Canadian stumbles on Laos plot
Date: Friday, June 20 2003
Topic: Canadian Politics
Patrick Foisy was hoping his six-month trek across southeast Asia would be the adventure of a lifetime. But the Montreal elementary schoolteacher and amateur comedian found himself caught up in a thriller worthy of Graham Greene, with suspicious Communist government officials, a rag-tag fledgling independence movement and a mysterious local man, set in the steamy jungles of northern Laos.
The little that is known about just what took place deep in the jungles of Laos when authorities arrested two European journalists earlier month, accusing them of murder, comes from the Canadian backpacker.
Mr. Foisy's adventure started on the morning of June 5, when he encountered two men in the restaurant of his guesthouse. The pair were tucking in to a hearty breakfast of eggs, baguette and coffee.
When Mr. Foisy noticed they were speaking French, he immediately introduced himself. "[They] said they were very happy to see me," he wrote in his travel diary.
"I immediately knew something was wrong. French people being nice. That's bizarre."
The pair introduced themselves as Thierry Falise, 46, a Belgian photojournalist, and Vincent Reynaud, 38, a French cameraman.
During the hour they spent together, the journalists told him an incredible story: They had managed to elude the authorities and spend 10 days in the jungle working on a story about the Hmong, an independence-minded ethnic group some of whose members fought alongside Americans during the Vietnam War.
But when they emerged from the undergrowth, they found themselves in the middle of a shootout with Laotian military authorities, during which a Hmong man died. In the confusion, the foreigners, their guide and several Hmong managed to escape, but were captured later near a village.
When the journalists met Mr. Foisy, they were en route to the capital Vientiane for questioning. They begged him to get in touch with their wives in Bangkok and to contact the Belgian and French embassies.
The two foreigners are now thought to be in solitary confinement somewhere in Vientiane, along with Naw Karl Mua, a U.S. pastor of Hmong origin, and four others, who have not been identified. The Laotian authorities remain tightlipped about the case and no formal charges have been laid. As a result, Mr. Foisy has been interviewed by diplomats and spoken at press conferences in Bangkok, where the journalists' families have formed a support group and are campaigning for their release. But because of the repressive and secretive nature of the Laotian government -- described as one of the last remaining Stalinist regimes in the world-- the lobbying has had little success.
Mr. Foisy said the two freelance journalists had spent 10 days in the Laotian jungle researching a documentary on the ethnic Hmong, a minority ethnic group at odds with the Laotian leadership. The group's existence is a thorn in the side of the central government as some 30,000 members of the ethnic group fought alongside the Central Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam war.
The United States, who paid Hmong soldiers an average of 10¢ a day, had promised to protect them after the war, but when the U.S. lost the Vietnam campaign, the Hmong became the victims of a vicious ethnic cleansing campaign waged by the Communist regime that took power in Laos in 1975. Thousands of Hmong were thrown in concentration camps and Laotian authorities launched a chemical and biological war against them that resulted in about 100,000 Hmong deaths. Many fled to refugee camps in Thailand and were eventually resettled in France and the United States.
In recent years, some Hmong have returned to Laos, but according to Hmong exiles in the United States they continue to be victims of repression and human rights violations. Despite the abuses, their story has remained largely untold in the West.
Mr. Falise and Mr. Reynaud wanted to dramatize their plight. They are seasoned journalists known for their extensive coverage of the region. Mr. Falise's Web site (www.thierryfalise.com) says he has worked on stories about the drug wars in Thailand and child guerrilla fighters in the jungles of Burma, now called Myanmar.
Bernard Genier, a journalist at Television Suisse Romande in Geneva, said Mr. Falise has visited Laos several times.
During this trip, Mr. Falise and Mr. Reynaud planned to trek for several days with a Hmong guide who was also a U.S. citizen. The plan was to penetrate deep into the jungles of Xieng Khuang province, where they would live on whatever they could find for 10 days. On the way back, they were to be met by a jeep and driver, with food and other supplies for their journey. The jeep never showed up, but a motorbike materialized instead. From Mr. Foisy's account, it is not clear why the jeep did not come and why the motorbike appeared in its place.
"Now, I'm not sure about the time frame, but I think that is when the confrontation with the army happened," said Mr. Foisy, who was on his way to Malaysia when he spoke to the National Post. "At this point, a rebel Hmong got shot. All the other Hmong -- I don't know how many -- abandoned our two journalists and fled. Vincent and Thierry then hid in the jungle for hours. They were lying in the mud in the jungle."
Mr. Genier said he knew the two journalists planned to visit Hmong territory and the big difficulty would be managing to leave the jungle region without being seen. "It was always a matter of concern for us," he said by phone from Geneva yesterday. "A white man in the jungle is like someone having a police light on his head. Everyone knows he is there."
He added the two journalists were not working for any media organization, but had done their homework and were well-prepared for their trip during the rainy season. They knew the region and were carrying the proper equipment.
"The problem is that the Hmong is a disparate group, and they are not well organized," said Mr. Genier, adding that arranging escorts and translators for the assignment had been very difficult.
After the shoot out with the Laotian army, the journalists fled into the jungle, Mr. Foisy said. Then, using a global satellite positioning device, they made their way through the undergrowth to the nearest road, where they gained a lift from a pickup truck.
The truck left them a few kilometres outside the village where Mr. Foisy met them. The two men, covered in mud from their time in the jungle, set off on foot along the road. But they ran into a military checkpoint, where they were arrested and accused of murdering a Laotian villager -- the Hmong who had been reportedly killed in the shoot out.
"I don't understand how they got accused of murder since they were not armed and the person that was killed was part of their group," said Mr. Foisy.
The Laos Foreign Ministry has also accused the journalists of working in the country while on tourist visas. (In Laos, there is no freedom of the press and foreign journalists can only gain entry by travelling on tourist visas.)
Mr. Foisy said the authorities seized all their equipment, which included video and still cameras and satellite phones.
In a statement last week, the Laotian Foreign Ministry said the journalists would not be shown any leniency and could face the death penalty. But yesterday, Laotian authorities allowed Mr. Falise's wife to see him in jail for five minutes. European diplomats, who have been lobbying for the pair's release since Mr. Foisy's story became public, are hopeful that Mr. Falise and Mr. Reynaud will be released, although they would not say when that might occur.
According to Mr. Foisy's account of his travels in Laos in the past few weeks, the country "is a dangerous place." He writes in his travel journal of tourists on a bus being executed three months ago by members of the Hmong insurgency near the village where he met the two journalists. Later, he describes how he paid a local guide US$50 to take him on a tour of a local minefield.
The guide, Milan, took Mr. Foisy and two British tourists through the minefield, joking that they need to be careful not to step on a mine.
"Do you know what we say when a cow steps on a land mine?" asks the guide. "Cow sushi."
Mr. Foisy was not amused by the humour, and left the region after making contact with a colleague of the two journalists in Bangkok.
"There were only five phones in the whole village, and none of them seemed to work," said Mr. Foisy, who ended up recounting his adventures to the Foreign Correspondents Association in Bangkok earlier this week.
"I am doing everything I can to help them get out of jail," he added.
During his conversation with the journalists, he questioned their motives in travelling to such an outback region.
"I asked Vincent that morning if he was on one side in particular," said Mr. Foisy. "He simply told me that he was a journalist and that he was there to report what was happening."
Source: National Post