WASHINGTON (AP) _ A Bush administration proposal to normalize trade with the communist government of Laos has split Laotian Americans, who are weighing the benefits against memories of oppression in their native land.

Laos, a poor, landlocked Southeast Asian nation, is one of only four countries that does not have normal trade relations with the United States, so its exports to this country face prohibitively high tariffs.

In February, Secretary of State Colin Powell and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick wrote the House Ways and Means Committee in support of a bill to normalize trade with Laos.

Although acknowledging concerns about Laos' human rights record, Powell and Zoellick said the country has cooperated with the United States on prisoners of war and counternarcotics and counterterrorism efforts. They argued the human rights situation would be improved by liberalizing trade and opening up Laotian society.

The Laotian issue is being played out in Minnesota and Wisconsin, home to 76,000 Hmong, a minority ethnic group from the highlands of Laos that fought the communists alongside the CIA during the Vietnam War.

Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., barnstormed her city of St. Paul this week with the U.S. ambassador to Laos, Douglas Hartwick, to build support for normalized trade.

``Engagement, not isolation, can bring benefits to Hmong and Lao Minnesotans and their family members in Laos,'' she said.

They were greeted by about 60 Hmong protesters at Metro State University.

In Washington, opponents of normal trade relations are backed by the Lao Veterans of America and Rep. Mark Green, R-Wis., who is circulating a letter on Capitol Hill opposing the proposal.

Green cited the State Department's own report listing a host of offenses, from torture to religious persecution.

A spokesman for the Laotian embassy, Mai Sayavongs, said the country takes human rights seriously but added that nations differ in ``their backgrounds, political, economic and social systems and cultures. The realization of human rights there cannot be expected to follow the same standard.''

Yang Dao, a Hmong community leader who teaches Asian language and literature at the University of Minnesota, supports improved trade relations.

``I think it is good for the Laotian people inside and for the Laotian people in the United States,'' said Dao, 60. ``It would open the U.S. market to Laotian people to sell their products..., and it would improve the life conditions in Laos.''

Another Hmong-American, Stephen Vang, disagreed. Vang, 45, who teaches Hmong studies at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, fled Laos in 1978.

``There is no freedom of expression, no freedom of movement,'' Vang said. ``Therefore, normal trade relations should not be considered at this time. It will only benefit the few communist elites, not the people of Laos.''

___

On the Net: Lao Veterans of America: http://www.laoveterans.com/