Wed, Jul 02, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Stiff terms cast unwanted spotlight on Laos

AFP , HANOI

The harsh prison sentences handed down in Laos to two European journalists and their American translator have focused attention on a shadowy legacy of the Vietnam War: the continuing struggle by members of the ethnic Hmong minority against the country's communist authorities.

Thierry Falise, 46, a Belgian freelance reporter, Vincent Reynaud, 38, a French cameraman and photographer, and US passport holder Naw Karl Mua were sentenced to 15 years in prison on Monday for obstructing security forces and illegal possession of weapons.

The men were arrested on June 4 along with four unidentified Lao nationals while researching a story in northeastern Laos on the Hmong rebels, who were hired by the CIA during the Vietnam War to fight North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao troops.

At their peak, more than 30,000 Hmong fought for the US against the communists in what became known as the "Secret War."

The Hmong continued their insurgency after the communists took control in Laos in 1975 and small bands of rebels remain active today, particularly in the militarized Xaysomboun special zone, northeast of the Lao capital Vientiane.

According to experts, up to 2,000 Hmong are currently pursuing the anti-communist insurgency which began in the 1960s.

During its doomed military campaign in the region, the United States saw the mobile and independent Hmong -- who had fled persecution in China in the 19th century -- as a natural ally adept at insurrection in impenetrable forest.

Little information has filtered down from Xaysomboune in the past five months, but reports indicate at least three attacks have been carried out recently claiming more than 30 civilian lives.

The attacks are seen as a response by the Hmong to a fresh government drive to crush the under-equipped rebellion. Despite official and unofficial support from Vietnam until 2000, Laos has failed to stem the insurgency.

Laos has tried to keep the lid on information about the struggle. When the attacks were revealed by the press, the government spoke of "bandits."

According to unconfirmed reports, the two European journalists and their American translator accompanied a group of rebels on foot into a mountainous area inhabited by the Hmong, encountering government militia in the village of Kai, in northeastern Xieng Khuang province.

During an exchange of fire, one militiaman was killed.

According to a foreign observer, speaking on condition of anonymity, Monday's verdicts were an attempt by the authorities to satisfy villagers enraged by the militiaman's death.

"The people in the province where the militiaman was killed are very upset and the government was looking for people to punish," the observer said. "The Lao authorities thought that by giving this sentence, they would meet the demand of their domestic opinion and by commuting it later and expelling the foreigners, they would also meet the demand of the international community."

Although diplomacy and appeal could secure their release, the sentences appear unduly heavy for the crime which they were convicted, particularly as the men were apparently unarmed and had only witnessed fighting.

The harsh sentences have earned international condemnation and the observer said that Lao's leadership may have overstepped the mark.

"They think they would satisfy everybody. They are mistaken. Before they will expel the three foreigners, there will be much more bad press about Laos than they ever expected."

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