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.
“Before the disappearance of Sombath, there was some optimism that civil society could be a force for change in Laos. Since his disappearance, such hopes have been virtually extinguished, since most people are now too scared to do anything that might rile the regime,”
Martin Steward-Fox in Laos: Reform or Revolution, The Diplomat, 28 September 2016
Sombath Somphone’s early life took place amidst uncertainty and turbulence as Laos was swept into the Indochina War. He eventually escaped this by winning a scholarship to the University of Hawaii, where he earned degrees in education and agriculture. By 1980, he was home again. That same year Sombath helped launch the Rice-Based Integrated Farm System Project, to help Laotian farmers achieve food security. The ensuing years exposed him intimately to the world of rural Laos and to the complex obstacles awaiting development workers in its remote scattered villages.
From citation for the 2005 Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership
The ACSC/APF 2016 will not take place in Lao PDR, due to concerns over possible restrictions and limited freedom of expression on key issues of concerns of ASEAN which are inconsistent with the agreed ACSC/APF’s modality of engagement.
From the CSO Statement of the 2016 ACSC/APF recently held in Timor Leste. Ironically, the forum’s Regional Steering Committee imposed their own restrictions and limitations by releasing the statement before participants at the forum could voice their concerns on its contents.
They have disappeared him. His name is Sombath Somphone, and he was — I’m not sure what the right tense is — a civil-society leader. They snatched him out of his car…
I’m thinking, “Can’t some government turn the screws on Laos — the financial screws — until they cough this man up? Should it be that hard? It doesn’t require an invasion or the breaking of diplomatic relations or anything, does it? How about a little financial pressure, à la the Magnitsky Act? Anything!”
Party 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 Index, the foundation ranked the Lao PDR 120th out of 127 countries. Only North Korea ranked lower among Asian nations.