Will Laos bend over EU pressure on Sombath?

Asian Correspondent: 16 March 2013

Rob O’Brien

It has been more than three months since the activist and sustainable development campaigner Sombath Somphone was last seen on a busy road in Vientiane.

Sombath Somphone
Asian luminaries pose at the backstage of the Cultural Center of the Philippines prior to awarding ceremony for the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Awards Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2005 in Manila, Philippines. The awardees, from left, Senator Jon Ungphakorn of Thailand for Government Service, Teten Masduki of Indonesia for Public Service, Dr. V. Shantha of India for Public Service, Sombath Somphone of Laos for Community Leadership, Matiur Rahman of Bangladesh for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts and Yoon Hye-Ran of South Korea for Emergent Leadership. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

The now infamous CCTV footage capturing his final moments offer the clearest indication that his disappearance was a carefully planned abduction. His jeep was stopped by police on December 15 before he was driven away in a separate vehicle and never seen again.

The government and police have continued to deny any role in his disappearance and an ongoing investigation has failed to yield any answers as to where Sombath is or why he was snatched in the first place.

Along with local and international NGOs and other supporters, his wife, Shui-Meng Ng, has built an international campaign that has kept up the pressure on the Lao government.

International delegations and diplomats continue to express concern about Sombath’s whereabouts, most recently an EU delegation, but to date Lao officials have remained staunchly on message and Shui-Meng says she’s heard the same answers time and time again.

“Members of diplomatic corp has met high level government leaders and ministers, but answers are the same: ‘We are also very concerned and doing all we can, the police have been doing an investigation, but we have not found Sombath – we are sad that this happened, etc..’” she says.

Next week will mark 100 days since his disappearance and the EU has vowed to crank up the pressure through “a new phase of international activity,” with Sombath’s case becoming a priority for the European Parliament at the UN Human Rights Council.

Dutch Senator and EU Delegation leader Tuur Elzinga was keen to spell out that the EU’s resolve won’t bend on the missing activist. “If Lao officials think the issue of Sombath’s disappearance will go away, they are wrong,” he said.

But as the 100-day milestone approaches, the long days of campaigning are beginning to take their toll on his wife.

“I am very tired and discouraged of week after week with no news and no leads, but what choice do I have but to keep trying and persevering and try every lead and every means to find Sombath?” she says.

“My life is on hold – waiting, waiting, hoping and hoping and at times feeling helpless and hopeless. I just have to keep faith that Sombath is still alive… as anything otherwise is completely unthinkable.”