Archive for February, 2013

February 28, 2013

Three Lao-Americans From Minnesota Missing in Laos

Press Release

Three Lao-Americans From Minnesota  Missing in Laos

Center for Public Policy Analysis

February 28, 2012 (Revised and Updated),

For Immediate Release

Washington, D.C., Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Bangkok, Thailand

The Center for Public Policy Analysis (CPPA) and the United Lao for Democracy and Human Rights, Inc. (ULDHR) have expressed concern about reports that three Laotian-Americans from Minnesota are missing in Laos.

Mr. Souli Kongmalavong, Mr. Bounma Phannhotha and Mr.  Bounthie Insixiengmai  of the Twin Cities-area of Minnesota have reportedly gone missing in Laos..

“The Lao and Hmong-American community in Minnesota and across the United States is very concerned about the reports that three Laotian-American citizens have disappeared in Laos,” said Boon Boualaphanh, President of the ULDHR in Minneapolis, Minnesota. “We are deeply worried that, based upon some reports, they may have been wrongly detained or arrested by the Lao military or secret police.

“We are calling on the U.S. Embassy in Laos to find these missing Americans and return them to their families, if they are alive,“ Mr. Boualaphanh stated.  “We are appealing for a full investigation as to what in happening to Lao and Hmong Americans who continue to disappear in Laos.”

“We have received disturbing reports from  Laos, and the Laotian community in the United States that three more Lao-American citizens have disappeared in Laos under mysterious and troubling  circumstances  apparently involving the secret police and the Lao military,” said Philip Smith, Executive Director of the CPPA in Washington, D.C.

Smith continued:  “The three Lao-American from Minnesota were last seen in Laos on January 6th and appear to have gone missing under mysterious circumstance involving the Lao secret police and military who, by some accounts, reportedly arrested the group ;  We have received  a number of preliminary and credible reports that the three Americans may have been met with violence and deadly force by the Lao police and military when traveling in the Keng  Kok area of  Savannakhet Province, Laos.”

“Unfortunately, the Lao military and security forces are systemically corrupt and are notorious  for their recent acts of political violence, religious persecution and brutal oppression of their own citizens,” Smith stated.  “In recent years, the Lao military and secret police have also been involved with the arrest and detention of Lao and Hmong-American citizens from Minnesota, Wisconsin and elsewhere,  including Hakit Yang, Pastor Naw Karl Moua, Houa Le, Michael Vang and others.”

“In light of the recent abduction in Laos by the secret police of the high level Laotian civic activist Sombath Somphone in December of last year, and the failure of the Lao government to address this matter, we are very concerned about the disturbing reports that we continue to receive about the fate of the three Lao-Americans from Minnesota who are missing in Laos,” Smith said.  “We are calling upon U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the U.S. Ambassador to Laos to raise this matter with the highest levels of the Lao government and urge a full accounting regarding the three Lao-Americans, so that justice can be served, and they may be returned to their families in Minnesota.

Radio Free Asia (RFA) has issued a recent report regarding the disappearance of the there Americans.



Maria Gomez or Philip Smith

Center for Public Policy Analysis

Tele. (202) 543-1444

February 28, 2013

Lao-Americans Reported Missing in Savannakhet

Lao-Americans Reported Missing in Savannakhet

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Three Lao-Americans have been reported missing while on a visit to southern Laos, with relatives concerned for their safety in the wake of the prolonged disappearance of prominent local activist Sombath Somphone.

The three men, Souli Kongmalavong, Bounthieng Insixiengmai, and Bounma Phannhotha, U.S. citizens from Minnesota, disappeared in early January after traveling to a funeral in Savannakhet province, sources said.

Local police contacted by RFA’s Lao Service confirmed that they were looking for the three men.

During the investigations, they said they had recovered a burned van with three bodies—those of two men and one woman—but the remains could not be identified.

Souli’s wife in Minnesota, Khammanh Kongmalavong, reported his case to the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane on Tuesday.

“We ask the Lao authorities for their help. If Souli is still alive, we want him to come home to the U.S. If he has passed away, please send his remains home,” she told RFA this week.

News on the missing Lao-Americans came as Lao authorities came under pressure to provide information about leading social activist Sombath, who has been missing since December 2012 after he was stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane.

Some rights groups believe Sombath, one of Laos’s most prominent civil society figures, was forcibly disappeared by the authorities.

Traveling for a funeral

A close friend of Souli’s in Savannakhet city, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Souli had been missing since Jan. 6 after leaving Savannakhet city to drive to Kengkok village in Champon district for the funeral of Bounthieng’s brother-in-law.

Souli, who owns land in Savannakhet and frequently visited the area, had traveled to Laos in September with plans to return to Minnesota in early March.

The friend said she had expected him to return from Kengkok within a few days.

Other sources said that Bounthieng and Bounma, who had arrived in Laos from Minnesota a few months later than Souli, were driving with him to the funeral.

Police in Champon district told RFA Tuesday that Bounthieng’s relatives had reported him missing since Jan. 5.

Police asked about the case in Sonburi district, which neighbors Champon, said they had found a burned van on Jan. 6, but that the passengers’ remains could not be identified because of their condition.

The police officer who spoke to RFA added that the license number of the van could not be identified and that police believe the vehicle caught fire after running off the side of the road.

Safety concerns

Philip Smith, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Public Policy Analysis, which advocates on Lao issues, said the case was “very troubling,” particularly in light of Sombath’s recent disappearance.

He expressed concern the three men “may have been abducted” suggesting a link to possible reasons for Sombath’s disappearance.

He said that Lao-Americans returning to Laos have faced danger in the face of financial scams and corrupt officials.

The United Lao for Democracy and Human Rights, Inc. (ULDHR), a Lao-American group, said it was also concerned over the whereabouts of the three men.

“We are deeply worried that, based upon some reports, they may have been wrongly detained or arrested by the Lao military or secret police, said Boon Boualaphanh, President of the ULDHR in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Smith called for a “full investigation” by the U.S. Embassy.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

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February 27, 2013

Laos pressured to find missing UH, East West Center alumnus

Laos pressured to find missing UH, East West Center alumnus

By Associated Press & Star-Advertiser staff

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POSTED: 03:53 p.m. HST, Feb 26, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 03:53 p.m. HST, Feb 26, 2013

This photo from the East West Center’s Fifty years, Fifty stories book shows East West Center and University of Hawaii graduate Sombath Somphone working with young people in Laos.(Courtesy East West Center)

BANGKOK >> An international human rights group is urging Southeast Asian nations to pressure Laos to provide information about a prominent East-West Center and University of Hawaii alumnus who has not been seen since he was apparently detained more than two months ago by state security forces.

Human Rights Watch said that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should intervene with Lao authorities, who deny knowledge of Sombath Somphone’s fate even though he was last seen in police custody.

Sombath graduated from the University of Hawaii through an East West Center program with degrees in education and agriculture before returning to Laos in 1980. He won one of Asia’s top civil awards, the Magsaysay Award, sometimes called Asia’s Nobel Prize, in 2005 for his work reducing poverty and promoting education at a training center he founded.

The East West Center featured him as one of its top 50 graduates in a book last year that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Honolulu educational institute.

Sombath disappeared on Dec. 15 after he was stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane. A few days later, the Lao Foreign Ministry said he may have “been kidnapped perhaps because of a personal conflict or a conflict in business.” It said “authorities concerned are currently and seriously investigating.” Accounts from Sombath’s wife and supporters, however, suggest that any investigation has been slipshod at best.

Sombath’s wife, Singaporean native Ng Shui Meng, has been campaigning for her husband’s freedom in Laos and on the Internet.

“The Lao government’s long silence about Sombath Somphone’s whereabouts increase our concerns for his safety,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last week. “The authorities seem more focused on deflecting international criticism than genuinely investigating Sombath’s disappearance.”

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said it sent a letter to the human rights commission of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, pointing out that it has the right to obtain information from member states on human rights protection.

The latest U.S. State Department human rights report, for 2011, described Laos as an authoritarian state under one-party Communist rule, and that arbitrary arrests and detentions persist despite laws prohibiting them.

The case has put a rare spotlight on politics in the landlocked nation, which remains one of the most politically repressive nations in Asia, even as it is making a transition from Communism to a more open market economy.

Laos’ government is intolerant of dissent, but associates say Sombath’s work was neither directly political nor confrontational.

In January, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Sombath worked tirelessly to promote sustainable development. She called on the government to do everything in its power to bring about his “immediate and safe return home.”

The U.N. human rights office and the European Union have also voiced deep concern.

Similar cases of disappearances and killings in Laos have gone largely unsolved.

“Sombath’s disappearance is a major test for ASEAN and its human rights commission,” Adams said. “ASEAN’s silence in Sombath’s case reflects a deeply rooted lack of credibility in protecting the basic rights of people in Southeast Asia.”

February 27, 2013

Philippines—The Bureau of Customs(BOC) asks Laos Embassy to justify importation of 3 exotic sports cars

BOC asks Laos Embassy to justify importation of 3 exotic sports cars

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3:40 am | Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

MANILA, Philippines—The Bureau of Customs (BOC) has asked the embassy of Laos to justify its duty-free importation of three high-end sports cars—a Ferrari Spider and two Lamborghini Aventadors.

Customs Commissioner Rufino Biazon told the Inquirer the BOC at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (Naia) had declared the three exotic cars as “abandoned” since their consignees had not processed their papers since the vehicles arrived in November last year, or more than the 30-day limit to claim them.

“The official and full report is being prepared by district collector (Carlos) So but offhand, unofficially, it’s confirmed that the Lao embassy is acknowledging the shipments,” said Biazon in an interview.

An official of the Lao Embassy said it had submitted its reply to BOC and declined to discuss the matter.

A source in the BOC said the Spider and Aventadors were supposed to be delivered to different consignees at the same address: 34 Lapu-Lapu St., Magallanes Village, Makati City, care of the Embassy of Laos.

Since they arrived on Nov. 28, nobody has come forward to claim the cars after BOC agents questioned why diplomats would buy fast cars as their service vehicles.

Biazon said the BOC would auction off the Ferrari and Lamborghinis if the Lao embassy fails to justify the use of its duty-free perk to bring in the pricey vehicles.

“An order of abandonment was already issued. It is a step closer to seizure. The embassy says there’s a pending application for clearance at the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs). If the processes and requirements are not complied with, we will still be able to seize them,” said Biazon.—Gil C. Cabacungan

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February 25, 2013

Dark side obscured to visitors to Laos

Southeast Asia

Jan 16, 2013

Dark side obscured to visitors to Laos

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By Melinda Boh

VIENTIANE – In 2007, Sompawn Khantisouk, founder of the eco-tourism award winning Boat Landing guesthouse, was forced into a car by men in green uniforms as the sun fell into the picturesque hills of Luang Nam Tha in northern Laos. For months his distraught family searched for him, including consultations with fortune tellers, some of whom said they could sense he was still alive. Five years later, he is still disappeared and now widely presumed dead.

On December 15, 2012, internationally respected activist Sombath Somphone was similarly abducted by unknown assailants in the Lao capital of Vientiane. The 62-year-old’s erudition and passion for participatory development issues earned him a 2005 Magsaysay Award, widely viewed as Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize. His wife, once a senior UNICEF staffer, says she does not know if her internationally respected spouse is now dead or alive.
CCTV footage of his abduction, staged with impunity on one of Vientiane’s major arteries, shows clear evidence of police complicity. Officials have implausibly denied involvement, claiming inexplicably that his kidnapping may have been related to a personal or business dispute. It is an open secret that disappearances are commonplace in Laos, where activists are frequently picked up on unspecified offenses never to be seen again.

A ceremony in Laos to honor Sombath was cancelled after security police threatened his colleagues and family. Protests and events lamenting and calling for justice in his disappearance have been staged by regional human-rights groups, including in neighboring Thailand.

Laos’ authoritarian, communist-led government brooks no dissent, with those who have dared to speak out, including activists who unraveled a banner in public calling for democracy, now languishing in prison. Others who have been targeted by authorities for their critiques and activism have fled the country.

When formerly military-ran Myanmar, also known as Burma, imprisoned and abducted dissident citizens, the global response to the abuses was sharp. Western governments imposed punitive economic and financial sanctions, while grass roots groups campaigned against global travelers from putting Myanmar on their itineraries. Despite similar abuses in Laos, to date the global grass roots response has been mostly muted, even with the high-profile disappearances of Sompawn and Sombath.

As international concern shifts away from democratizing Myanmar, Laos’ abuses could receive greater attention. Yet while Lao activists and dissidents languish in prison or flee the country over fears of official reprisals, a growing number of global tourists are descending on the country, commonly referred to as “sleepy” in the guidebooks many of them carry. Nearly three million tourists visited Laos in 2012, a record number for the landlocked country of six million. Once closed to the outside world, the Lao government now heavily promotes tourism to boost its laggard local economy and international credibility.

Tourism in Laos, however, presents an ethical dilemma, similar to the one travelers faced when deciding whether to travel to Myanmar’s previous iron-fisted military regime. Laos, run by a committee of mostly stone-faced men that espouse communist ideals but increasingly practice market economics, use the same fear tactics Myanmar’s rulers used to crush dissent and capture the lion’s share of national resources.

Like Myanmar’s generals, Laos’ leaders are now profiteering from a tourism boom through their dominance of hotels and other tourism-related infrastructure. Political elites have forced so many locals out of the central city area of Luang Prabang to corner the tourism market that temples in the area are closing because the local community is no longer sufficient to provide alms to monks.

Laos is nonetheless set to host the upcoming Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Travel Forum from January 18-24, with meetings to be held for regional tourism ministers and ASEAN’s Airlines, Hotel and Restaurant and Travel Associations. CNN and CNBC, international news channels that profit from government-funded tourism advertising, are scheduled on January 21 to host respectively lunch and dinner for ministers and senior delegates.

No free press
Laos lacks the independent press-in-exile that fearlessly reported attacks, disappearances, land grabs, torture, and arbitrary detentions that typified the old Myanmar and raised global concern. Protests and cases of government impunity are seldom if ever reported in Laos’ state-monopolized media. Foreign journalists rarely visit the country; if they enter through official channels they are supervised by government minders, undermining their ability to report on true public opinion.

Myanmar’s Buddhist monk-led Saffron Revolution in 2007 focused local and international outrage against the previous military government and was a testimony to that country’s radical and independent Buddhist clergy. The Buddhist clergy in Laos, in contrast, formed an early alliance with the Pathet Lao communists and later renounced certain Buddhist precepts, like impermanence, considered inconvenient to the Party.

Drilled like the Lao people in obedience, Lao monks, particularly those at the top of the hierarchy, are subject to political training. Laos thus has all the hallmarks of a fear driven society but without Myanmar’s alert systems. The Lao government oppresses its’ peoples quietly, without fuss and with ruthless efficiency.

Colorful indigenous highland tribes, much loved by camera-toting travelers, are increasingly dispossessed to make way for tourist hotels and golf courses. Once healthy forest communities now suffer from micronutrient deficiencies and have become the focus for international aid agency rescue programs as they are relocated from fertile to barren lands. Those who protest or make representations to government officials are frequently arrested and detained. For instance, Lao activist Sivanxay Phommarath has been held incommunicado for three months for organizing villagers in Khammouane province in a land dispute.

Unlike Myanmar, Laos does not have any charismatic oppositional figures like Aung Sung Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and global pro-democracy icon. With no independent media to present an alternative picture to the mainstream view, the government has effectively monopolized national public relations. Foreign travel writers permitted into the country often extol Laos’ “untouched” and “sleepy” travel destinations, feeding into the government’s tourism promotion campaign.

To be sure, there is the occasional leak. Earlier in the year, a leaked report showed that Laotian and Vietnamese delegates eroded the recently revised ASEAN Human Rights Charter, limiting its scope and application. Weeks before Sombath’s abduction, the head of Swiss development agency Helvetas was expelled from Laos for criticizing the government over land disputes with local communities. After her expulsion, other foreign organizations working on land rights had their terms of reference altered to remove all references to land on government orders.

About five years ago, global travelers “discovered” Laos. The New York Times touted Laos as its top global travel destination in 2008. Hillside paths now hold backpackers eager to see “authentic” village life, while at the same time ancestral lands are taken for dams, plantations or golf courses. Elephants, projected to be extinct soon in Laos, are now ridden by sunburned travelers as their habitats are stripped of trees by Lao and Vietnamese military owned companies involved in tourism development.

To these travelers, Laos is a laid back, quiet place with quaint people, cheap beer, and spectacular scenery. Behind that veneer is a land out of the caricatures of 1950’s and 1960’s communist police states. Village sound systems still blare in the early morning to wake the masses with pro-government propaganda. Government spies keep close tabs on foreign residents and visitors, while outspoken Laos are hounded and their families harassed.

Creative people like artists and writers, as well as village heads and civil servants, undergo intense, repeated political brainwashing on the virtues of the communist system. While national leaders continue to define the one party state as a revolutionary socialist government, like formerly junta-led Myanmar, Laos shows more indicators of fascism than socialism with its flag-waving nationalism, disdain for human rights and persistent reference to common threats and foes.

To outsiders, Laos may seem like communism-lite. But there is no crossing allowed of those in government whose wealth and power rely on access to lands and resources for tourism development. “Don’t be fooled by the laid back nature of Laos. Their secret police were trained by the Vietnamese who were trained by the [East German] Stasi. They are not to be f*cked with,” says one local resident.

Sompawn’s and Sombath’s still unexplained disappearances are testaments to that warning, an advisory more global travelers should recognize when devising their itineraries.

Melinda Boh, a pseudonym, is an independent journalist.

(Copyright 2013 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved)

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