Funeral services for Gen. Vang Pao, a leading figure in the nation's Hmong community, began Friday morning at a packed convention center in Fresno, Calif.
Thousands of Minnesotans are attending the services, held over six days, to honor the Laotian general who assisted American troops during the Vietnam War. Vang Pao died near Fresno on Jan. 6. He was 81.
Wa Meng, editor of the St. Paul-based Hmong Today newspaper, said he estimates half of those attending the service are from Minnesota. He said the convention center, which is similar in size to the St. Paul RiverCentre, was packed since early Friday morning.
"There's people from all over the world," he said.
Vang Xang, another Minnesotan in California for the funeral, said about 4,000 people gathered in the hall, which was decorated with hundreds of white flowers, three American flags and three Laotian flags.
For many Hmong refugees, Vang Pao was akin to George Washington -- a leader who assisted his people during difficult times.
"To put it in comparison, this is like Gandhi to the Indian people, this is like Martin Luther King to African Americans," Wa Meng said. "This is the one iconic figure in the Hmong community that everyone reveres."
The funeral was to include a 21-gun salute and a parade.
"It's going to be quite a sight," Wa Meng said.
When the U.S. pulled out of Vietnam, Vang Pao became one of the first Hmong refugees to relocate to the United States in the mid-1970s. Thousands of people followed him, many settling in St. Paul.
For that reason, Vang Pao is especially important to the older generation of Hmong refugees, Wa Meng said. Younger members of the community, such as Wa Meng, are learning more about Vang Pao's role.
"We're now slowly understanding who he was to us," Wa Meng said.
Vang Pao visited St. Paul regularly, and several of his sons still live here. A community memorial service for Vang Pao was held in St. Paul on Jan. 16.
Although Vang Pao was revered by many, he had also fallen under scrutiny in recent years.
In 2007, Vang Pao and eight other Hmong elders were arrested on charges that they tried to buy nearly $10 million worth of military weapons, and recruit mercenaries to unseat the communist government in Laos. A federal grand jury dropped the charges in September 2009.
(MPR's Tom Crann, Elizabeth Dunbar and Jayne Solinger contributed to this report.)