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Laotian Demonstrators Protest Against Normalized US Trade Relations With Vientiane - 2003-10-28

The Bush administration is supporting a bill in Congress that would grant normal trade relations with the communist government of Laos. But a group of Lao demonstrators rallied outside the State Department Tuesday saying this is not the time to reward, what they call, a brutal regime.

About 50 demonstrators stood outside the State Department and demanded the recall of Ambassador Douglas Hartwick to protest what they regard as the Lao government's ethnic cleansing of the Hmong minority.

Philip Smith, the executive director for the Center for Public Policy Analysis, an advocate for Hmong and Lao human rights, said, "We think it is deplorable, horrific that Ambassador Hartwick would be here to lobby on Capitol Hill for normalized trade relations status for this egregious regime now engaged in ethnic cleansing in a mass scale with hundreds starving daily."

Mr. Smith and the protesters accuse the Lao government of using food as a weapon against civilians as it battles Hmong rebels. "Thousands of Hmong civilians, most of whom are under 15 years of age, many of whom are children and women are dying of starvation," he said. "The Lao government seeks an apparent final solution to the Hmong problem."

Amnesty International says Lao soldiers are surrounding the rebels and their families, keeping them from foraging for food, and also preventing humanitarian groups from bringing in badly-needed aid.

It also says Lao authorities are drafting child soldiers, and using bombs and mines against civilians.

Lao native Youa Vue Thao, whose son leads a Hmong opposition group in Vientiane province, fears for his family's survival. He says Lao soldiers have surrounded the group and forced many to flee into the jungle to safety. Mr. Thao added that there is a dire need for food and medicine for those affected.

Along with normal trade relations, Congress is also considering a resolution calling for democratic reform in Laos, along with religious freedom and access by human-rights and humanitarian-aid groups.

Congressional sponsors of normalized trade with Laos say their bill addresses the human rights situation. But they also say economic engagement can relieve poverty and create an open society that can lead to an improved quality of life for the Lao people.