Dear Sombath…from Galileo

Dear Sombath,

I began meeting you only after they said you were gone, a victim of enforced disappearance.

I first met you in an email sent by my colleague at Focus on the Global South, Joseph Purugganan exactly one year ago, when I first joined the organization as a budding activist. He mentioned of the dramatic rise in the killing of environmentalists all over the world and the need to programmatically address the issue of extrajudicial killings and criminalization of dissent, as part of the Sombath Initiative and Focus’ broader Power and Democracy program. I was intrigued by your life so I began digging deeper and learning more about your ideas and ideals.

We are similar, in a way, in our preference of working in the field with the people rather than writing about it.

I met you for the second time, in Malaysia, in the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/APF). People were talking about you. People spoke of how you pioneered the use of Participatory Rural Appraisal in Laos and how you helped the Lao people to come up with solutions by themselves. Continue reading

Asean civil society meet dodges Laos for E Timor

Bangkok Post: 25 April 2016

In the second decade of the Asean civil society and people’s forum, the civic groups will meet not in the host country for the first time, but in non-Asean member East Timor instead. Every year before the Asean Summit, a conference known as the Asean Civil Society Conference/Asean People’s Forum (ACSC/APF), where hundreds of civil society activists from the Asean region gather to represent the voice of civil society, is held parallel to the official Asean Summit.

This year the theme of the conference, to be held in in August, is “Expanding People’s Solidarity for a Just and Inclusive Asean Community”. It will be held in East Timor’s Dili, according to Atnike Sigiro, a steering committee member of the Asean NGO mechanism created in 2005.

“It’s an effort by Asean civil society to reach out to people in Timor Leste, which soon will join Asean. The title also represents an expansion of solidarity among the people in the Asean region,” said Ms Sigiro from Forum-Asia. Continue reading

Une dictature pas très dérangeante

Le Courrier: 18 avril 2016

Sombath & Youth-006

Sombath Somphone était la figure la plus visible de la société civile laotienne. Il avait 60 ans lorsqu’il a disparu après avoir été arrêté par la police laotienne en 2012. Son amie suisse Anne-Sophie Gindroz (médaillon) raconte.

La république populaire du Laos ne tolère aucune protestation face à ses projets de barrages ou miniers . La coopérante Anne-Sophie Gindroz en a fait les frais en 2012. Elle signe un livre poignant.

Géographiquement pris en sandwich entre la Thaïlande et le Vietnam, le Laos est un pays qui fait peu parler de lui. Cette discrétion sur le plan international semble convenir au régime autoritaire en place qui continue à réprimer toute opposition impunément – notamment par des disparitions forcées.

Les simulacres d’élections législatives du 20 mars dernier n’ont trompé personne mais n’ont guère suscité de protestations de la part de la communauté internationale. Une situation qui a le don d’irriter Anne-Sophie Gindroz, ex-coopérante de l’œuvre d’entraide suisse Helvetas, qui a été expulsée du Laos en 2012. Un peu plus de trois ans après les faits, elle publie un livre1 qui retrace son travail sur place auprès des communautés locales chassées de leurs terres par le gouvernement «communiste» et relate les circonstances de son éviction. Continue reading

Mrs Angkana launches signature collection campaign to demand revival of Somchai’s case

Thai Visa News: 22 April 2016

Angkana Neelaphaichit-22 April 2016

BANGKOK: — The widow of missing Muslim lawyer Somchai Nilapaichit has launched a signature collection campaign to demand the revival of the enforced disappearance case of her husband.

Mrs Angkana Nilapaichit, a member of the human rights committee of the Law Council of Thailand, told Post Today Online that the campaign through the social media, www.change.org, which started a month ago has already collected about 17,000 signatures against her demand of at least 25,000 signatures.

Once the required signatures are collected, she said she would submit a petition accompanied by the list of signatures to Justice Minister Paiboon Kumchaya and six other persons to demand the revival of Mr Somchai’s case in an independent and transparent manner.

Somchai has disappeared without any traces about 12 years ago while he served as a defence lawyers for some of the suspected southern separatists. All the police officers charged with involvement in the lawyer’s disappearance have been acquitted.

Mrs Angkana said, besides the demand for the revival of the case, the signature campaign was intended to create public awareness about human rights, rights to safety and protection from enforced disappearance.

Note: The petition can be found here.

Is Laos’ ASEAN Chairmanship a Threat to Southeast Asian Regionalism?

The Diplomat: 15 April 2016

Sombath Somphone (d.) en compagnie de l'archevêque sud-africain Desmund Tutu en 2006. Wikimedia Commons / Shui-Meng Ng

Sombath Somphone, seen in 2006 with Desmond Tutu. Wikimedia Commons

Laos is a country that is usually described in accordance with one of two narratives.

The first portrays a Buddhist Shangri-La — the ‘real,’ ‘hidden,’ and ‘untouched’ Indochina dreamed of in Western backpacker fantasies — while the second depicts a highly impoverished country in desperate need of foreign aid and technical assistance.

Both depictions have some merit. Laos is rich in Buddhist history and it is predominantly an agrarian-based society where the average life expectancy is just 66 years and Gross National Income per capita is under $5,000. But there is much more to Laos than Buddhism and poverty.

In a recent article by The Diplomat, for example, Luke Hunt highlighted how the coupling of Laos’ draconian media monitoring laws with the country’s current role as the 2016 ASEAN Chair has the potential to constrain international reporting on important transnational issues discussed at ASEAN meetings and conferences. Continue reading

Is Sombath Being Forgotten?

Logo-Speak Out-Points to PonderAs Laos celebrates its traditional new year, a few points to ponder:

  • While the Lao government claims it is continuing to investigate Sombath’s disappearance, no results have been released in nearly three years. But is anybody still asking?
  • Within days of his disappearance, Sombath’s family filed an appeal with the Supreme People’s Prosecutor. Authorities later claimed the document had been lost. But were attempts made to replace it?
  • Sombath co-chaired the Asia-Europe People’s Forum in 2012, and was abducted soon thereafter. Will AEPF be raising Sombath’s case at their meeting in Mongolia this July?
  • Will Sombath, other human rights issues, or the challenges facing Lao civil society be addressed at this year’s Lao Studies Conference in July?
  • Lao NPAs (and/or the Lao government) declined to host the Asia People’s Forum in Laos this year, in part because of issues surrounding Sombath. Will his plight be discussed at the ACSC/APF in East Timor?
  • The EU and other donors are providing significant support for INGOs and NPAs to follow-up on the Universal Periodic Review, which includes ten recommendations to more seriously investigate Sombath’s disappearance. Is Sombath’s name mentioned in any of this work?
  • Will world leaders attending this year’s ASEAN summit speak of Sombath or the worsening human rights situation in Laos, or will wider geopolitical issues prevail?
  • Will donors accept even more restriction, non-transparency and self-censorship at this year’s High-Level Donor Roundtable meeting?

BertelsmannStiftung Foundation’s 2016 Report

BertelsmannStiftung Foundation: 2016

Bertelsmann Stiftung-logoParty leaders furthermore urged tighter control over civil society organizations in the face of alleged but unsubstantiated efforts to undermine the party. In the wake of community leader Sombath Somphone’s unexplained disappearance in late 2012, the deplorable investigation of which attracted condemnation from around the world, increased pressure on civil society organizations produced levels of fear and self-censorship reminiscent of a more oppressive past. In this context, leaders’ ongoing claims to be strengthening the rule of law – another rhetorical theme in Laos – continued to fall flat.

From the 2016 BertelsmannStiflung Foundation’s Laos Country Report.  On its Political Transformation Indexthe foundation ranked the Lao PDR 120th out of 127 countries. Only North Korea ranked lower among Asian nations.

Amnesty’s new report on Laos

Amnesty International

Amnesty InternationalSombath Somphone, a prominent civil society member who was abducted outside a police post in the capital, Vientiane, in December 2012, remained disappeared with no progress in his case. In March, a former military general heading a non-profit organization – widely believed to be a government proxy – made a failed attempt to have Sombath Somphone’s name removed from the agenda of the ASEAN People’s Forum event. No progress was made in the case of Sompawn Khantisouk, an entrepreneur who was active on conservation issues. He remained disappeared since being abducted by men believed to be police in 2007.

From Amnesty International’s 2015/2016 report. The full report, which also raises concerns about the freedoms of expression and association, is available here.

What is…Enforced Disappearance?

Definition

Logo-What isEnforced disappearance is when a person is secretly taken by the government, or by others with the knowledge and support of state authorities. The government then denies any role in the abduction, as well as knowledge about what happened, or where the person might be. The result is that the person is denied all legal rights and protection.

Enforced disappearance is often considered one of the most serious and brutal crimes for several reasons:

  • The family and colleagues of the victim often have very few legal options. There is usually little evidence, or the authorities refuse to investigate or seek evidence, because they do not acknowledge that a crime was committed.
  • Not only does the victim’s family have no knowledge of what happened to their loved one, they are often afraid to speak out or pursue the case because they fear it may have further negative effects. Because of this, the family is also a victim of the crime.
  • Enforced disappearance also creates significant fear among friends, colleagues and peer groups. Because they usually do not know the specific reason the person was abducted, they become afraid to act. In this way, enforced disappearance can also be a means of repression against wider society.
  • At the same time, enforced disappearance can result in both complicity and complacency among the broader population. Because there is little evidence and no legal case, others can pretend the crime did not occur and that the situation is normal.

Continue reading