WASHINGTON, July 29, 2003--Lao President Khamtai Siphandone has demoted the popular governor of northern Xieng Khouang Province and replaced him with his deputy, a member of the ethnic Hmong minority, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reports.

Soukanh Maharaj was sacked for "incompetence" within the last few weeks, according to sources in Laos who spoke on condition of anonymity. He was replaced as governor with his own deputy, Sivone Ya Xiong Nhia, and Soukanh Maharaj is now deputy governor instead.

Local officials declined to comment on the reshuffle, and several said they had been explicitly warned against discussing the matter.

No further details were available. But local sources said they believed the move was related to continued unrest among the Hmong population, who have waged a low-level insurgency for years against the Communist government. It could also signal high-level displeasure with the manner in which the Xieng Khouang provincial government handled the arrest and trial of two European journalists and their Hmong-American translator in June when they tried to document the Hmong insurgency.

A Xieng Khouang court sentened all three to 15 years' imprisonment for alleged involvement in the murder of a Lao militia member, possession of war weapons and illicit drugs, and obstruction of state officials. They were expelled from the country July 9.

Four local Hmong were also arrested with the foreigners.Three of them were sentenced to jail terms of between 12 and 20 years while the fourth was freed.

Maharaj previously served as chief of the Xienghone Hongsa Special Zone, Lao minister of finance, and governor of northern Bokeo Province. In Bokeo Province, he is credited with promoting development by building roads and importing electricity from neighboring Thailand.

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