A Congruence of Disappearances

The Straits Times: 18 April 2013

ST_20130411_JNISOMBATH90GK_3607406eMr Sombath Somphone, a 62-year-old award-winning Laos civil society activist, with his Singaporean wife Ng Shui Meng. Mr Sombath was driving his jeep near a busy intersection in Vientiane when he went missing on Dec 15, 2012.

By Nirmal Ghosh, Indochina Bureau Chief

BANGKOK – Mr Sombath Somphone, a Magsaysay Award winner for public service, was last spotted by the cold and unblinking eye of a CCTV camera on the evening of Dec 15 last year, getting into an unknown SUV on a street in Vientiane and being driven away.

Since his disappearance, the Lao government has said he was abducted, but denied that any security agency took him. This has been received with wide scepticism, and the Lao government continues to come under pressure at international forums.

Mr Sombath had only just retired as head of the Participatory Development Training Centre, Laos’ most prominent home-grown civil society organisation. He was a well-known figure in the international development community, and a mentor for countless young Laos.

In Vientiane itself, a curtain of silence has descended over his disappearance more than 100 days ago. His wife, Singaporean Ng Shui Meng, is physically and emotionally exhausted but still not contemplating leaving Laos, the couple’s home for over 30 years – any time soon.

“Sometimes I feel this has to be a dream, a nightmare. I stay because there is still some hope,” she says.

The 100-day anniversary, on March 15, of Mr Sombath’s disappearance roughly coincided with the ninth anniversary of the disappearance of Thai lawyer Somchai Neelepaijit in Bangkok on March 12, 2004. He has also not been found and, as in the case of Mr Sombath, there is no proof he is still alive.

“Disappearing” people create a miasma of fear which goes well beyond the immediate family, friends and colleagues of the missing.  Enforced disappearance in this region is “a common practice and an ongoing problem”, says Mr Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher of the independent, New York-based Human Rights Watch.

“I know what Shui Meng is going through,” Mr Somchai’s wife Angkhana Neelapaijit told The Straits Times. “It’s an emotional up and down. One day you hear from someone that your husband is alive. The next day you hear that his body has been found.”
But in Vientiane, even the rumours have slowed to a stop.

Ms Angkhana has campaigned tirelessly and globally against enforced disappearances. Her husband’s disappearance was the first such case to be heard in a court of law in Thailand. Yet the culprits – almost certainly police officers – have yet to be identified and punished.

And there is no sign of Mr Somchai, who, at the time of his forcible bundling into a car on a Bangkok street more than eight years ago, was assisting Muslims allegedly tortured by security forces in conflict-torn southern Thailand.

“The biggest problem with enforced disappearances is there is no body, so you cannot charge suspects with murder,” says Ms Angkhana.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra last month, Ms Angkhana praised Thailand’s accession to the United Nations International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance last year, and the awarding of 7.5 million baht (S$322,000) to Mr Somchai’s family, and 500,000 baht each to as many as 30 families of those who had disappeared. Southern Thailand has been torn since 2004 by a separatist insurgency.

But Ms Angkhana also wrote: “Monetary remedies are not enough to erase the trauma and wounds in the hearts of survivors. It is equally important to uphold justice and ensure that human rights violations do not recur.”

She has been able to do this – and garner wide support for doing so – in relatively open and democratic Thailand.

In one-party Laos, however, the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party maintains a tight grip. And the disappearance of Mr Sombath has cast a chill.

“Repression in Laos is quite subtle,” says an analyst in Vientiane who asked not to be identified. “Part of this is cultural. Lao people have never contested the legitimacy of the one-party state so there is no need for naked repression.”

Mr Sombath was always careful, say those who knew him. He wanted to do something for the people, but knew the limits and never publicly challenged the state.

The Asia-Europe People’s Forum in Vientiane last October may have been a trigger. Mr Sombath helped coordinate the event along with Ms Anne-Sophie Gindroz, head of the Swiss development agency Helvetas. He worked closely with Lao government officials in drawing up the agenda. Yet the “almost child-like” enthusiasm of Lao civil society for the event might have come as a surprise. Up to 500 had been expected at the forum but more than 800 signed up.

Security agents sat in the back row at every panel discussion and jumped up to defend the Lao government at the slightest hint of criticism. At least one villager who complained about government policy was openly intimidated. Even Lao foreign ministry officials present appeared embarrassed, say delegates who were there.

Later, a letter written by Ms Sophie Gindroz, in which she was scathingly critical of the Lao government, got her visa cancelled and she was given 48 hours to leave the country. Within a week, Mr Sombath went missing.

The incident was recorded on a CCTV camera. Mr Sombath’s relatives visited the police station the same night and recorded the film on a mobile phone when it was shown to them by a couple of helpful policemen, who are now no longer there.

Now many of Ms Ng’s Lao friends appear afraid to be seen with her. And there are also signs of a quiet smear campaign against Mr Sombath, according to one source in Laos who asked not to be named. In some ruling party meetings, it has been mentioned that Mr Sombath was involved in some sort of nefarious practices and business conflicts, he said.

Ms Ng and Ms Angkhana met for the first time last week in Bangkok. Their husbands are from the same generation. Mr Sombath is 61.

Asked about Mr Somchai, Ms Angkhana paused and then said: “He would be 63. If he is still alive.”