Asean Urged to Step in over Missing Activist

The Nation: 21 February 2013

Asean and its human rights body were urged to intervene in the disappearance of Lao social activist Sombath Somphone amid the failure of the authorities in Vientiane to trace his whereabouts.

File photo : Sombath

The Lao government’s long silence about Sombath’s whereabouts are increasing our concerns for his safety,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“The authorities seem more focused on deflecting international criticism than genuinely investigating Sombath’s disappearance,” he said

There is strong evidence of the role of Laotian authorities into the disappearance of Sombath, a prominent 60-year-old social activist who received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005, more than two months ago, Human Rights Watch said.

He was last seen by his wife, Ng Shui Meng, on December 15 as they were driving separately back from his office to their home for dinner. Shiu Meng lost sight of Sombath’s jeep at around 6pm near the police post on Thadeua Road in Vientiane, and he never arrived home.

Security camera footage from the Municipality Police Station, obtained by Shui Meng, shows that Sombath’s jeep was stopped by police at the Thadeua police post at 6:03pm.

Sombath was then taken into the police post.

Later, a motorcyclist stopped at the police post and drove off with Sombath’s jeep, leaving his own motorcycle by the roadside. Another truck with flashing lights then came and stopped at the police post.

Two people got out of the truck took Sombath into the vehicle, and then drove off. “It’s been incredibly frustrating to not have more visibility into the progress of the investigation,” Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, told AFP by telephone from Vientiane after talks with the Lao vice foreign minister.

“I was assured that they are investigating – that’s what the vice minister told me – but I made sure that he understood that not having more information is not helpful,” Baer said, expressing disappointment that he was unable to meet any officials from the ministry of public security.

The campaigner won the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership for his work in poverty reduction and sustainable development in a country that remains one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations.

The secretive one-party communist state – which exerts total control over the media and does not tolerate criticism – has in recent years gradually given local civil society groups more room to operate.

But Sombath’s disappearance has sent jitters through the activist network.

“There’s no question that it’s had a chilling effect,” Baer said.

“For as long as the case remains unresolved and Sombath doesn’t come home to his wife, the international community as well as many people here who know and love him will continue to ask questions,” he added.