WASHINGTON — The US is challenging Laos over the disappearance of a prominent social activist who went missing 100 days ago. The case has put a rare spotlight on the authoritarian nation’s murky governance and human rights record.
The State Department said Monday it is also monitoring the case of a former ethnic Hmong rebel leader who is reportedly facing deportation from Thailand. Activists fear he would face persecution in Laos.
Laos has been under a communist government since 1975. It has opened up considerably in the past two decades and has been willing to build ties with the US, which bombed the tiny Southeast Asian nation heavily during the war in neighboring Vietnam. But it retains a one-party political system and is intolerant of dissent.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the unexplained disappearance of award-winning activist Sombath Somphone and Laos’ failure to provide significant information about his case is raising questions about the government’s commitment to the rule of law and engaging responsibly with the world — notwithstanding its recent accession to the World Trade Organization.
“Mr. Sombath’s disappearance resurrects memories of an earlier era when unexplained disappearances were common,” Kerry said in a statement timed for the 100-day anniversary of the activist’s disappearance Monday.
Sombath was last seen in closed-circuit video footage when he was stopped at a police checkpoint in the capital Vientiane on Dec. 15. The Lao government denies knowledge of his fate.
Sombath’s work in social development was not overtly political, although communist authorities may feel threatened by the nation’s nascent civil society. Dozens of international nongovernment groups, the UN human rights office and the European Union have also voiced deep concern over the case.
Other disappearances and killings in Laos have often gone unsolved.
Last week, the State Department said local authorities had obstructed its attempt to probe the disappearances of three Laotian-Americans from Minnesota who went missing in southern Laos in January.
State Department officials say the US is also monitoring the case of former ethnic rebel Moua Toua Ter who is being held at an immigration detention center in Bangkok pending possible deportation to Laos.
Moua Toua Ter fought with CIA-backed Hmong fighters in Laos during the secret US bombing campaign against communists during the Vietnam War that coupled a pre-modern hill tribe militia with massive, but ultimately ineffective American firepower. When the communists took power, he was a leader in a rag-tag Hmong resistance holed up in remote jungles of northern Laos that was only reached by journalists in 2003 who found a pitiful settlement of starving civilians and ill-equipped fighters.
According to the Fact-Finding Commission, a California-based group that has monitored the plight of displaced Hmong in Laos, in 2005 Moua Toua Ter brokered the surrender of 173 women, children and elderly to the government, who are still unaccounted for, and then fled himself to Thailand, seeking political asylum. He was subsequently convicted in the killing of a Lao woman. After serving his sentence, he was taken into Thai immigration custody as he’s not a Thai national.
Journalists who attempted to see Moua Toua Ter in Bangkok Monday were denied access to him.
“The Thai government should recognize that he likely would face persecution if he’s sent back to Laos, and respect his right to request asylum by immediately permitting him access to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
Many Hmong fled Laos after the communist takeover. Between late 1970’s and the mid-1990’s, an estimated 195,000 refugees were resettled in the United States, primarily in California, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
Associated Press writers Grant Peck and Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok, Thailand, contributed to this report.