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.
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.