Politics & Government

Merced looks to tie itself to Southeast Asia, just like its Asian community

Hmong New Year begins in Merced

Saying goodbye to 2016's misfortunes and welcoming in 2017, Hmong New Year kicked off in Merced on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.
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Saying goodbye to 2016's misfortunes and welcoming in 2017, Hmong New Year kicked off in Merced on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016.

The city of Merced is pursuing a sister city relationship with a city in Thailand, an effort leaders say is a reflection of its large Southeast Asian population.

City leaders have landed on the city of Chiang Rai with the help of nonprofit Merced Lao Family Community Inc. The northern Thailand city of about 70,000 is close to the borders of Laos and Myanmar.

Merced Mayor Mike Murphy said the city will approach the leaders of Chiang Rai to see if they are interested in participating. The idea gained widespread support among the Merced City Council.

“I think it makes a lot of sense for our city to have a tie and a relationship to Southeast Asia, where so many of our residents also have a tie,” he said. “I reached out to the Merced Lao Family and asked them to come up with a city they thought might be a good fit.”

Sister city relationships differ among individual agreements, according to Sister Cities International, a nonprofit set up by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The cities can exchange culture, business, education or participate in other projects.

A census map from 2010 shows Merced’s Hmong population at 7,254, the third-largest population in the state behind those in Sacramento and Fresno. About 12.4 percent of Merced is Asian, according to the U.S. Census.

Merced has a 40-year history with the Hmong who came to the U.S. following the Vietnam War. Many Hmong agreed to fight against the North Vietnamese during the war.

The conflict was secret because the Geneva Conference of 1954 had marked Laos as a neutral country to be spared from the fighting.

When the United States pulled out of the war, communists took over the country and the Hmong became refugees. Many fled the country to save their lives, braving thousands of miles of jungle, raging waters and refugee camps.

Twenty-nine camps across Thailand held refugees until they could be moved to the states. So picking a sister city in Thailand is fitting, according to Moua Thao, a member of the Merced Lao Family Community advisory board.

“The thing about Thailand is it’s a democracy, the same as the United States. Before we came to the United States, we had to stop in Thailand so they supported us,” he said. “So we think Thailand is a good place for us to form a sister city.”

Thao said many Hmong visit Thailand regularly and bring their American-born children to reconnect with the culture. He returned from a trip about two weeks ago.

Merced has held sister city relationships with the cities of Albury, Australia; Mercedes, Uruguay; and Somoto, Nicaragua, to varying degrees of success, according to the City Clerk’s Office. Those relationships are now dormant.

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