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Cablegate: Lao Government Cautiously Welcomes U.S. Arrests

VZCZCXRO4712
RR RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHVN #0525/01 1760923
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 250923Z JUN 07
FM AMEMBASSY VIENTIANE
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 1350
INFO RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE
RUEHBJ/AMEMBASSY BEIJING 2183
RUEHCHI/AMCONSUL CHIANG MAI 0574
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHINGTON DC
RUEAWJA/DEPT OF JUSTICE WASHDC

C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 VIENTIANE 000525

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 06/22/2017
TAGS: PREL PGOV PINS ASEC CASC SCUL SNAR CH LA US
MARR, RP, KFLU, SMIG, KCRM
SUBJECT: LAO GOVERNMENT CAUTIOUSLY WELCOMES U.S. ARRESTS

REF: VIENTIANE 479

VIENTIANE 00000525 001.2 OF 003


Classified By: Mary Grace McGeehan, Charge d'Affaires a.i. Reason: 1.4
b and d.

1. (C) Summary: Lao government officials appear to have
been pleased and surprised by the June 4 arrests of
Hmong-American General Vang Pao and others on suspicion of
plotting violent action aimed at overthrowing the Lao
government. However, the Philippines Ambassador, who
talked to Lao government ministers about the arrests, told
us that the senior leadership is monitoring the situation
cautiously, suspicious that there may have been U.S.
government involvement with the coup group. The Ministry
of Foreign Affairs has requested that we keep it informed
of developments, particularly any information on possible
threats to Laos,s national security. We have received
unusually friendly overtures from the Lao government on
several issues since the arrest, which may mean that Lao
officials who favor closer cooperation with us feel that
this is a good time to push their initiatives forward. End
summary.

Public Response: From &Great News8 to Wait and See
--------------------------------------------- -----

2. (C) The first public reaction to the arrests by the
Lao government came from Ministry of Foreign Affairs
spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy, who told Reuters in Bangkok
on June 4, &This is the great news that Laos has waited for
for so long. We hope the United States will prosecute them
strictly under the Patriot Act and punish the violators of
the law severely.8 (Comment: Actually, the suspects were
charged with violating the Neutrality Act and other laws.
End comment.) He made similar comments to the Thai
newspaper &The Nation.8 In subsequent interviews, Mr.
Yong, who may have received instructions to tone down his
enthusiasm, was more guarded. Voice of America quoted him
on June 6 as saying that Laos will monitor the Vang Pao
case closely and that it will not affect Laos-U.S.
relations in any way. The U.S. and Laos, he said, already
enjoy good relations and cooperation between the two
countries has steadily expanded in many areas. He said
that it was too early to draw conclusions about the case.
Coverage in the Lao press, meanwhile, has been limited to a
few strictly factual stories, mostly picked up from the
U.S. press (Reftel).

Discussions with MFA
--------------------

3. (C) The Charge and Acting DCM met with Europe and
Americas Director General Southam Sakonhninhom on June 6 at
Southam,s request. The A/DCM had alerted MFA officials to
the arrests by faxing the DOJ press release the day
before. Southam requested official confirmation from the
Embassy that General Vang Pao and others had been arrested
in a plot to overthrow the Lao government. The Charge
confirmed the arrests. She emphasized that Vang Pao and
the others are innocent until proven guilty. She said that
the Embassy had no information about the arrests other than
what had appeared in the DOJ press release and the criminal
complaint, which the Embassy provided to MFA. The Charge
and A/DCM provided Southam with a copy of the Embassy,s
warden message, issued that day, noting that the arrests
had taken place. Southam did not provide an official
reaction, but he seemed pleasantly surprised that U.S. law
enforcement officials had taken action against Vang Pao.
In a June 12 conversation, Southam told the Charge and
A/DCM that the Lao government planned to issue a statement
on the arrests soon. (No such statement has been issued to
date.) In both the June 6 and June 12 meetings, Southam
requested that the Embassy keep him informed about
developments in the case. He expressed particular interest
in receiving any information that emerges about potential
threats to the national security of Laos.

Philippines Ambassador: Officials Watching Cautiously
--------------------------------------------- --------

4. (C) At a Russian national day reception on June 14,
Philippines Ambassador Elizabeth Buensuceso told the Charge
that she had discussed the arrests with Lao government
ministers during the previous week's visit to the
Philippines by a delegation led by Prime Minister Bouasone
Bouphavanh. She said that the GOL officials are pleased
that the arrests took place but are observing developments
with great caution. In particular, they are wondering why
a U.S. government person was involved (presumably meaning
the retired military officer arrested along with the
Hmong-Americans) and waiting to see what information comes
out on U.S. government involvement. She said that it is
because of this uncertainty that the Lao press is
downplaying the arrests. Ambassador Buensuceso suggested
that, given this high level of suspicion, any message that
the USG could send to the GOL would be useful, even
something as seemingly obvious as saying that we view
allegations of a plot to overthrow the Lao government with
great concern.

Chinese Diplomat's Comments
---------------------------

5. (C) Chinese Embassy Second Secretary Zhao Cheng Gang,
who is about to conclude his second tour in Laos, told
Poloff on June 13 that he believes the Lao government's
attitude toward the U.S. government, which he described as
hostile in late 2005 and early 2006, has improved during
the past year. He said that the arrest of Vang Pao was
well-received by his contacts in the Lao government and
appears to be an opportunity to continue the improvement in
relations.

Other Views
-----------

6. (C) An ethnic Hmong Embassy employee who is from
XXXXXXXXXXXX, one of the most affluent and
well-integrated Hmong communities, said that roughly half
of the community was pleased and half of the community was
saddened by news of the arrests. Customers at a shop owned
by the Lao wife of an American local-hire employee
commented after the arrests that they were pleased and
surprised that the U.S. government would take this action
to help the Lao government. A young man who approached the
A/DCM on the way out of a social function and identified
himself only as a senior member of the Lao communist party
youth league spoke favorably about the arrests and
enthusiastically discussed possibilities for youth
exchanges between Laos and the U.S. Other Mission
employees have heard similar reactions from Lao contacts.
Vientiane-based Western expatriates have followed the news
of the arrests with great interest. A number of them have
speculated to us that the arrests were a positive gesture
toward the Lao government by the U.S. (Note: Embassy
personnel have been provided guidance on appropriate response
to questions they may receive about the arrest cases and U.S.
policy.)

Doors Opening All Over
----------------------

7. (C) Since the arrests, we have made a surprising
amount of progress in areas of our relationship with the
Lao government where we had previously experienced
difficulty. These include:

-- Officials at the Lao National Commission for Drug
Control and Supervision (LCDC) provided nine drug samples
to Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) personnel during a
June 18 meeting. Despite multiple requests by DEA, LCDC
had not provided any samples since 2005.

-- MFA officials called us on June 18 and urgently
requested that we send a diplomatic note requesting a
Subject Matter Expert Exchange (SMEE) on avian influenza to
be organized by PACOM officials as part of a series of
increased military-to-military activities. PACOM personnel
had raised this in two recent visits. This moves us closer
to official Lao acceptance.

-- MFA DG Southam reacted surprisingly positively to the
Department,s June 12 press statement expressing concern
about the deportation of 160 people from Thailand to Laos,
despite the fact that it noted human rights problems in
Laos and the refusal of Lao officials to allow
international monitoring of returnees. Southam, who has in
the past firmly resisted suggestions regarding
international monitoring of people who have surrendered or
been repatriated from Thailand, agreed that allowing
international monitoring of the returnees would be a good
idea. (However, MFA Spokesman Yong, who has more influence
in this area, remains firmly opposed to international
monitoring.)

-- In a discussion with the Charge about the next U.S.-Lao
bilateral dialogue (following the first such meeting in
October 2006), Southam said he hoped the dialogue would
take place as soon as possible following the new U.S.
Ambassador,s arrival. On his own initiative, he mentioned
military-to-military relations and Hmong issues (the latter
of which the Lao delegation only reluctantly allowed onto
the agenda last year) as possible areas of discussion.

-- Ministry of National Defense Chief of Staff Colonel
Sisophon unexpectedly proposed an exchange of defense
attaches in 2008 during meetings in Washington while on a
Distinguished Visitor Orientation Tour. The Defense Ministry
had in the past consistently stated that it lacked the
resources to take this step.

-- Lao officials allowed our consular officers to visit two
American prisoners on June 15. We had previously
experienced difficulty in gaining access to U.S. prisoners.

-- In mid-June, purported bureaucratic obstacles that would
have prevented in-country travel by a visiting lecturer on
human trafficking sponsored by the Public Diplomacy Section
suddenly disappeared.

Comment
-------

8. (C) While we were initially hesitant to assume that
the positive overtures we were receiving were related to
the arrests, the change in attitude has been so sudden and
pronounced that we can see no other explanation. We doubt,
however, that there has been a high-level decision to
improve ties with the United States. The Philippines
Ambassador,s assessment that senior Lao officials are
avoiding a rush to judgment is likely correct. Many senior
Lao officials, particularly those most closely tied to the
military, have longstanding suspicions of the United
States. Some probably believe that the U.S. has over the
years at worst supported, or at best turned a blind eye to,
assistance to insurgency groups by Hmong-Americans within
the U.S. With a poor understanding of the U.S. system,
these officials may be reading too much into the fact that
a former U.S. military officer was arrested along with the
Hmong-Americans. Defense attorneys for the suspects
suggested during the bail hearings that they had reasonably
believed that the CIA was involved in the plot. Lao
suspicions may still be running in that direction, as
implausible as this would appear to most observers in light
of the arrests.

9. (C) What we suspect is happening is that those
mid-level officials within the Lao government who favor
closer cooperation with the U.S. see this as a good time to
press ahead with initiatives that they previously saw as
non-starters. It may be that some of these initiatives
will ultimately encounter bureaucratic resistance once they
reach higher levels, just as Mr. Yong may have been
instructed to tone down his initial enthusiastic response
to the arrests. Still, the positive climate is a welcome
change given the usual bureaucratic obstructionism and
veiled hostility directed at the U.S. Excitement about the
arrests here is likely to wane as the lengthy court
proceedings, which will be poorly understood by even the
most informed observers here, drag on. The more
forthcoming that we can be with the GOL as the court case
proceeds, the longer this positive climate is likely to
last.
MCGEEHAN

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