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  Exiled Laos Prince Appeals to US

By Frederic J. Frommer
Associated Press Writer
Thursday, Feb. 24, 2000; 6:08 p.m. EST

WASHINGTON –– The exiled crown prince of Laos, whose grandfather was toppled from power by communists after the Vietnam War, urged the United States to try to negotiate a transition to democracy in his homeland.

Prince Soulivong Savang, heir to the throne, said the communists have turned Laos into an economic and human rights disaster. Laotians living abroad "have asked the royal family to work towards a return," he said Thursday.

Savang, 36, said he would be willing to preside over a constitutional monarchy if that's what the people of Laos prefer.

"If I had a chance to go back to Laos, the first thing I bring is freedom," he said through an interpreter at a news conference. "But this is not going to be an easy task. Democracy has to be learned, and people have to learn their rights."

Savang's uncle, Prince Sauryavong Savang, the patriarch of the royal family, acknowledged it's unlikely the communist government will cede power. "But in light of the disastrous economic situation in Laos right now, and the fact that Laotians abroad are successful, we can go back and help rebuild the country," he said.

The princes and other members of the royal family are spending the week in the United States, seeking to put pressure on Laos, one of the few remaining communist nations. The family, which lives in France, has scheduled meetings with lawmakers and has an appointment Friday with officials at the State Department.

The State Department declined to comment on the possibility of U.S.-brokered talks with the Laotian government. A spokesman for the Laotian embassy rejected the idea.

"The prince and the royal family don't have any importance in Laos nowadays," said the spokesman, Mai Sayavongs. "We are not interested in talking or negotiating with the prince or any other organization that is based in exile."

The monarchy, which dates to the 1300s, shared power with the Communist Pathet Lao on-and-off through the 1960s and '70s. The communists took complete control in 1975 and sent the king and queen and other members of the royal family to "re-education camps," where they died.

This week, the Lao Veterans of America called on the Laotian government to release the remains of the king and queen, as well as provide any information about two missing Laotian-Americans, Michael Vang of Fresno, Calif., and Houa Ly of Appleton, Wis.

Ly, who fought with CIA-backed forces in Laos during the Vietnam War, and Vang disappeared last April while on vacation. They were last seen boarding a boat on the Mekong River that divides Thailand and Laos.

Some Laotian groups and some members of Congress say the Laotian government kidnapped, imprisoned and possibly killed the men. Laotian officials say they know nothing of their whereabouts.

© Copyright 2000 The Associated Press

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