A U.S. admonition to Laos over its shaky human rights record spurred efforts Tuesday to halt the possible deportation from Thailand of a former ethnic leader to the authoritarian Southeast Asian nation.
Rights activists said former ethnic Hmong rebel leader Moua Toua Ter is being held at an immigration detention center in Bangkok, while they and at least one Western embassy made representations on his behalf to the Thai government. They fear he faces severe persecution if returned to his homeland.
Concern over his fate came after the United States took Laos to task for failing to account for the disappearance of a prominent social activist.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Laos' failure to provide significant information about the case of award-winning activist Sombath Somphone is raising questions about the government's commitment to the rule of law and engaging responsibly with the world — notwithstanding its recent accession to the World Trade Organization.
"Mr. Sombath's disappearance resurrects memories of an earlier era when unexplained disappearances were common," Kerry said in a statement timed for the 100-day anniversary of the activist's disappearance Monday.
Laos has been under a communist government since 1975. It has opened up considerably in the past two decades and been willing to build ties with the U.S., which bombed it heavily during the war in neighboring Vietnam. But it retains a one-party political system and is intolerant of dissent.
Sombath was last seen in closed-circuit video footage when he was stopped at a police checkpoint in the capital Vientiane on Dec. 15, but the Lao government denies knowledge of his fate. His work in social development was not overtly political, although the communist authorities may feel threatened by the nation's nascent civil society. Dozens of international nongovernment groups, the U.N. human rights office and the European Union have voiced deep concern over the case.
Other disappearances and killings in Laos have gone unsolved. Last week, the State Department said local authorities had obstructed its attempt to probe the disappearances of three Laotian-Americans from Minnesota who went missing in southern Laos in January.
State Department officials say the U.S. is monitoring the case of Moua Toua Ter, who fought with CIA-backed Hmong guerrillas in Laos against communists during the Vietnam War. When the communists took power in 1975, he was a leader in a rag-tag Hmong resistance holed up in remote jungles of northern Laos that was only reached by journalists in 2003 who found a pitiful settlement of starving civilians and ill-equipped fighters.
According to the Fact-Finding Commission, a California-based group that has monitored the plight of displaced Hmong in Laos, in 2005 Moua Toua Ter brokered the surrender of 173 women, children and elderly to the government, and then fled to Thailand. Some of those who surrendered have been resettled around Laos, while others slipped away to Thailand or were eventually resettled in third countries.
Moua Toua Ter went into hiding in northern Thailand, where he was subsequently convicted of manslaughter in the killing of a Lao woman. After serving his sentence, he was taken into Thai immigration custody as an illegal alien.
"The Thai government should recognize that he likely would face persecution if he's sent back to Laos, and respect his right to request asylum by immediately permitting him access to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees," said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
In Washington, a State Department official said the U.S. has "emphasized with the Thai government that vulnerable persons should be given access to screening by the UNHCR to determine their protection requirements." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record.
A spokesman for Thailand's Foreign Minister was not available to answer calls to his office for comment.
Many Hmong fled Laos after the communist takeover. Between the late 1970s and the mid-1990s, an estimated 195,000 refugees were resettled in the United States, primarily in California, Minnesota, North Carolina and Wisconsin.
Associated Press writers Matthew Pennington in Washington and Thanyarat Doksone in Bangkok contributed to this report.