WASHINGTON — Sen. Al Franken met with a group of about 150 repatriated Hmong in Laos today in a village built by the Laotian government for them.
“I went there today to see their circumstances now,” Franken said, and to “let them know that we in the United States care about their fate and their conditions.” About 4,500 Hmong have been repatriated to Laos, despite concerns from many in Minnesota and other Hmong-heavy populations that they could face political persecution.
Franken spoke to reporters from Hanoi, Vietnam, on the second stage of a tour through southeast Asia. He was in Laos for most of today, meeting with repatriated Hmong in Laos and members of the Laotian government to assess their condition.
His trip was shadowed by a Laotian military officer, whom Franken identified as a general, and Franken said he “did not get the kind of access to the Hmong that I would have liked” to fully assess the situation. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything really bad going on, he added, but is worth pointing out.
That visit was followed by a “really frank exchange, shall we say,” between Franken and senior Lao officials, in which he demanded a full list of names of those at that village.
Laos wants to join the World Trade Organization, like its neighbor Vietnam, and is seeking better trade relations with Washington. Their ambassador is due to meet with U.S. officials next month.
“This is going to be an issue” in those talks, Franken said.
Also on the trip with Franken were Sens. Tom Harkin and Bernie Sanders. Franken’s three-person delegation included his wife, Franni, and a foreign-policy legislative aide.
Franken began and will end the trip in Vietnam, which is also pushing for better trade relations with the United States. Franken said he has concerns there too.
“They’re a communist country, and their labor unions are all under the government,” Franken said, adding that he’ll be pusing for expanded organizing rights in any future trade negotiations.