Operation Popcorn

About This Episode


During the Vietnam War, the C.I.A. recruited Laotian Hmong to fight the communists. It is estimated that 30,000 Hmong died assisting the U.S. The first wave of Hmong refugees who emigrated to the U.S. grappled with survivors’ guilt and, for decades, agonized over human rights violations committed against those left behind, including attacks on unarmed civilians, rape, and torture.

A thrilling and suspenseful tale, Operation Popcorn explores the fate of ten Hmong American leaders and a retired U.S. Army officer who are accused of conspiring together to overthrow the communist government of Laos. Seven years in the making, the film sheds light on the fragile relationships between individuals and the American surveillance state.

Told through personal reflections and candid surveillance footage, the film chronicles the incredible series of events triggered by Locha Thao, a businessman and activist. When video is smuggled out of Laos showing that the Communist government is still persecuting Hmong left behind, Thao becomes a zealot determined to help his fellow abandoned people. He explores purchasing weapons for them to use in self-­defense, and when an arms dealer appears and offers to help, Thao soon finds himself and a group of Hmong elders meeting in secret locations to examine caches of guns, grenades, and rocket launchers. When the dealer requests a detailed plan, Thao engages the talent of a low-­budget, home-­movie director and screenwriter to draft “Operation P.O.P.C.O.R.N.” – the Political Opposition Party's Coup Operation to Rescue the Nation.

Some Hmong American leaders, including retired Major General Vang Pao of the Royal Lao Army, opt for using diplomacy to oppose human-­rights violations and instruct Thao to stop the plan. But Thao’s stranger-­than-­fiction caper continues, resulting in federal indictments and accusations of terrorism. With Thao, Vang Pao, and other Hmong leaders facing life in prison, their lawyers argue entrapment, and protestors take to the streets shouting “Free Vang Pao!”