Laos Has Made Its Bed and Now Has to Lie in It

Radio Free Asia: 10 September 2013

by Viengsay Luangkhot

A 2005 photo of Sombath Somphone in the Philippines.

The kidnapping of 61 year-old Sombath Somphone, a prominent activist and the winner of the 2005 Magsaysay Award, has put the Lao government in an inextricable position.

A closed-circuit police video clip shows Sombath being stopped by traffic police in front of the Lao-German Technical College on Thadeua Road in Vientiane’s Sisattanak district at around 6:00 p.m. on Dec. 15, 2012, while he was driving home. The video clip shows Sombath come out of the car and walk to the police post.

A little while later, a man wearing a black windbreaker arrives in a motorcycle, runs into the post, and re-emerges soon after to drive away in Sombath’s car, apparently indicating that the man went into the post to get Sombath’s car keys. Not long after, a silver-bronze pickup truck stops in front of the police post with emergency lights on while two men escort Sombath onto the truck and leave.

Sombath has not been seen or heard from since.

Pictures on the video clip show clearly that Sombath was kidnapped from a police post with police officers in the post witnessing the act.

The police officers are suspected to have been involved in the kidnapping, though neither they nor the men who escorted Sombath to the pickup truck can be identified. Nor can the license plate of the truck be read, as the only video now available was taken by Sombath’s coworkers with their cell phone as they viewed the original video clip in the headquarters of the Vientiane traffic police on the morning of Dec. 17, 2012.

Police officers suspected

Sombath’s family and coworkers asked for the original video clip from the police in order to document his disappearance but their request was turned down, and they were denied access to the video data center.

Earlier, the U.S. Embassy in Laos and officials of the European Union had offered technical help to analyze the video, but Lao officials turned down the offers for reasons of “national security.”

If the police were not involved and want to show their good faith, why did they refuse to hand over the original video clip to Sombath’s family? And why did they turn down the offer of assistance, since this could not have had anything to do with national security? Cooperation would instead have promoted the role of Lao authorities, as Laos is a signatory of the International Convention for the Protection of Victims of Enforced Disappearance.

Why was he kidnapped?

Sombath may have been targeted because of the growth of Lao social organizations that are beginning to question projects that lack transparency—especially on issues related to land concessions, dams, the illegal timber trade, and the environment.

A number of these projects had been revealed online and by word of mouth, in particular involving the illegal export of timber in southern Laos to neighboring countries reported by the Environmental Investigation Agency, land concessions encroaching on private land, and the arrest of villagers because of land disputes.

The Asia-Europe People’s Forum held in Vientiane from Oct. 16-19, 2012, was attended by delegates from more than 40 European and Asian countries who wanted to share their experiences in their respective countries and to learn about the situation in Laos. Sombath was one of the driving forces of the Forum.

During the proceedings, it appeared that the Lao participants had been threatened by government officials and that statements in the Lao language issued during the Forum were not distributed. Also, Lao participants who spoke or expressed their opinion during the Forum were photographed by Lao officials.

In session dealing with land issues, a woman who expressed her views about how rubber plantations were impacting people’s livelihood was harassed and called a traitor. Police officers then followed her home to question her further. Officials also blocked the distribution of the “Happiness of Laos” DVD, which presented the viewpoints of Lao people from many walks of life.

In this video, Sombath says, “Schools teach us to be competitive, to be better than other people or to obtain better grades, to always be better. The happiness thus obtained is only temporary because the competition is open-ended. Education and our notion of development lead us astray because we are always searching for superficial happiness.”

Also included in the video were interviews with people expressing their own views of happiness. The majority of the interviewees said they wanted spiritual happiness instead of materialistic happiness or development based on materialistic values. Such opinions run against the country’s current social economic development plan and could have aroused the ire of some of the people in charge of development planning.

Prior to the People’s Forum, Sombath also wrote a paper titled “Hear the People,” his last writing posted on the Google group Laofab, in which he urged the government of Laos to listen to the people. This angered some national leaders even more. In a country ruled by a one-party system, the people must listen to their leaders, not the other way around, such leaders feel.

Sombath’s disappearance points to a new threat hanging over social organizations, which do not dare now to question large projects or to work with local communities. Nowadays, the working atmosphere in these organizations is tinged with fear. Nobody dares mention Sombath or raise questions when talking to government or party officials.

A person close to Sombath said that if not for the video clip showing his kidnapping, other people working on development issues might have been kidnapped by now as well.

Lao government under pressure

The Lao government has now issued three separate statements denying any involvement in the kidnapping of Sombath, saying that his kidnapping was a result of a personal conflict or business conflict, which his family has vehemently denied.

But government statements carry no weight, because Lao authorities have not been able to provide clear answers to the world community, because of the evidence shown in the video clip, and because officials have refused to hand over the original video to the family. Also, Sombath is well known internationally as a social organization leader, and his wife Shui Meng, a Singapore national, has had the courage to fight for her husband’s rights.

In the latest development, a group led by Soren Bo Sondergaard, a Danish European MP, was in Laos on Aug. 25-27 to check on the progress of the investigation into Sombath’s disappearance. In spite of the work already done by two earlier delegations of European and ASEAN parliamentarians, the response they received was vague.

Another mission of European parliamentarians is scheduled to pay an official visit to Laos in October 2013 to ask about the status of the search for Sombath, among other issues.

Laos’ image in the world

Laos would have a good international image if not for the kidnapping of Sombath, even though one week prior to his disappearance, the Lao government expelled Anna-Sophie Gindroz, the director of a Swiss NGO in Laos called Helvetas, charging her with violating Lao laws.

International media are now reporting extensively on the Sombath kidnapping and are painting a very negative image of Laos. On Aug. 28, 2013, the British BBC reported “Laos accused of lying over Sombath Somphone abduction.” Other international media outlets are also reporting and commenting extensively on the issue.

Laos is now under heavy external pressure, and in turn has been cranking up its own pressure on domestic social organizations, worsening the conditions under which these groups work.

This is evidenced by the minutes of a Jan. 2013 government meeting which urged authorities to control “the actions of NGOs, social society organizations, charitable foundations, etc. … since enemy powers and groups of bad people from this day into the future are acting to sabotage and quickly change our country through peaceful means.”

This position does not augur well for the Lao government. Should another social organization worker be kidnapped in the future, Laos would be subjected to much heavier pressure and would be unable to deny responsibility, even if Lao officials were not involved. And all because, in the case of Sombath’s disappearance, the government of Laos does not know how to dig itself out of a hole.

Viengsay Luangkhot is RFA’s Lao Service Director