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An American And Two Europeans Arrested In Laos

An American And Two Europeans Arrested In Laos


by Richard S. Ehrlich

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Two European journalists said they were arrested in Laos with an American pastor after Lao troops killed an ethnic Hmong guerrilla in a jungle ambush, according to a Canadian teacher who met them near the scene.

The reporters were covering the plight of minority Hmong tribes who began fighting in Laos in the 1960s when the CIA directed their anti-communist efforts in a "secret war" which the U.S. abandoned in 1975.

Wretched, diseased, isolated and dwindling, about 1,000 Hmong, including their children and grandchildren, continue to fight against the communist regime in Laos -- a compelling story which attracted the two journalists.

"Amnesty International is extremely concerned by the bellicose nature of remarks made by Lao government officials regarding the alleged incident in early June," the London-based human rights organization said on Tuesday (June 17).

"The foreign minister was quoted as saying that the detained were not treated as journalists but for their alleged involvement in the death of a security officer," Amnesty International added.

"We don't consider them as journalists since they traveled into our country on tourist visas and have apparently been involved in the murder of one of our people," Lao Foreign Minister Somsavat Lengsavad told the Nation newspaper on June 16.

International media organizations demanded the two reporters and the American evangelical pastor be set free because they were trying to interview Hmong rebels and were not guilty of any major crime.

They said the arrested American, Naw Karl Mua, was acting as a guide and translator for the two journalists. He is an ethnic Hmong and well-known pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), in St. Paul, Minnesota.

"Mua went to neighboring Thailand on May 12 for a missionary project, something he has done frequently in the past because he has family and a relationship with a Hmong congregation there," the ELCA News Service reported.

"While in Thailand he met two journalists -- Thierry Falise of Belgium and Vincent Reynaud of France -- and entered Laos legally on May 23 as their translator," ELCA added.

Dr. Mua "has expressed concern to me about human rights issues in Laos and about the need for the U.S. government and the church to address these issues. However, nothing we know about him would be consistent with the charges against him by the Laotian government," Reverend Peter Rogness, bishop of the ELCA Saint Paul Area Synod, was quoted as saying.

Bangkok-based Thierry Falise is a freelance journalist and photographer contributing to the French magazine L'Express and Belgian publications. He was previously an Associated Press reporter in Paris.

Vincent Reynaud is a freelance TV cameraman who has lived in Thailand for the past decade and provides programs for European television stations.

The day after the three men were arrested on June 4, the two journalists were able to speak with Patrick Foisy, a Canadian teacher from Montreal.

Mr. Foisy was touring Laos when he met the two reporters at a guest house in Phonsavan town on June 5 where the two Europeans were temporarily being held in the Plain of Jars region of Xieng Khuang province, in northeastern Laos.

"They told me they were arrested the night before. They were coming back from doing a story and they had spent 10 days in the jungle with the Hmong near Phonsavan," Mr. Foisy said.

The reporters' trip ended badly when the Hmongs ran into an ambush.

"A fight broke out between the rebels and the Lao army. In that fight, Thierry and Vincent hid in the jungle. That's when one of the rebels got killed in the fighting between the army and the rebels," Mr. Foisy said.

"As soon as the fighting broke out, all their contacts and guides just bolted out and left, so they were left alone in the jungle," Mr. Foisy said.

"They got stopped a few kilometers" from Phonsavan, at an army check post.

"They were all wet, covered with mud and wearing scruffy clothes...and they were walking, so the army got suspicious," he said.

The Canadian teacher said he had no idea what happened to Dr. Mua.

Mr. Foisy made the remarks while speaking on Monday (June 16) at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, flanked by a representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, along with a photographer and correspondent who went to the same area several weeks earlier for a story which appeared in Time magazine.

Laotian authorities sequestered the three foreigners for more than 10 days before allowing diplomats to visit them in Vientiane, the capital, where they are being held for further investigation.

Philip Smith, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis in Washington, said Dr. Mua wanted to present information from the trip to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which earlier this year accused Laos of violating religious freedom, imprisoning religious minorities for their spiritual activities and forcing Christians to renounce their faith, Minnesota's Pioneer Press reported on Monday (June 13).

Dr. Mua was born in Laos, according to ELCA.

After the CIA lost its war, he fled across the Mekong River along with thousands of displaced Hmong to Thailand where he spent a year in a refugee camp before moving to France in 1978.

He immigrated to America in 1985, gained U.S. citizenship and "was ordained an ELCA pastor in 2000," it said.

ELCA was "working through the Lutheran Office for Governmental Affairs (LOGA), Washington D.C., and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF), Geneva, Switzerland, to communicate with government officials and with other non-governmental agencies for Mua's release," it added.

"LOGA is the ELCA's federal public policy advocacy office. The ELCA is one of 136 member churches of the LWF," it said.

**-ENDS-**

- Richard S. Ehrlich, a freelance journalist who has reported news from Asia for the past 25 years, is co-author of the non-fiction book, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" -- Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is http://www.geocities.com/glossograph/


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