Gen. Vang Pao candlelight vigil tonight in St. Paul

The venerated Gen. Vang Pao in the early '60s.
The venerated Gen. Vang Pao in the early '60s.

Last night, news arrived from California that Gen. Vang Pao succumbed to a 10-day battle with pneumonia and died at the age of 81.

Though decades have passed since he lead the Royal Army of Laos in guerrilla combat during the Vietnam War, he was revered as the stateside leader of the Hmong people, and he'll be honored tonight in St. Paul.

Even as his legacy became mired in controversy in recent years, he still made repeated appearances in the Twin Cities, most recently at the 2011 Hmong New Year celebration in November.

Dai Thao, co-regional director for TakeAction Minnesota's Hmong Organizing Program, provided translation for Sen. Amy Klobuchar and now-Gov. Mark Dayton during Vang's latest appearance and met him several times over the years.

"He was very wise," says Thao. "Straightforward. He'll tell you like it is."

Vang began his military career as a teenager in Laos, fighting for the French army against the Northern Vietnamese in the 1950s. In 1961, during the Vietnam War, Vang was approached by the CIA to help lead a guerrilla offensive against the North Vietnamese. The Eisenhower administration began shipping weapons and supplies to Laos. Under Vang's command, a secret army of an estimated 39,000 Hmong fought. His troops were credited with saving downed U.S. pilots in their territory.

As a leader, he was remembered in some accounts as intelligent and fair, and by others as ruthless. Some even accused him of being a drug runner who used opium sales to fund his troops.

When Saigon fell in 1975, Vang escaped to Thailand. Evacuation efforts promised by the U.S. fell through and many Hmong were killed by the Communists. A huge refugee exodus took place out of Laos and into Thailand. Vang is credited by many as being instrumental in brokering deals with the U.S. government to get refugees out of camps and into areas like St. Paul, which has one of the largest Hmong communities in the country.

In 2007, Vang was arrested by the federal government along with several others for an alleged plot to overthrow the government of Laos. The indictment alleged he'd been amassing an arsenal of AK-47s, grenades and missiles. The charges were dropped in 2009, but the incident left a lasting tarnish on Vang's reputation.

Still, he was lauded as a critical leader in the community and a father figure. In recent years, he'd worked on obtaining VA benefits and burials for Hmong vets of the secret war. And though younger generations of Hmong viewed him more as a symbol than a direct leader, his influence was still widespread.

"Growing up as a refugee, hearing about him --" remembers Thao. " -- I thought, 'When I grow up I want to be somebody like him."

Questions will inevitably arise as to who will fill Vang's shoes. Vang has several sons, one of whom was his right-hand man, but without a natural hierarchy like the military there is no obvious answer.

And it seems it will be impossible for a new leader to rise to Vang's mythic heights. Amee Xiong with TakeAction says when her family heard the news, her father told her the story of a fortuneteller's prophecy about Vang.

"The prophecy for the general was when it comes time for the general to go, he will either be reborn or he will rise from the dead to lead again," she says.

His funeral will take place in California. Many members of the local Hmong community, particularly veterans, are making the pilgrimage to pay their respects.

Local events are also in the works. There is a candlelight vigil planned tonight at the Lao Family Community Center on University Ave. in St. Paul at 5 p.m.

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