Marijke and I met you in Laos some 19 years ago. You may remember that we were expecting our first child then. A few months later, the baby was born and we called her Lorea, meaning ‘flower’ in the Basque language of Northern Spain. Not too long ago, Lorea turned 18 and so I decided to send you an update of what has happened to us since the day we said ‘see you later!’ back in 1997 after a lovely trip through your beautiful country.
In spite of your many responsibilities, you took us to see Luang Prabang and some lovely sites in the area. On the way back from Kwang Xi Waterfall, we chatted for hours standing on the back of the tuktuk – one of my most memorable and, believe it or not, comfortable rides ever! Maybe because of the fact that we were both born in the deep South of our respective countries, but I really felt I had met a soulmate in international cooperation .
After we’d said goodbye to Laos and a few weeks later to Asia, we left for the Netherlands. Waiting for Lorea to be born, I put dozens of pictures of fond memories of Asian people, food, landscapes and experiences into scrap albums. Lorea was born on a pretty autumn day but two months later we left for Ecuador as Marijke had found a position there with a Dutch organization. I landed a job with the UN. Jobwise however, Marijke wasn’t very happy and so she applied for a position in the Netherlands with a focus on South America and – was accepted!
Settling in ‘back home’ wasn’t easy but eventually we did. In spite of her international background, Lorea grew up a typical Dutch toddler and I found a challenging position with a human rights organization also focussing on the Americas. In 2001 our second daughter Claudia was born.
Marijke is still active in the field of international food security while I currently work for an organization supporting children with disabilities. Soon I will leave for Bolivia and Brazil and when I return, Marijke will leave for Tanzania. Earlier this year the four of us enjoyed our summer holidays in Florida – as hot as Laos but without the good food. One of the reasons we went there, was to celebrate Lorea’s graduation. No doubt to a large extent due to the experiences she had in Laos, Ecuador and elsewhere, she has just started her studies in the field of international tourism. Claudia already announced that, like you, she wants to study in the USA. We’ll see where they will end up but you can safely say they are infected with the travel bug!
As you see, it is only a matter of time before at least one of us returns to Laos. We are looking forward to see you, Shui Meng and all of your family again!
With warm regards, Frank Bron
September 14, 2016
The last Universal Periodic Review for the Lao PDR was held in January, 2015.
Seventy-two states made 203 recommendations, and the Lao government accepted 119 of them.
Ninety-three of those accepted recommendations called for a specific action, yet nearly two and one-half years later, and half-way until the next review, authorities have yet to release their plan for follow-up.
And while civil society organisations often play important roles in the follow-up and monitoring of the UPR implementation, those in Laos are apparently obliged to wait for the government plan.
For many countries in Asia and Latin American, this week marks the International Week of the Disappeared (IWD). For this reason, I have been thinking about you even more these days.
Last night I found it difficult to fall asleep thinking about you, and this morning I woke up feeling terribly depressed. I tried to calm myself with meditation, but it was difficult to get into a state of calm when I was so agitated. My mood went from sadness, to anger, and despair! I asked myself what did you do to deserve such injustice when all you ever did was to be a good person and use your knowledge and skills to improve the lives of ordinary Lao people and Lao communities.
After my meditation session, my mind calmed down and I felt a little better. I started to reflect on what you have always told me when you were around. You told me that you have never tried to change the world or change the government system because that is obviously beyond your ability. You said your life goal is only to do your little bit to give back in some little way to the family and the community that have raised you, nourished you, and taught you to become the person you are. And indeed that’s all you have always done – give back wholeheartedly with humility, with humour, and with generosity.
I saw the way you worked – whether you are with ordinary farmers, teachers, students, development partners and colleagues, government officials, or even high-ranking people – you always treated each and everyone with respect and courtesy; you also always chose to listen first and seldom spoke a lot. That has always been your way of dealing with people – open-minded, open-hearted, and never opinionated. I guess that is why you have such a large following among people in the development community, and among so many young people from inside and outside the country.
During this week, the International Week of the Disappeared, as we remember you and all those people who have been forcedly disappeared, I choose to put aside my despair and sadness. I choose to remember all the good that you have done. I believe that you were disappeared because you tried to live up to your principles and your integrity. And it is your “goodness”, and your ideas of “people-centered development” that were deemed so threatening that some people chose to silence you by disappearing you.
Sombath, while I will continue to feel the pain of your absence, I know that your work and what you stand for will continue to inspire people, Lao and non-Lao. I will continue to demand for truth and justice for you, even if all I get is a wall of silence.
Sombath, my love, stay strong, and I too will stay strong for you and for all those who have been forcedly disappeared.
Love you so much, Shui Meng
While the Lao PDR was not able to host the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum last year, applications for participants from Laos to this year’s event in Manila are open.
Criteria include (unofficial English translation):
- ເປັນພົນລະເມືອງລາວທີ່ມາຈາກອົງການຈັດຕັ້ງຕ່າງໆ, ສະມາຄົມ ແລະ ມຸນນິທິ ທີ່ມີຄວາມສົນໃຈກ່ຽວກັບວຽກງານພາກປະຊາຊົນອາຊຽນ. Lao citizen from various organisations (associations and foundations) with an interest in ASEAN civil society work.
- ເປັນຜູ້ທີ່ມີຄວາມສາມາດໃນການສື່ສານ ແລະ ເຂົ້າໃຈພາສາອັງກິດດີສົມຄວນ. Reasonably able to communicate in and understand English.
- ເປັນຜູ້ທີ່ມີຄວາມເຂົ້າໃຈດີສົມຄວນກ່ຽວກັບວຽກງານຂອງອົງການຈັດຕັ້ງທາງສັງຄົມ ແລະ ວຽກງານເວທີພາກປະຊາຊົນອາຊຽນ. Appropriate knowledge of the work of social-sector organisations and ASEAN fora.
- ຜູ້ທີ່ມີປະສົບການຜ່ານຈາກກອງປະຊຸມເວທີພາກປະຊາຊົນອາຊຽນ ແລະ ເຂົ້າຮ່ວມກິດຈະກຳພາກປະຊາຊົນອາຊຽນ ຫລື ຢູຣົບ ແມ່ນຈະໄດ້ຮັບພິຈາລະນາພິເສດ. Those with past experience at the ACSC/APF and attendance at activities for ASEAN or European forums will be give special consideration.
- ເປັນຜູ້ທີ່ມີເວລາເພື່ອເຂົ້າຮ່ວມ ແລະ ປະກອບສ່ວນເຂົ້າກິດຈະກຳຕ່າງໆຢູ່ພາຍໃນ ແລະວຽກງານພາກປະຊາຊົນອາຊຽນຢ່າງຫ້າວຫັນ. Sufficient time to attend and activitely participate in various internal and ASEAN civil society actvities.
- ເປັນຜູ້ທີ່ມີຄວາມສາມາດກຸ້ມຕົນເອງໃນການໃຊ້ຈ່າຍເຂົ້າຮ່ວມກອງປະຊຸມເວທີພາກປະຊາຊົນອາຊຽນຍິ່ງເປັນການດີ. Abilty to pay own costs for attending the ACSC/APF.
Applicants can send a letter of interest to assi…@lao-cso-network.org before 23 June.
Participants will be selected by the APF Committee, although the makeup of this committee is not specified.
Apparently, members of Lao civil society who are not selected will not be allowed to attend.
Sombath speaking about integrated agriculture
Sombath worked closely with Quaker Service Laos (QSL) during the late 1980s and early 1990s. He made significant contributions to their programs, including the Rice Integrated Farming Systems (RIFS) project.
A “History of Quaker Service Laos Development Work 1973-1999″ mentions the RIFS project, and how it evolved into The independent Participator Development Training Center (PADETC) .
While QSL staff wrote a plea to the Lao government soon after Sombath’s abduction, subsequent requests to contribute their thoughts about Sombath and his work have been unanswered.
Those who worked with Sombath are encouraged to share their experiences by writing a Letter to Sombath.
VOA: 18 May 2017
FILE – Laos’ President Bounnhang Vorachith speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping (not pictured) during a bilateral meeting at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China.
Human rights groups have condemned harsh prison sentences and called for the release of three Lao migrant workers who posted critical comments on social media and joined a protest outside the Lao Embassy in Thailand.
The workers, Somphone Phimmasone, 30, Soukan Chaithad, 33, and Ms Lodkham Thammavong, were sentenced in early April to prison terms of between 12 and 20 years.
A harsh message on human rights
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said the sentences sent a “chilling message across Lao civil society that the government is determined to crush the slightest sign of activism and opposition to its authoritarian rule.”
While in Thailand, the migrant workers posted messages on social media critical of the government, alleging corruption, deforestation, and human rights violations.
They also participated in a protest against the government outside the Lao Embassy in December, 2015.
They were arrested in March 2016 after returning to Laos to reapply for official documents before planning a return to Thailand.
Government accuses the 3 of ‘threatening national security’
Lao state-run television showed Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham, being held in custody at the police headquarters in Vientiane. Official reports accused the three of threatening national security and tarnishing the government’s reputation.
Andrea Giorgetta, FIDH Asia Desk director, said the arrests highlighted the government’s close monitoring of citizens abroad.
“The government of Laos went out of its way to persecute these three dissidents actually based in Thailand. It shows that the government is also stepping up on-line monitoring of its citizens because these three have expressed their opinions and criticisms of the government policy,” Giorgetta told VOA.
Laos classified as ‘not free’
The U.S.-based non-governmental organization Freedom House, in its assessment of the civil liberties and media rights, classifies Laos as ‘not free’, with low or zero ratings on political right and liberties.
In 2016, Freedom House noted Lao authorities were increasingly attentive to criticism on social media, detaining citizens for “contentious posts” ahead of Laos chairing meetings of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the migrant workers had taken “advantage of the relative freedom” they experienced in Thailand to criticize the Lao authorities.
“The criticisms should not be a crime,” he said, adding the three were held for several months in pre-trial detention. The sentencing highlighted the “shortcomings in the Lao judicial system,” he said. “There is a complete lack of transparency and accountability within the Lao judicial system, which you see when people don’t have access to lawyers, trials are conducted in secret, families are only informed well afterward of proceedings against their loved ones.”
No tolerance for criticism
The verdicts add to a list of arrests and forced disappearances of activists and protesters who have been critical of issues ranging from land disputes to allegations of corruption and abuse of power.
The high profile disappearance in December 2012 of well known civil society leader Sombath Somphone, after he was seen being arrested at a police checkpoint, remains unresolved amid calls for transparency in the case.
Shalmali Guttal, a spokesperson for “The Sombath Initiative”, said harsh sentencing by authorities in Lao has been on-going over several years as regional governments also look to tighten controls over social media.
A long history
“This is a trend in Lao for sure. It’s been going for a very long time of course because there is no critical discussion publicly about policy, about governance, about how the affairs of the state and society is conducted. So yes, that’s been going on. It is also part of this trend in the region,” Guttal said.
Other cases include the 2009 detention of a group of men and women planning to participate in pro-democracy demonstrations in Laos, while in 2007 an outspoken critic of Chinese sponsored agricultural projects also disappeared.
FIDH’s Giorgetta said with the existing media outlets tightly controlled, increasingly people and Lao civil society have turned to social media to express grievances.
“We have seen arbitrary arrests of activists who have exposed cases of corruption and bad governance,” he said.
Huge construction projects underway
Of key concern are major infrastructure projects, especially by Chinese and Vietnamese investors, including the China-led $6.0 billion, 415 kilometer rail line from northern Laos to the capital Vientiane.
“The infrastructure and development projects being implemented in Laos – but that merely results in massive human rights violations – like the case of the Lao China railway that just started [in construction],” he said.
Robertson’s Human Rights Watch says a major concern for the three migrant workers will be to survive the harsh prison conditions.
He said the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party has applied its “full force to basically ruin these people’s lives and throw them behind bars for long sentences, which given the very poor conditions in Lao prisons, for some of them could be a death sentence.”
FIDH: 16 May 2017
The harsh prison sentences handed down to three Lao government critics are a shocking reminder of Vientiane’s intolerance for any form of peaceful dissent, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today. FIDH and LMHR reiterate their call on the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the three.
“By locking up dissidents for up to two decades, the Lao government has abandoned any pretense of compliance with the country’s international human rights obligations. It’s time for the international community to drop the diplomatic niceties and condemn the Lao government’s latest attack on civil society in the strongest possible terms.” Dimitris Christopoulos, FIDH President
According to information received by LMHR, in early April, Messrs. Somphone Phimmasone, 30, and Soukan Chaithad, 33, were sentenced to 20 and 18 years in prison respectively. Ms. Lodkham Thammavong, in her early 30s, received a 12-year prison sentence. The three are currently detained in Samkhe prison, on the eastern outskirts of Vientiane.
Due to the difficulty of obtaining and verifying information in Laos, it was not immediately clear on what exact day Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham had been sentenced and the charges for which they had been found guilty.
“The imprisonment of Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham sends a chilling message across Lao civil society that the government is determined to crush the slightest sign of activism and opposition to its authoritarian rule.” Vanida Thephsouvanh, LMHR President
The arrest of Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham was due to their repeated criticism of the Lao government while they were working in Thailand. The three had posted numerous messages on Facebook that criticized the government in relation to alleged corruption, deforestation, and human rights violations. On 2 December 2015, Lodkham, Somphone, and Soukan were among a group of about 30 people who protested against their government in front of the Lao embassy in Bangkok.
Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham were arrested in March 2016 after returning to Laos from Thailand on 18 February 2016 to apply for passports in order to re-enter Thailand and obtain the necessary documents to work legally. On 4 March 2016, police arrested Lodkham and Somphone at Lodkham’s family home in Ban Vang Tay Village, Nong Bok District, Khammuan Province. Soukan was arrested on 22 March 2016 at the Lao Ministry of Public Security head office (‘’Ko Po So“) in Savannakhet City.
On 25 May 2016, state-run TV showed Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham in custody at police headquarters in Vientiane. The news report said the three had been arrested for threatening national security by using social media to tarnish the government’s reputation.
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally exercised self-censorship, which civil society considered was a direct result of Sombath Somphone’s disappearance. The chilling effect of the disappearance of an internationally respected civil society advocate caused lesser-known local activists to believe they had little hope of avoiding a similar fate if they were too outspoken.
From US State Department 2016 Human Rights Report on Laos.
Somchai Neelapaijit’s enforced disappearance remains a disheartening reality that we continue to remember. The Sombath Initiative is honored to commemorate his noble efforts in defending the rights of the victims of human rights violations. His endeavors, which challenged the interests and official power of the perpetrators of those violations, in turn made him the victim of human rights violations. His enforced disappearance was done to intimidate and induce fear in people and in the human rights community in particular. His disappearance should not be seen as a loss; neither has it happened in vain. His sacrifice has inspired and continues to inspire us and the wider public to build on and live up to his legacy, especially in eradicating enforced disappearance and in the struggle for genuine freedom and justice amidst the socially and structurally-entrenched widespread human rights violations and culture of impunity that continue to persist.
The Sombath Initiative reaffirms our solidarity with the Neelapaijit family and all the victims of enforced disappearance and their families. We proclaim our commitment to end this heinous crime against humanity and all forms of human rights violations. Our struggles shall endure until justice for the missing loved ones is served and human rights of all people are respected and protected.
The Sombath Initiative
11 March, 2017
Event marking 13 years since the disappearance of Somchai Neelapaijit. The Somchai Neelapaijit Award will also be announced.
11 March 2017: 9:00 AM to 12:45 PM
Pri Banomyong Institute, Thonglor, Bangkok, Thailand