Photograph by: Larry Wong, Edmonton Journal
Nara Pech’s voice is unwavering in the message he left for his parents from the Wattay International Airport in Vientiane, Laos.
“I’m in Laos and they’re trying to hurt me. I need help. Call the embassy, please,” he says on the voice-mail message.
The 28-year-old Canadian man planned to travel in Southeast Asia with two friends for three weeks.
The trip started in Cambodia, where Pech hoped to learn more about his family’s history. His parents are Cambodian and fled the Khmer Rouge, living in a refugee camp in Thailand before eventually settling in 1986 in Edmonton, where Pech was born.
The friends travelled next to Thailand and then Laos, a landlocked country of 6.8 million people ruled by a communist government. There, Pech felt homesick and decided to return to his fiancée in Toronto.
His friends stayed in the capital Vientiane, but accompanied him to the city’s international airport Jan. 21, 2015 and watched him clear customs.
It’s unclear what happened next.
Pech called his parents, his fiancée’s parents and a friend from the airport and left messages asking for help.
“They took my boarding pass away. They’re screwing me over. I’m trying to get out of here as soon as possible. It’s a bad situation,” he says in a message to his fiancée’s parents.
No one heard from Pech again. He died at the airport Jan. 22.
“When my dad called me and said ‘your brother is no longer in this world,’ I thought it was a mistake,” says Sarena Armsworthy, Pech’s older sister who lives in Edmonton.
“We have no idea why any of it happened, and why it happened to him. All he was trying to do was come home.”
He mentioned in one voice mail that “Apparently I said something bad about (Cambodian prime minister) Hun Sen.” Armsworthy says her brother wasn’t a political person and didn’t follow politics.
He was a people person who loved to help others, she says.
“Family was always important to him,” she says. “He was never afraid to show love to anyone.”
On Family Day, Feb. 16, relatives and friends gathered for Pech’s funeral. Five hundred people packed a hall in Newmarket, Ont., to celebrate the young man’s life.
Pech had recently graduated with honours from York University, with a double major in sociology and anthropology.
“He had a way with people,” says Maureen Chear, Pech’s fiancée.
The couple had been together for 13 years and planned to get married later this year. On their first date, in high school, Chear played Monopoly at Pech’s house with his family. She was struck by how much he loved his parents, younger brother and older sister.
“He was so sweet with them and so kind,” she says.
Pech was a voracious reader who enjoyed sports, hiking and travelling.
“He grew up to be an amazing man,” says Ranya Persaud, Pech’s cousin. “He was family oriented and would do anything to spend time with his family.”
Relatives recently held a 100-day ceremony, a Buddhist tradition in which people prayed nothing terrible happens in Pech’s next life.
Distance complicates death. In the months since Pech died, Armsworthy has received conflicting reports about what happened.
Armsworthy says consular services in Ottawa say Pech tried to kill himself, based on information they received from Laotian authorities.
But a private autopsy conducted in Thailand details multiple injuries to Pech’s body: a stab wound to his right chest that lacerated his lung; multiple stab wounds to his neck; a stab wound on his right forearm; multiple cuts on his left hand and arm; contusion wounds on both his hands and his right knee.
“I don’t see it being possible that he could have done any of that to himself,” Armsworthy says.
She says Pech had no history of mental illness.
A report from the government newspaper Vientiane Times says a Canadian man travelling from Vietnam to Thailand, with a stop in Laos, was found dead on the second floor of the airport with three stab wounds to his body.
According to the article, some passengers on the flight from Vietnam reported the man was acting strangely.
Armsworthy says Pech was to fly from Laos to Bangkok to Toronto; he had never been on a flight from Vietnam.
An official with the Vientiane Police Office told the newspaper the man was asked to stay outside the terminal “and then some problems occurred.” The man damaged some shops, got a small knife and stabbed himself, the story says.
Armsworthy has not received a police report. She has found photos posted on a local media site’s Facebook page that show a white floor in the airport’s cafeteria soaked with blood, as four people kneel around what appears to be a body. In another photo, two men in brown uniforms take stock of what was found at the scene, including four knives, a bloodied passport and a clean pair of black shoes.
Three of the knives were 30 centimetres long, with the fourth measuring 33 centimetres long, according to a medical report from Lao authorities.
“All we ask is to find out what happened. And if it’s in an international airport with surveillance, I don’t know why that’s so difficult,” Armsworthy says.
Amnesty International’s most recent report on Laos says a lack of openness and scarcity of information are making monitoring of human rights situations challenging.
With little information available from consular services, Armsworthy has sought help from officials in Alberta, where she lives, and Ontario, where her parents live and Pech lived. Her emails and phone calls to Ontario RCMP, a member of parliament, and professors of law have gone unanswered, or she was directed back to consular services.
“It feels pretty hopeless,” Armsworthy says.
The Embassy of Canada in Bangkok, Thailand, assumes consular responsibility for Laos. Philip Cordier, acting embassy spokesman, directed questions about Pech’s death to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada. —
When asked by the Journal about Pech’s death, the department and the office of Minister of State (Foreign Affairs and Consular) provided identical statements.
“Our thoughts are with the family and friends of a Canadian citizen who passed away in Laos. Consular officials continue to provide assistance to the family and liaise with local authorities. To protect the private and personal information of the individual concerned, further details on this case cannot be released,” both statements read.
Armsworthy says her family does not feel they are receiving help from the government. Meanwhile, she’s continuing to search for answers on her own, and has launched a page on the fundraising website GoFundMe to help pay for a headstone for her brother’s grave.
The voice-mail messages Pech left shortly before he died remain the biggest clue in his mysterious death.
When Armsworthy listens to her brother’s messages, she hears him trying to stay calm, but she knows he’s scared.
“I just think about how my brother was by himself, trying to get help, and no one’s there to help him,” she says.
Her brother now gone, Armsworthy is still trying to help him.
Audio: Listen to the voice-mail messages Nara Pech left for his parents and his fiancée’s parents:
In 2014, 1,335 Canadians died abroad and their deaths were reported to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. Not every death is reported, said Erica Meekes, spokeswoman with consular affairs. Of those reported, the government says three-quarters were related to natural causes.
When a Canadian citizen dies outside the country, the government can provide some assistance to families, but there are other tasks officials will not complete. According to the Government of Canada’s website, authorities at the nearest Canadian government office abroad can:
Start the process of notifying next of kin;
Provide guidance on how to obtain appropriate documentation, such as death certificates and police reports, and how to bring embalmed or cremated remains to Canada. The family or the deceased’s insurance company must pay all costs related to the repatriation of remains and personal belongings;
Inform on interment options, costs and a list of local funeral providers, as well as lab facilities offering forensic identification services;
Identify the remains of a Canadian citizen if local authorities, family members or friends are not able to do so;
Help to get documents necessary for insurance companies to facilitate the payment or investigation of claims.
Officials will not:
Pay for the burial, cremation or repatriation of the remains;
Intervene in private legal matters relating to the death;
Translate official documents, such as death certificates or autopsy reports, for the family;
Provide legal advice on issues such as estate law, wills and trusts;
Investigate the death of a Canadian or intervene in a local investigation of the death.