Bounthieng Insixiengmay, Bounma Phannhotha, and Souly Kongdaravong. These are the three Lao Americans who visited Laos and never returned to their families in Minnesota.
As I spoke with the wife of Souly and sister of Bounthieng, they were calm, in disbelief and confused about what may have happened to their loved ones. “I am here. They are there. I have no control over who to believe or what to believe. I just want to know what happened and for them to be buried respectfully in peace”, says Ngern Insixiengmay, sister of Bounthieng.
The men were good friends, in their 50s, who visited Laos many times in the past; were already there for almost 6 months. While they were on their way to a funeral of Bounthieng’s brother-in-law, family members quickly realized that the men never made it the funeral. Relatives went around the village in search of them, only to come upon a van that was put on fire with three bodies inside that were burned to an unrecognizable degree. Ngern said her sister noticed Bounthieng’s dragon tattoo on his back and immediately knew it was their brother. Ngern thinks the story doesn’t match up and she can’t make sense of it. She doesn’t believe going to Laos will give her answers or keep her safer, but she has hope.
They were suppose to return to Minnesota this month. Now two wives have lost their husbands and a sister has lost her brother. These women who had never met before, are now constantly calling each other, to grieve, support and find solace together.
Contrary to what media is currently reporting, while there’s been speculation of a politically-motivated attack and a potential crackdown of dissent in Laos, these women believe there is no connection to that suspicion, nor is there a possibility that it relates to the disappearance of well-known development advocate, Sombath Somphone.
Now that Lao Americans are involved, the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane has given high priority to the safety of these US citizens. As the investigation unfolds under the local Lao authorities and embassy officials, let us keep in our thoughts the three men who may never return and the women and their families they had to leave behind.