Two Lao nationals have been arrested upon returning home from Thailand where they were working, while a third has vanished, because they criticized the Lao government while abroad, their friends and relatives said.
Somphone Phimmasone, 29, his girlfriend Lod Thammavong, 30, and Soukane Chaithad, 32, returned to Laos in February to renew their passports, the sources said.
Police arrested Somphone and Lod at her home at Navatai village of Nongbok district in central Laos’ Khammouane province on March 5, said a relative of the couple, who declined to be named.
“At first, the police told us they had been arrested for possession of drugs, but two weeks later the policeman in charge of the jail informed us that they had been arrested for political campaigning,” he said. “[He] told us not to get involved if we didn’t want to get into trouble.”
Somphone and Lod were being held in the province’s Khamkhikai jail as of April, but later the police told their families that they had transferred the pair to the capital Vientiane for detention, the relative said.
Their families are not certain whether police actually transferred the two to Vientiane or are continuing to hold them in Khammouane, he said.
While working in Thailand, the three strongly criticized the Lao government on social media for its human rights abuses and lack of democracy, sources said.
Somphone posted comments on his Facebook page under the name Phet-Akhome, the relative said.
They and some friends also protested outside the Lao embassy in the Thai capital Bangkok on Lao National Day on Dec. 2, calling on the Lao government to respect human rights and democracy.
“They [Somphone and Lod] were arrested, and Soukane had ‘disappeared’ for criticizing the Lao government on Facebook and protesting at the Lao embassy in Bangkok on Dec. 2, for sure,” said one of their friends working in Thailand, who declined to be named. “I have not seen other motives for this case.”
Before Lao authorities arrested Somphone and Lod, the couple went to Vientiane so Somphone could renew his identity card ID card around Feb. 1-3, the friend said. Afterwards, they headed to Khammouane where they remained until their arrest on March 5.
Police in Khammouane have denied knowing anything about their detention.
“We have not heard about the arrests, and we do not know about this incident,” Lieutenant Colonel Khammai Chanthavongxai, deputy chief of Khammouane’s police headquarters, told RFA’s Lao Service. “We will follow up on this.”
‘He hasn’t come back’
Soukane Chaitad, who led the protest outside the Lao embassy in Thailand, disappeared on March 22 while he was renewing his passport at a police station in Savannakhet province, south of Khammouane, said his wife who is now working in Thailand.
“So far, we have not heard about him since he returned to his hometown and disappeared on March 22 around 3 p.m.,” she said. “He hasn’t come back. Now his parents have informed the police about his disappearance, but the police said they have not seen him.”
Soukane’s family informed Savannakhet provincial police about his disappearance on May 6, she said.
But some bystanders said they saw some people taking Soukane away, she said.
“We asked some vendors near the police station, and they told us they saw some unidentified men taking him into their van,” the friend said.
When RFA contacted the Savannakhet provincial police, the person who answered the telephone said no one had informed the police about a missing person.
Forced disappearances of activists or critics of the Lao government are nothing new in the repressive one-party state.
Lao development specialist Sombath Somphone disappeared more than three years ago after police stopped him in his vehicle at a checkpoint in Vientiane. He was then transferred to another vehicle, according to police surveillance video, and has not been heard from since.
Rights groups suspect that Lao officials were involved in or are aware of the abduction of Sombath, and have called on the government to make progress in their investigation of the case. But officials have yet to state a reason for his disappearance or issue any updates.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.