BANGKOK (AP) — Thailand deported a former ethnic Hmong resistance leader whose group fought for the U.S. in Laos in the 1960s, Thai officials and rights groups said Wednesday, raising concerns that he will face persecution in his homeland.
Moua Toua Ter and fellow Hmong led a desperate existence on the run in the jungles of Laos for more than two decades. He had been sheltering in Thailand for eight years while seeking resettlement in a third country.
Officials from Thailand's Immigration Police told The Associated Press that Moua Toua Ter was returned on June 13, after being held in Bangkok since March last year. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information. Senior Immigration Police officers could not be reached for comment.
Moua Toua Ter was part of a Hmong guerrilla army that fought a CIA-backed "secret war" against communists in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s. After the communist takeover in 1975, he led a ragtag band of Hmong resisters hiding in the jungles who feared persecution from the government for supporting the pro-American side during the war.
He fled to Thailand in 2006 after brokering the surrender of 173 women, children and elderly people in his group after repeated attacks from Laotian military forces.
Moua Toua Ter and his people, almost forgotten after the end of the Vietnam War, came to public attention in late 2002 when two journalists working for Time magazine trekked through the jungle to meet his primitively armed, ill-clad and virtually starving group.
More than 300,000 refugees from Laos, mostly Hmong, fled after the communist takeover, with many resettling in the United States, primarily in California, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Thousands stayed behind, some adjusting to the new hard-line regime, and others staying in the jungle.
Although Laos has moved away from a communist system in the past two decades, it retains a one-party political system and its government is intolerant of dissent. There is still uncertainty about how it treats members of its Hmong minority.
"Amnesty International has in the past documented human rights violations against the remnants of a decades long ethnic Hmong insurgency in Laos, of which Moua Toua Ter was one of the leaders. The fate of thousands of Lao Hmong asylum-seekers forcibly returned to Laos from Thailand in the last decade is largely unknown, due to the lack of transparency, denial of access to independent human rights monitors and severe restrictions on freedom of expression," Rupert Abbott, the group's deputy director for the Asia Pacific region said.
Activists who have been following his case said Moua Toua Ter had sought refugee status from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and hoped to be resettled in the United States or the Philippines. They asked not to be named to help keep their access to information.
However, Moua Toua Ter's case was complicated by a manslaughter conviction in Thailand, after he shot dead a Laotian woman in what he claimed was self-defense. His supporters claimed the woman was a Laotian government agent sent to lure him back to Laos. Several opponents of the communist regime in Laos have been killed under mysterious circumstances in Thailand or disappeared on visits to their homeland.
Moua Toua Ter served his sentence in the northern Thai province of Tak until March last year, after which he was transferred to the immigration jail in Bangkok.
The U.S. State Department said then that it was monitoring his case.
The Thai immigration officer who spoke to AP from Nong Khai said that Moua Toua Ter, like others who illegally enter Thailand, was "repatriated through the natural border," meaning he was sent on a boat across the Mekong River marking the nations' border.