A Lao Soldier is Dead After Another Shooting on Highway 13

It’s unclear if the shooting was an accident, or a resumption of violence along the major road.

Locals examine the front of a Chinese passenger bus that was shot by unidentified gunmen in northern Laos, March 23, 2016.

One Lao soldier was killed and another was injured during a shooting on a bus traveling on Highway 13 North in Vientiane province’s Nam Ken village last week, causing authorities to beef up security in the area.

What prompted the Feb. 16 shooting is unclear. Authorities first believed it was the work of bandits, but one official said the shooting was an alcohol-fueled accident.

“One man was a little intoxicated, and played with his gun,” a Luang Prabang public works and transportation official told RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity.

“The others tried to stop him, but he would not listen,” the official said. “They fought for the gun which later accidentally fired.”

According to local officials and social media posts, a man dressed in a military uniform boarded the bus bound for the capital of Vientiane from the north central city of Luang Prabang at an unscheduled stop Thursday evening.

The man sat near some other soldiers on the bus before shooting and killing one soldier, injuring the other and terrifying the passengers.

The bus stopped and the man disappeared into the forest that lines the highway, a critical transportation route in the mountainous, landlocked country.

After the shooting, Luang Prabang authorities banned buses from taking on passengers at unscheduled stops. Buses are now allowed to pick up passengers only at main points on the line.

While the Luang Prabang official described the shooting as an accident, a Kasi district official told RFA the authorities have reinforced the military garrison there, and have launched an investigation.

A history of shootings

A spate of shootings in Vientiane province, north-central Xaisomboun province, and Luang Prabang by unidentified armed groups in 2016 raised concerns for Lao officials and led to an increased military presence in the areas.

While most of the shootings occurred on public buses, a Lao soldier was killed in a shootout with unidentified armed forces along a new road between Vientiane and Luang Prabang provinces on May 6, 2016.

In March, a bus shooting by unknown assailants left one Chinese national dead and six others wounded on the stretch of road between Tham and Houasan villages in Kasy.

Another attack in on a public bus traveling along Route 13 North in Kasy in January 2016 injured one of about a dozen passengers, but caused no deaths.

Military and police officials in Vientiane province have arrested 30 people suspected of being involved in the Kasy bus shooting.

A shooting in Phoukhoun district of Luang Prabang province in early March killed a Chinese man and injured three other Chinese nationals, all of whom worked for a logging company clearing land for the Nam Ngum 3 hydropower dam project.

On the same day as the shooting near the dam, gunmen mounted two separate attacks on a public bus and a truck traveling along Route 13 North in Phoukhoun, injuring five people.

An exchange of gunfire between a Lao anti-government resistance group and local troops in Xaisomboun in November 2016 left three government soldiers dead, a retired Lao soldier close to a high-ranking officer in the Ministry of Defense told RFA at the time.

A month later, more than a dozen attackers shot two motorcyclists in the province’s Anouvong district, killing one and injuring the other, and two people were injured when their beer truck was fired upon.

Lao authorities blamed the shootings on “bandits” and deployed fast-moving, special armed units to patrol villages and towns to prevent unrest and crime in those provinces.

Economic harm

While the reports of shootings declined after the patrols were deployed and local authorities said the situation there improved after patrols, the attacks took their toll on the tourist trade.

According to the official government news agency, Khao San Pathet Lao (KPL), the number of tourists who arrived in Laos last year dropped by 10 percent over 2015.

Quoting government agencies, KPL reported that 4.2 million people visited Laos in 2016, down from the 4.68 million who visited last year.

The officials blamed the drop in visitors on the lack of security along the Route 13 North between the town of Vang Vieng and the popular tourist city of Luang Prabang.

Australia, Canada, the EU, and the U.S. have issued warnings this year to their citizens to avoid traveling on Highway 13 and the “new road” from the Kasi junction to the Road 4 junction between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng/

“Global Affairs Canada advises against all travel to Xaisomboun Province and portions of Road 13 and the ‘new road’ between Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang due to the tense security situation and recent random shooting incidents,” the Canadian government warned.

The U.S. embassy in Vientiane warned American citizens to avoid all “non-essential travel” on portions of Highway 13, the “new road” from the Kasi junction to the Road 4 junction between Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng, and “all of Xaisomboun Province.”

“U.S. embassy personnel are restricted from traveling to these areas due to reports of violence,” the embassy said.

Reported and translated by RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.