were hallucinating or something.  THAT IS JUST WRONG.  This is similar to any time atrocities happen to a population and everybody chooses to close their eyes instead of seeing the truth.  Nobody asked the Japanese Americans to be interned in camps, but they were, and are we going to discount their horrific memories of being put there.  Nobody asked the millions of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust if they wanted genocide to happen to their people, but if we were to discount the fact that it happened, then we are turning a blind eye on truth, history, and facts. 

 

The U.S. gov't recuited the Hmong to help fight their war in SE Asia. This turned the Hmong into enemies of the state and of their allies, including China and the Russians. Chemical warfare was used in SE Asia against the Hmong.  Even if no one will admit it, doesn't mean it's not truthful, factual, and part of our history.

swingbatter
swingbatter

 @Paul They did do their homework, they did say it is one theory. What I took away from the episode is not that Krulwich was rude but that they could not have been prepared for this kind of overreaction. "So we talked to a scientist who thinks A, and how would you answer that considering B" is not rude and it's not a crime, it's something that the interviewee can calmly debunk. Instead -- complete meltdown, hysterics, THEY DID NOT JUST BELIEVE EVERYTHING WE SAY, HOW RUDE.

 

Listening to this episode I thought Ms Yang was acting irrationally, and that was it. Nothing was dictated to her and instead of breaking out in tears she could have responded with what is said here -- "that is just one opinion, and I'll have you know that we distinctly saw XYZ, and we can back this up with A,B and C." Can't back it up? Shrug and understand that people want evidence. 

Paul
Paul

 @swingbatter  @Paul 

Exactly where in the RadioLab piece do they offer any evidence to contradict the bee dung theory?  Exactly where in the piece do they do anything to suggest that the bee dung theory is anything other than the best sceintific explanation for the yellow rain phenomenon?  They had evidence in hand in the form of reviewsand studies by Jonathan Tucker and the aforementioned scientists from GWU and Princeton. 

See, for example, an article in “Politics & the Life Sciences,” 24 August 2007, starting on page 24. (Note this research is more than 25 years newer than Meselson's and used a wide variety of new evidence, including “8,529 pages of United States government documents, declassified . . .and released through a Freedom of Information Act request, including medical records, laboratory reports, diplomatic communications, internal memos, and protocols originating primarily from the Armed Forces Medical Intelligence Center. . .and interviews with 48 individuals with expert knowledge related to Yellow Rain, including 20 who were directly involved in investigating allegations. . .”

A few of the many conclusions in this paper: “Between 1979 and 1982, refugee reports of attacks were consistent with other intelligence data, including known battles and flight paths of aircraft, more than 60 percent of the time. . . Clinical complaints and findings among self-described victims and detailed refugee accounts of attacks were sufficiently similar in Laos, Cambodia, and Afghanistan to suggest a key common factor, most plausibly a Soviet link, in influence and support of direct operational involvement. . .Clinical complaints and findings of alleged victims as documented by photographs, medical records, autopsy results, and third-hand accounts are consistent with mass simultaneous poisoning and not with any known natural disease endemic to Laos, Cambodia, or Afghanistan. . .Approximately 75 percent of alleged attacks involved seeing or hearing a helicopter or airplane, followed by seeing or smelling a gas or powder fall to the ground. . .”

If, in the wake of this and other evidence, including Mirocha's, that the bee crap theory is insufficient to describe what happened,  why the hard sell over the course of the show?  Why no inclusion of competing theories, even for a moment?  If the show isn't about journalism or about science, then fine.  But if it is, then what RadioLab did is simply wrong, regardless of the Yangs' reaction to their interviewers.  My argument has nothing to do with emotion.

 
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