Silencing of a Laotian son: the life, work, and enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone, by Ng Shui Meng, Spirit in Education Movement & International Network of Engaged Buddhists, 2022, US$10.00 (paperback), US$5.00 (eBook)
On 15 December 2012, Sombath Somphone was abducted at a police checkpoint in the Lao capital of Vientiane. The victim of an enforced disappearance, his whereabouts remains unknown.
In Silencing of a Laotian Son, Ng Shui Meng provides a moving memoir of Sombath’s life, work and disappearance. Beginning by detailing the circumstances of his abduction, the book then shifts back to Sombath’s childhood to provide a chronological biography that charts his life experiences across Laos, the United States and Singapore. Later chapters discuss many of the efforts that have been made to locate Sombath since 2012, as well as the unrelenting stonewalling of these efforts by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). Continue reading “Book Review: Silencing of a Laotian Son”
Civic space remains ‘closed’ in Laos in ratings published by the CIVICUS Monitor in December 2021. The rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly remained severely restricted, and the state exercised strict control over media and civil society.
In recent months the government has continued to repress its people, both inside the country and outside its borders. An exiled Lao dissident has sought refuge in Canada after he was arrested in Thailand and threatened with deportation. The Hmong community continued to face state-sponsored discrimination, amidst an increased push for foreign investments in the Xaysomboun region. December 2021 marked nine years since human rights defender Sombath Somphone was forcibly disappeared. Continue reading “Political Dissident From Laos Finds Refuge as Ethnic Hmong Indigenous People Remain at Risk”
My dearest Sombath, today is 17 February, your birthday. This year is also the Year of the Tiger. Since you are also born in the Year of the Tiger, it means that you have reached your 6th cycle according to the Lunar calendar, therefore marking your 72nd year on earth.
Reaching the 6th cycle of your life is an especially auspicious occasion. If you are with us today, we would be celebrating this day with all your friends and family. Unfortunately you are not with us.
I know that you do not care much about celebrating birthdays or any other day in the calendar. But today is special. So I know you will allow us to fuss over you a bit. Unfortunately, you are not with us and we still don’t know where you are. However, regardless of where you are, I together with everyone in the family would be sending you our special wishes and prayers on this auspicious day. We are all praying and wishing that you will remain strong and healthy physically and emotionally, and wherever you are, you will be surrounded by people who would take good care of you. Continue reading “Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (26)”
Sombath Somphone has devoted his entire life working to promote education and sustainable development among young people in Laos PDR. His enforced disappearance in 2012 unfortunately cut short his work. His wife Ng Shui Meng has written a book entitled Silencing of a Laotian Son – the Life, Work and Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone. The book was launched in Bangkok, Siam (Thailand) on 14 December 2021. Proceeds from the sale of the book will go towards the Sombath Somphone Education Fund to continue Sombath’s work.
The Sombath Somphone Education Fund will provide scholarships to children, especially girls, ages 7-17 to receive primary and secondary education, and to young school drop-outs or graduates, ages 14-20 to attend vocational training schools where they can learn some life-skills.
The Sombath Family will match each donation to the fund dollar for dollar.
Donations to the Sombath Education Fund can be made through clicking on this link: https://www.inebnetwork.org/donation/ When making the donation, please specifically note that it is for the Sombath Somphone Education Fund.
It was with a mix of profound sadness and deep admiration that I read Shui Meng Ng’s recently published biography of her husband, Silencing of a Laotian Son: The Life, Work and Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone. Sadness because this December will mark 10 years since Sombath was disappeared, 10 years since CCTV footage showed his jeep being stopped by police and his being bundled into a truck before it speeds away. As Shui Meng writes in the book, these were “the last images I have seen of Sombath since.”
Admiration because in all of that time Shui Meng Ng has never stopped pressing for answers, never stopped fighting to prevent Sombath from being forgotten about and never stopped believing that despite the huge power imbalance, she can hold the Laotian authorities to account. I invited Shui Meng to the Dublin Platform in 2013, ten months after Sombath’s disappearance, and the words she spoke then epitomise how she has lived the last decade:
Despite the concerns for safety of myself and my family, Sombath’s disappearance has taught me that silence is a form of defeat. I cannot accept such defeat and I cannot ignore such violations of my husband’s rights.
This type of courage, and commitment to do what is right, is apparent in great supply in the pages of Silencing of a Laotian Son which details Sombath’s journey from a childhood of poverty and hardship, a year of which was spent as a refugee on the Thai side of Laos border, to academic excellence in the USA.
Above all though what shines through is Sombath’s absolute dedication to improving the lives of his fellow Laotians. Following the Communist takeover of Laos in 1975, it would have been easy for him to settle and make his life in the US, where he was studying at the time, but he chose to return to Laos in the 1980s to try to introduce new farming and land management techniques that he had developed through his studies. Shui Meng remembers that when Sombath first arrived in the US, he was astounded by the abundance of food in American households, and “food security was one of the reasons why, later in life, Sombath chose to study agronomy. His aim was to find ways to reduce food insecurity for poor farming households in Laos.”
Sadly Sombath’s efforts were blocked at every turn by the Laotian government who were suspicious of him because he studied in the USA. Ironically, when he was in the USA, the FBI were interested in him because he wanted to go home to Communist Laos. This absurd situation is what happens when politics is placed above human rights. Sombath persevered and founded the first indigenous non-profit in Lao PDR providing training to rural communities to foster development on their own terms.
It is believed that Sombath was finally disappeared as a result of his involvement in the Asia-Europe People’s Forum in November 2012, a biennial conference to promote exchange between civil society in Asia and Europe. It was the first time that an international civil society event was held in Lao PDR, and during it Sombath spoke on the importance of government dialogue with civil society, and listened as fellow Laotians spoke out about illegal land seizures. Some of those who spoke out were reportedly threatened by officials and Sombath, unsurprisingly, wanted an investigation into those threats. He vanished a few weeks later.
My predecessors have written a number of times to the Laotian authorities on Sombath but only received repeated claims of ignorance about his fate. In February of last year I joined with the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and two other Special Rapporteurs in writing once again to the Laotian government asking why no further updates on the investigation had been provided to Shui Meng or published since shortly after his disappearance. We also asked why the authorities had not met with Shui Meng since 2017, despite their assurances that they would regularly provide her with updates. The authorities have yet to respond.
In Sombath’s disappearance, Laos has lost one of its best. In writing this book, Shui Meng has ensured that Sombath can continue to serve as an inspiration to future generations of Laotians and to human rights defenders everywhere.
Silencing of A Laotian Son: The Life, Work and Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone
By Ng Shui Meng
International Network of Engaged Buddhists/Paperback/292 pages/ US$10 (S$13.50) before delivery costs/ Buy at inebnetwork.org/book-shop
The image on the cover is the last-known one of the man, a grainy screen grab from a closed-circuit television camera from the evening of Dec 15, 2012, in front of a police post in Vientiane, Laos. Community development worker Sombath Somphone, who would be 70 this February, has not been seen since. Even his Jeep has not been found.
His Singaporean wife Ng Shui Meng, who moved to Laos to be with him in 1986, covers more than half a century in the book, which is written in a simple, straightforward and gentle manner.
Today is Christmas Eve and I am in Singapore where I will be celebrating Christmas with my family. In the past, you and I also often came back to Singapore to celebrate Christmas and New Year with my family. But now it’s only me!
Sombath, to mark the ninth anniversary of your disappearance, I went to Bangkok to launch a book I wrote about you. It is called, “Silencing of a Laotian Son –the Life, Work and Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone”. The book launch took place on 14 December at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) and it was very well attended. Many people are still concerned about you and they are still outraged that after 9 years the Lao authorities still did not provide any information of the investigation of your abduction. It was clear to all that such withholding of information of your whereabouts is a cover-up. Continue reading “Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (25)”
“I wish I had gone up to hug him,” she recalls of the last time she saw him on that December evening in 2012. Today, she’s still fighting for answers.
By Alastair McCready
Shui-Meng’s husband had just finished playing table tennis when he arrived at her shop as she was closing up one early evening. Glancing over across the small handicraft store—adorned with traditional handwoven silk, rattan baskets and bamboo goods—she would tell Sombath that she’d be ready to set off home shortly and to meet her outside.
Driving home in separate cars, Shui-Meng could see her husband’s black Jeep following close behind as they made the short drive through downtown Vientiane—the sleepy, low-lying capital of Laos sitting on the banks of the Mekong river.
On the ninth anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, we, the undersigned organizations, reiterate our calls on the Lao government to determine his fate and whereabouts, and deliver justice to him and his family.
We condemn the Lao government’s ongoing failure to solve Sombath’s disappearance, and its refusal to provide any updates on his case. In previous years, the government made occasional statements to claim it was still investigating Sombath’s disappearance. However, over the past year a curtain of silence has fallen on Sombath’s case. The government’s last public remarks on Sombath’s case were made on 28 September 2020, during the UN (United Nations) Human Rights Council’s adoption of the third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Laos. During that review, the government did not accept all five recommendations that called for an adequate investigation into Sombath’s enforced disappearance, despite stating that it recognized that “the search for missing Lao citizens, including Sombath Somphone, is the duty of the Lao government.”
On 5 February 2021, four UN Human Rights Council’s Special Procedure mandate holders wrote to the Lao government to reiterate their concern regarding the lack of progress in the investigation into Sombath’s disappearance. In their communication, the UN human rights experts noted an “absence of evidence to indicate that efforts have been made to further the search for his [Sombath’s] fate and whereabouts.”  To date, the government has not replied to this communication.
Even more troubling is the government’s ongoing failure to meet with Sombath’s wife, Shui Meng Ng, and provide her with any updates on his case since December 2017, despite her repeated requests. It is evident that the government’s protracted and deliberate silence is aimed at consigning the case of Sombath to oblivion.
Our organizations condemn the government’s inaction and silence, and remain steadfast in supporting Sombath’s family in its quest for truth and justice. Until Sombath’s fate and whereabouts are revealed, we will continue to demand the Lao government answer the question: “Where is Sombath?”
We also stand in solidarity with all the other victims of enforced disappearances in Laos, and we reiterate our demand that all cases be effectively investigated in accordance with international standards, the perpetrators of such serious crimes be identified and held accountable in fair trials, and victims be afforded an effective remedy and full reparations.
Enforced disappearance is a serious human rights violation and is unequivocally prohibited under international law. Relatives of people who are forcibly disappeared are themselves victims of enforced disappearance and have the right to an effective remedy for violations of international human rights law.
We are also extremely concerned at what appears to be a retreat by diplomats and donors in Laos from interventions to uphold and protect the rights of all people in Laos. We urge Laos’ donor and diplomatic community to continuously and publicly highlight to the Lao government the importance and urgency of meeting its human rights commitments and obligations.
Lastly, we urge the Lao government to ratify without further delay the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which Laos signed in September 2008, and incorporate the Convention’s provisions into the national legal framework, implement them in practice, and recognize the Committee on Enforced Disappearance’s jurisdiction to receive and consider communications from or on behalf of victims or other states parties.
Sombath Somphone was last seen at a police checkpoint on a busy street of the Lao capital, Vientiane, on the evening of 15 December 2012. Footage from a CCTV camera showed that Sombath’s vehicle was stopped at the police checkpoint and that, within minutes, unknown individuals forced him into another vehicle and drove him away in the presence of police officers. CCTV footage also showed an unknown individual driving Sombath’s vehicle away from the city center. The presence of police officers at Sombath’s abduction and their failure to intervene strongly indicates state agents’ participation in Sombath’s enforced disappearance.
1. Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma (ALTSEAN-Burma) 2. Amnesty International 3. ARTICLE 19 4. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) 5. Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) 6. Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) 7. Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) 8. Asian Resource Foundation (ARF) 9. Association of Women for Awareness and Motivation (AWAM) 10. Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM) 11. Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) 12. Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) 13. Center for Prisoners’ Rights 14. Centre for Civil and Political Rights 15. CETRI – Centre tricontinental 16. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation 17. Commission for Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS) 18. Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) 19. Cross Cultural Foundation (CrCF) 20. CSW 21. Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC) 22. FIDH – International Federation for Human Rights, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders 23. Focus on the Global South 24. Fortify Rights 25. Fresh Eyes 26. Hawai’i Center for Human Rights Research & Action 27. Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) 28. Human Rights Watch 29. International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) 30. International Rivers 31. Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw) 32. Justice for Peace Foundation (JPF) 33. Karapatan Alliance Philippines 34. Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) 35. League for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran (LDDHI) 36. Maldivian Democracy Network (MDN) 37. Manushya Foundation 38. MARUAH 39. Mekong Watch 40. Mother Nature Cambodia 41. Nonviolence International 42. Odhikar 43. People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD) 44. People’s Watch 45. Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor 46. Programme Against Custodial Torture and Impunity (PACTI) 47. Rotary Peace Fellowship Alumni Association (RPFAA) 48. Stiftung Asienhaus 49. Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM) 50. Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) 51. Thai Lawyers for Human Rights (TLHR) 52. The William Gomes Podcast 53. Transnational Institute 54. Union for Civil Liberty (UCL) 55. Vietnam Committee on Human Rights (VCHR) 56. Women’s Peace Network (WPN) 57. Women’s Rehabilitation Centre (WOREC) 58. World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders 59. World Rainforest Movement (WRM)
Prof. Anuradha Chenoy Dr. David JH Blake, Independent scholar, UK Dhevy Sivaprakasam, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel, Access Now Randy Arnst William Nicholas Gomes
Another year has passed. We do not forget. We do not need an anniversary to remember.
I think of you and Sombath every single day. Let me tell you why.
When I first met Sombath, I was impressed by his calm and wisdom. His talk was soft and powerful. Then I got to know Sombath on his farm. I realised that not only was he practising sustainable living, but that his strength was rooted into his love for nature. A bright intellectual and a passionate farmer. He had built a coherent vision and developed concrete actions. He has been sharing his knowledge consistently, investing in young generations. At the time, I did not know how deep his imprint would be.
Today, I know that I would not have had the courage to make certain decisions, would I not have met Sombath. From a role model I admired at first in a diffuse way, Sombath guided our steps when setting-up an organic farm here in Indonesia, and he gave me the confidence to engage in a more sustainable way of living. Sombath and his beautiful thinking now continue clearly to inspire our engagement with the community and our willingness to operate as an open learning space. To me, Sombath is more present than ever, through the daily practice of what I have learnt from him. And his vision about a harmonised cohabitation with a generous nature proves increasingly relevant in our world, threatened by greed and destruction.
Another year has passed. Sombath is being remembered, not just for this sad anniversary. Sombath is remembered every day, and will continue to be, by the many people he has inspired and continues to inspire for the better.
Dear Shui-Meng, you and Somath are in our hearts. Today and every day to come.