UK Financial Times: Laos under pressure

Laos under pressure to step up probe

Financial Times: 16 January 2013

The Lao government is coming under increased international pressure to step up its promised investigation into the disappearance of a prominent local civic leader, as concerns increase about state involvement in the case.

MPs from other Asean member countries said on Wednesday that Laos’s ruling communist party “clearly had no desire and no political will” to resolve the mystery and urged the government to extend its investigation to the top levels of Laos’s military.

This follows public expressions of concern from the US and other western governments and UN agencies over the case.

The MPs spoke ahead of an expected statement by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton urging Laos to take more action on the case. The three MPs, from the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, visited Vientiane, the Lao capital, where Sombath Somphone went missing on December 15 while driving home one evening from his office.sombathClosed-circuit video footage from police security cameras showed Mr Sombath, founder of a local non-government organisation Padetc, being stopped by traffic police at a roadside post.

Mr Sombath was following his Singaporean wife in a separate car but never arrived home. The government has denied he was taken into custody, claiming the police stop was merely a “routine” check. But grainy CCTV footage shown to his wife at the police station two days later shows a man resembling Mr Sombath being driven away by uniformed Lao officials and other men driving away Mr Sombath’s car.

In a follow-up visit, Mr Sombath’s wife Ng Shui Meng was denied access to the video footage. However, friends had copied the footage on mobile phone cameras on their earlier visit, and posted it on a site created to collect information about the case.

The Lao Government has insisted it has no knowledge of Mr Sombath’s abduction or his whereabouts and is “investigating the matter”. Western diplomats in Vientiane expressed anger at the Lao government’s recent claim in a letter to the UN that his disappearance was due to a “business dispute” or “personal conflict”. Mr Sombath’s family has strongly rejected suggestions he was in a dispute with any party.

In the first contact from Lao police investigators this week, Ms Ng was called into the police station and asked basic details of how she met her husband and the circumstances of their marriage. The Asean MPs described the encounter as “unacceptable.”

In their Vientiane visit, the MPs met Lao officials including the permanent secretary of the foreign ministry and members of the National Assembly.

“The answers we got suggest a script was given to them by someone else . . . our mission raised more questions than answers,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP and human rights campaigner. The civilian component of the Lao government “had no idea what transpired” in Mr Sombath’s disappearance, and only top circles of the military or communist party had the answers, he added.

Delegation members Walden Bello, a Philippine MP and Lily Wahid, an Indonesian MP, said the group would collect signatures of MPs in every Asean country to try to pressure the Lao government to step up its probe, and submit a report to the bloc’s recently established Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights.

In an editorial comment on Wednesday, The Nation newspaper in Thailand said Mr Sombath’s disappearance “looks more and more like a blatant display of political arrogance and central control inside Laos. Increasingly in the new regional landscape, such an authoritarian system is no longer acceptable.”