BANGKOK, Thailand -- The U.S. Embassy in Laos has publicly apologized
and blamed Facebook's auto-translation for describing an ethnic
Hmong-American Olympic Games teenage gymnast as "a terrorist" on the
American Embassy's official site, days before she won gold.
The embassy repeatedly posted its written apology on its official
Facebook site during July 26-27, after Hmong-Americans expressed
outrage on the site for displaying the incorrect description of U.S.
Women’s National Gymnastics Team member Suni Lee.
That mangled translation introduced the embassy's otherwise cheerful
and congratulatory update about Ms. Lee, including photos of her
A few days later Ms. Lee, 18, won a gold medal in gymnastics.
"Sunisa 'Souni' Lee is Lao-American and a terrorist who participated
in the Olympic race from the United States," an incorrect
Lao-to-English translation said when viewers clicked "translate" on
the embassy's Lao-language text.
An alternative Facebook translation of the embassy's Lao-language text
incorrectly described Ms. Lee in English as a "criminal".
After several hours the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane, the capital of
Laos, replaced its dual-language Lao and English text with a
clarification by the embassy's unidentified "Author".
"This is the original post from the U.S. Embassy Vientiane page" in
English and in Lao language, the Author said, displaying screenshots.
That original post had correctly stated:
"Sunisa 'Souni' Lee is a Hmong American gymnast joining the Olympics
from the United States."
On a later update, that post was amended to add:
"Apologies for a bad FB-generated auto-translation. Edited here so
that the focus can remain on Suni and how proud we are of her.
"Thank you to everyone that pointed out the error in the auto-generate
text. We have deleted the Lao [text] for now so it no longer
auto-translates" into bad English.
"Unfortunately we have no control over how FB auto-translates our
posts. Please click 'see original' to see what we wrote."
Some Hmong-Americans were not satisfied.
"If we didn't bring this up, you would have ignored it and let it be,"
said Lee Pao Xiong.
"Please write to the Secretary of State, the President, and the U.S.
Embassy in Vientiane and ask them to apologize to Sunisa Lee, her
family, and the community for calling her a criminal and a terrorist.
"This is unacceptable and racist," Mr. Xiong said.
He and others demanded proof that Facebook's computerized
auto-translation was responsible.
"An 'oops sorry about that post' does not cut it," commented KJean Snomis.
"We have already contacted Facebook to ensure they take appropriate
action to correct this mistaken translation," a U.S. Embassy
spokesperson in Vientiane said in response to an interview request
about the problem.
"After our original posting was published, we were alerted by
followers of the Embassy's Facebook page that Facebook's
auto-translate function incorrectly translated the Lao language
portion of our congratulatory Facebook post.
"The U.S. Embassy in Laos has no control over Facebook's
auto-translation algorithm, nor over who sees these translations, as
this function is enabled for end users' Facebook feeds," the embassy's
Some commentators warned that Facebook's translations often distort
"Wow! Lost in translation," said Maitswim Xyooj.
"She is Hmong-American. She's born in the United States, her parents
are Hmong," from Laos, who became U.S. citizens, commented Nyiajkub
The "terrorist" adjective was especially traumatic for Hmong because
up until 2007, Washington categorized many of them that way when Hmong
applied for sanctuary as immigrants and refugees in the aftermath of
the U.S.-Vietnam War.
During 1961 to 1975, the CIA secretly hired thousands of mostly
illiterate minority Hmong, trained them to be guerrillas, and led them
to fight communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese.
Approximately 40,000 Hmong died and 50,000 were seriously injured and
disabled during the war, U.S. officials said in 2008.
After the 1975 U.S. defeat in Laos, thousands of the CIA's Hmong
fighters and their community were abandoned to a harsh fate under the
Some Hmong continued fighting, in vain, against the established
Desperate Hmong soon began arriving as refugees into the U.S.,
totaling about 170,000 in 2000, and topped by an additional 15,000 in
After al Qaeda's September 11, 2001 attack against the U.S., new
anti-terrorism restrictions blocked people who provided "material
support" to commit acts of terrorism.
The U.S.A. Patriot Act of 2001 and Real I.D. Act of 2005 made
thousands of Hmong ineligible for asylum or permanent residency green
In January 2007, President Bush's administration granted some waivers.
The Hmong were not included.
"Terrorism is defined as an unlawful activity, committed under the
laws of the place where it’s committed," Srida Moua of Hmong National
Development, a Washington, D.C.-based Hmong advocacy group, said in
"In the case of the Hmong, those who took up arms to fight alongside
U.S. soldiers fall under this definition.”
Several months later, Congress lifted the six-year-long ban against
minority ethnic Hmong.
During the regional U.S.-Vietnam war, CIA paramilitary officer Anthony
Poshepny became infamous for demanding his Hmong fighters bring him
dead Laotian communists' ears and chopped-off heads.
Popularly known as Tony Poe, Mr. Poshepny described in a 2001
interview how he dropped a couple of those human heads onto America's
Laotian enemies in northwest Laos while flying over his targets.
He also boasted about impaling Laotian communists' heads on spikes in
the jungles of Laos, and joining his fighters in celebratory tribal
dances around the dead heads.
Mr. Poshepny also confirmed he filled a diplomatic bag with human ears
and sent it to the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane, to prove his Hmong
fighters were successfully killing communists, after some American
officials denounced Mr. Poshepny as ineffectual.
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent
reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction
books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos,
Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes,
Smugglers & Freaks" are available at