Peter Ratsamy, a Laotian businessman in St. Paul, doesn't consider himself political.
But Ratsamy, owner of Asian Jewelry Inc. and Capital Deli, wondered whether he has been drawn into simmering hostilities between some Lao and Hmong people in the city that has, in recent weeks, led to arson at several Asian businesses and violence targeting at least one Hmong leader.
Early Sunday morning, St. Paul police and firefighters responded to a two-alarm fire at Ratsamy's small retail building at 291 W. University Ave. Firefighters extinguished the blaze, which caused about $100,000 in damage, blackening interior walls, floors and racks of DVDs belonging to a video retailer, one of the building's six tenants.
Authorities believe the fire was the work of arsonists. But as of Sunday afternoon, they didn't believe the blaze was linked to other fire-related incidents.
Ratsamy agreed, noting he has stayed clear of the heated debate in St. Paul's Laotian and Hmong community over whether the U.S. should normalize trade relations with Laos, which is currently under communist rule.
"I don't go into politics myself. I don't get into that,'' Ratsamy, 41, said. But he added, "I don't know if I am a target or not.''
St. Paul police responded to a burglar alarm at 2:06 a.m. at Ratsamy's building. Fire crews also responded as reports of smoke and flames came in about the same time, according to Deputy Fire Chief Bob Morrison.
Firefighters brought the blaze under control and investigators moved in, finding evidence of arson at several spots inside the structure. Items from at least one of the stores were strewn on the street.
"There was more than one point of ignition," said St. Paul police officer Paul Schnell, department spokesman. "There were items that were moved or discarded from the businesses on University Avenue by people, we believe, involved in the arson."
A fire investigator found two gas tanks and a burning log inside the building, Ratsamy said Sunday afternoon as he surveyed the fire damage.
Ratsamy, who has owned the building since 2000, said it probably will take several weeks to clean and refinish the interior of the main building. However, he hopes to reopen within a few days his Capital Deli, which appeared to sustain only smoke damage.