Lao Police Arrest Suspect in Disappearance of Korean Tourist, Relative Says

Lao police have arrested a resident of a village in Luang Prabang province in the northern part of the country on suspicion of involvement in the disappearance of a South Korean woman, a relative of the accused man said.

On June 3, officers arrested Pheang Phatthakone, a 45-year-old a resident of Kilometer 8 village in the province’s Luang Prabang district, following a presumed tipoff that he was involved in the woman’s disappearance on May 22, said the relative who spoke to RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity.

The woman who, is in her 30s, was traveling alone when she visited the Khouangxi waterfalls, a popular tourist attraction 29 kilometers (18 miles) south of the town of Luang Prabang. Pheang reportedly saw her there while he was collecting banana flowers, his relative said.

The hotel where the woman was staying reported her disappearance to the police after she did not show up, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported on May 29.

South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not release the woman’s name, the report said, and the Lao media have not reported Pheang’s arrest.

Pheang’s relative said authorities do not have any concrete evidence that Pheang was involved in the woman’s disappearance.

“After the disappearance, news spread that a man told villagers that he saw the woman who disappeared near the Khouangxi waterfalls,” he said. “Unfortunately, one of villagers informed police about what he said.”

The following day, the police took Pheang to the spot where he said he saw the woman and twice called him in for questioning, Pheang’s relative said.

Then on June 3, police arrested Pheang and have not allowed him to see his family, he said.

“I am very concerned that he will be physically assaulted and forced to confess to the crime,” he said, adding that police did not inform the family of the arrest and did not produce an arrest warrant for Pheang.

“The police did not tell us why he was arrested, and they have not provided any evidence proving that he has killed this woman,” he said. “Our family is in shock about what has happened.”

Pheang picks banana flowers—the blossoms from a banana tree—for a living to support his three children, his relative said.

‘We have not arrested him’

In the meantime, police have denied that they have arrested Pheang, but have acknowledged that he is part of the investigation.

“We have not arrested him yet, but have just taken him in for questioning, according to the directive of senior supervising officials at police headquarters and the prosecutor’s office,” said Captain Phone, the officer in charge of investigation who only gave his first name.

“Now the police are investigating him to ensure that everything is clear, and then he will be released,” he told RFA on Wednesday.

Captain Phone declined to provide further details about the investigation procedures and suggested that RFA contact the tourism police.

When RFA called three tourism police officers working on the investigation, they refused to answer questions.

A legal expert who declined to be named told RFA on Wednesday that he is following the case closely.

“If there is no strong evidence to support the arrest, it is not necessary for police to detain [Pheang] for more than 48 hours, and the provincial prosecutor must order his release,” he said.

“If the detention exceeds 48 hours, the relatives of the suspect can submit a request to the prosecutor to consider releasing him,” he said.

Detentions of people suspected of committing cimes without any evidence and the abuse of power by police officers are normal phenomena in authoritarian Laos, he added.

Officials from the South Korean embassy in Laos joined Lao police to search the area where the woman went missing, but found no clues, Yonhap reported. The embassy is continuing its search efforts.