Weekly Local Biography

  Pongkaset Suwannakoon

Pongkaset Suwannakoon has written a book about the H’mong tribal people, but somebody should write a book about Pongkaset. When we had coffee recently, I suggested that he should write his memoirs, but Pong said that such a book could only be published after his death, and he’s not eager to go!

He was raised in Chiang Mai. His family is Christian, so Prince Royals College was the logical choice for secondary school. He’s part of a group of sixty-something men who refer to themselves as “Amnuay’s Gang”, a reference to Dr. Amnuay Tapingkae, who taught at the school while they were there. From the grins I notice when they say it, I get the impression that Dr. Amnuay was as much mentor as teacher. They must have been a handful, but they’ve all succeeded in life.

Pongkaset went from PRC to Bangkok Christian High School, graduated and went to the U.S. to study. His studies took him from a small college in Missouri to a music conservatory in Washington, D.C., where he majored in music theory and composition. Summers were spent working in a meat packing plant in Omaha. In response to my question, he laughed and admitted that he eats neither steak nor sausage today. Music was not to be his livelihood, though. His flair for languages took him to the Thai Embassy in Washington, and a series of fortunate events opened door after door for him.

He first worked in a division of the Thai Embassy that provided oversight to all of the students from Thailand who were studying in the United States. Then the U.S. State Department sent out an inquiry for escort/interpreters for visiting foreign dignitaries, and he applied for the position. The State Department had a program in which foreign officials were invited to the U.S. for 45-day tours of the country. The visiting officials could choose their destinations, and young Pong was assigned to escort the Thai visitors. He traveled all over the United States and Puerto Rico, and saw the sights. He even attended Broadway shows. At one point, his group went to south Texas and was escorted into Mexico for a fiesta by a group of Rotarians.

But Thailand called, and Pongkaset came home. Air America was operating in Udorn, and he had an opportunity to serve as a Thai language interpreter for helicopter pilots. The pilots supported H’mong forces that were fighting the Communists. In addition, helicopter flights regularly provided food and supplies to the H’mong villages where most of the adult men were away fighting. When Air America helicopter pilots began training H’mong pilots, Pongkaset was sent to language school. He studied H’mong language several days a week, and soon joined a group of interpreters who spoke Lao, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodian, Burmese and Thai. They helped coordinate the information regarding Communist activities in those countries. Pongkaset’s very wise teacher saw to it that his student also learned about H’mong culture, and the research for his book, Chao Fa, began.

The war began to change in the late 1960s when the North Vietnamese sent in new combat forces that threatened the H’mong in their mountain strongholds. The tribal people suffered terrible casualties, and by the end of the year were unable to recruit replacement troops. By the early 1970s a fairly steady stream of H’mong refugees were crossing the border into Thailand. Pushed out of their mountain homes, they had no skills to earn a living in the lowlands nor would the war allow them the luxury of learning new skills. The military base at Udorn was shut down at the end of June 1974, and Pongkaset went to work for the U.S. Consulate there. He sometimes enjoyed the same role that he had formerly played at the Thai Embassy in Washington, but in reverse. Visiting U.S. officials in Thailand now required his assistance as escort/interpreter.

But the increasing stream of refugees meant that the U.S. Consul – and Pong – had a new role providing assistance to the United Nations in screening and approving refugees for resettlement. He spent hours interviewing H’mong refugees, and learned more about their culture and their wartime experiences. He had no idea that these interviews were providing additional research for a future book.

Thousands of H’mong were resettled in the U.S. The annual H’mong meeting was located in Fresno, California this year, a testament to the numbers in California. But there are many H’mong in Minnesota and Wisconsin, too, as well as other places. As so often happens, the originally settled refugees struggled with the differences in language and culture. Then there was the crossover generation that spoke both H’mong and English. Now there is a generation of U.S.-born H’mong young people who speak only English, a sad loss of culture.

When Pongkaset left Udorn, he moved to Bangkok to work with the Pearl S. Buck Foundation on behalf of Amerasian children. But writing called, and he moved to a part time position that enabled him to support his family while writing. Pongkaset has written two books. Of note to English speakers is Chao Fa, which is a fictionalized history of a H’mong village during wartime that incorporates his vast knowledge of H’mong culture as well as his familiarity with the effects of war on tribal people. The other is published only in Thai, and is loosely translated Adventures into Fantasy Land. This is a book for teenagers and young adults, and has won two literary awards in Thailand.

This year, Pongkaset will be a gentleman farmer. A plot of hill land that he has owned for many years finally has access to water, and he plans to grow Arabica coffee there. I am delighted. The coffee we’ve been drinking is bitter, and I look forward to sharing a good cup with him in the future while we again catch up on his life.

For further information on the Secret War in Laos, refer to William M. Leary’s work at www.cia.gov