The U.S. has raised with the Lao government the case of three Lao-Americans reported missing while visiting southern Laos, the State Department said Thursday.
Relatives and friends have said Souli Kongmalavong, Bounthieng Insixiengmai, and Bounma Phannhotha disappeared in early January after traveling to a funeral in Savannakhet province.
A U.S. State Department official told RFA Thursday that the American Embassy in Vientiane was investigating reports that the three U.S. citizens were missing and may have been detained.
“Our Embassy in Vientiane is looking into the matter and has been in contact with the Lao government for further information,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Protecting the well-being of U.S. citizens is one of the Department’s highest priorities, and we take all such reports seriously.”
Local police contacted by RFA’s Lao Service confirmed this week that they are looking for the men, who sources said disappeared after leaving Savannakhet city to drive to Kengkok village in Champon district for a funeral.
Police said that during the investigations, they had recovered a burned van with three bodies—those of two men and one woman—but the remains could not be identified.
News on the missing Lao-Americans surfaced as Lao authorities came under pressure to provide information about leading social activist Sombath Somphone, who has been missing since December 2012 after he was stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane.
Rights groups have raised concerns that Sombath, one of Laos’s most prominent civil society figures, was targeted for his rights work, with some saying they fear he was forcibly disappeared by Lao authorities.
A Minnesota-based Lao-American group expressed concern Wednesday about the safety of the three Lao-Americans in the wake of Sombath’s disappearance.
“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 United Lao for Democracy and Human Rights.
Missing since early January
A close friend of Souli’s in Savannakhet, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Souli had been missing since Jan. 6 after leaving 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 the 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.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.