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ISSUE 120 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/14/2007

Addressing grave situations

By Emelie Heltsley
News Editor


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

On Monday evening, a group of St. Olaf students gathered at Northfield Town Hall to present an issue at the forefront of their minds: the desecration of Hmong graves by the Thai government near the Wat Tham Krabok Buddhist temple in Thailand. The group of students, members of St. Olaf’s Hmong Cultures Outreach (HCO), also brought up the effects of the mass excavations on the large Hmong population in Minnesota and the concern for greater human rights. More than 20 St. Olaf students, faculty and staff attended the meeting, which was aimed at gaining support for a larger, national inquiry of the desecrations.

The students worked together on a group project in an Asian Conversation class, and, after seeing their presentation last November, Northfield Mayor Lee Lansing invited the group to present the issue to the city of Northfield. Northfield City Council will discuss the matter further in upcoming weeks and eventually decide whether or not they will present the matter to the Minnesota State government.

As Jay Xiong ‘08 explained, the Thailand government has not given the Hmong community valid reasons for digging up graves and de-boning the bodies.

John Vang ‘09 said that the government has blamed water complaints for the grave excavations, a claim that he and many others find inconsistent. “There hasn’t been a water complaint [in the region] for 15 years,” he said. According to the magazine “Hmong Today,” the Thai government has claimed water contamination and illegal burying as reasons for the excavations, which began in late 2005.

The events are not limited to the Thai population, but have affected members of the St. Olaf and greater Minnesota community. Almost 15,000 Hmong people were relocated to the United States in 2005, and almost one-third of the émigrés resettled in Minnesota.

Mai Der Lee ‘09 discovered that her uncle’s mother’s grave was one of those desecrated. She admitted to not knowing about the issue until working on the Asian Conversation project.

“When Jay brought up the issue, we all got in deep,” she said.

Xiong stressed the effects on the entire Hmong community, including Hmong students and alumni.

“This is affecting a large number of the community,” he said. “We are the young voice, and we can do something.”

Mike Vang ‘07 mentioned the larger human rights violations the issue brings up. “It is a violation of international law,” he said.

Xiong agreed, urging all students to think about the matter and the effects it would have on anyone, anywhere. “It’s not just about being Hmong,” he said. “It’s being human. Just imagine if it were your mom.”

The religious implications of the excavations also concern members of the Hmong community. Following tradition, Hmong citizens consider the gravesite a sacred spot. “You don’t mess with the body,” Lee said.

Mike Vang agreed. “The departed are still sacred and still involved in daily life,” he said.

Members of HCO presented the issue to Northfield City Council, hoping to gain additional support from the larger Northfield community. The group of St. Olaf students has already received support from St. Olaf and Carleton College alumni, as well as Hmong members of both colleges.

“As an outreach organization, we are going to pursue this,” John Vang said.

Mike Vang sees a larger connection between earlier generations of Hmong citizens and the younger generation of which he, and many others, are a part. While parents and older relatives may have more personal experience and stronger connections to the events, the younger members of the community have more communication skills and the means to bring the issue to the public eye.

“This is causing unrest in our community,” Mike Vang said. “We just want something to happen.”

Members of HCO ask any interested members of the community to attend HCO meetings on Tuesdays at 7 p.m. in Larson Coffeehouse, or e-mail the group at hmongdesecration@stolaf.edu.





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