General Vang Pao [POW] is perhaps the most revered figure in the modern history of the Hmong people of Laos. Many Hmong consider him a great man who led them out of Communist oppression and into new lives in the United States after the Vietnam War. Most Hmong refugees settled in California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and now the school board in Wisconsin's capital city, Madison, wants to name a new school for him. But critics say Pao's checkered past makes him a poor choice for an elementary school's namesake.
However, There were 39 candidates for the honor, ranging from President Ronald Reagan to former Wisconsin governor, senator, and Earth Day Founder Gaylord Nelson. But in the end, the Madison School Board unanimously decided to name the new school after Vang Pao. Shwaw [schwah] Vang is the board's sole Hmong member. He says nearly 150 Hmong citizens came to the meeting at which the name was selected, to champion Pao's legacy.
Backed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, General Pao led Hmong guerilla forces, in the CIA's secret war against Communists in the 1960s and 70s. Thousands of Hmong fighters disrupted Viet Cong supply convoys and helped rescue downed American pilots. But Shwaw Vang says Pao deserves to have a school named after him, not because of his military history, but because he helped all Hmong children get an education? something that used to be available only for wealthy families.
When Vang Pao had the power, he ordered the building of primary schools in remote areas of Laos, and made those schools free and open to all, both girls and boys, as a way to better ourselves. (:17)
After the Vietnam War, many Hmong fled to the U.S. Pao, who now lives in California, is credited with helping them begin new lives. Many of them keep his portrait in their homes and offices.
But University of Wisconsin professor Alfred McCoy says Pao's legacy has a darker side. The Southeast Asian history scholar says there's plenty of evidence that Pao coerced families to give up their children to fight against the Viet Cong, or lose their rice rations.
McCoy adds Pao executed some of his own soldiers and political enemies, and was involved in drug trafficking.
The general and his supporters have dismissed the charges. But McCoy's criticism moved one Madison School Board member, Carol Carstensen, to ask the board to reconsider its decision to name a school after Pao. But so far, no one else on the board has agreed. Barring any changes, Vang Pao Elementary will open its doors to children in 2008.
Listen to our special report for Lao translation.