Where is Sombath Somphone?

The Malay Mail: 10 October 2013

By Dr. Lim Teck Ghee

Today, Thursday, 10 Oct 2013, marks 300 days of the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, one of Lao PDR’s most prominent activists. Sombath is a long-time and good friend. In the late 1970s, he and I were part of a small group of human rights activists and social critics from the Southeast Asian region who met regularly to discuss the situation of our countries (at that time Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Laos, Vietnam and Singapore) and to see how we could support each other in work to advance peace and development in our part of the world.

The outcome of our efforts was a pioneering regional civil society organisation called the Asian Cultural Forum on Development or ACFOD which was set up in 1977. ACFOD’s mission can be seen in the summary below of the organisation’s alternative vision of development which contrasts strongly with the mainstream development thinking prevalent in the region.

ACFOD Mission Statement

  • Advocate Holistic Development and to Counter Destructive/ Dehumanised Development.
  • Promote Peace, Harmony, Human Rights and Gender Equality and the Conscientisation of People.
  • Promote Participatory Democracy and Sustainable Development.
  • Respect for Minority Rights and Cultures.
  • Foster Humanist and Moral Values as a Core Part of Development.
  • Provide the Platform for Grassroots and People-to-People Exchange and Action.

Although we were a small regional grouping with limited resources and hardly any support from our national governments, ACFOD’s member organisations, which included the Consumers Association of Penang of which I was the honorary secretary at that time, pushed hard for this alternative vision of development in our national and regional work.

Sombath’s work in PADTC

Among our group of 15 hard core members, perhaps no one was more committed to an alternative and decentralised vision of development than Sombath. He founded the Participatory Development Training Centre in Laos in 1997 and became a respected voice in his country against authoritarianism and anti-democratic development, winning the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership – one of the most prestigious awards for human development in Asia.

In striving to bring about reform in his country, Sombath passionately believed that the core features of the ACFOD vision are just as relevant today as they were 30 years ago. He was not a radical dissident in any sense of the word, believing instead in peaceful change that was in line with his own pacifist ideology and gentle nature. However, in pushing for an alternative strategy to development, Sombath made powerful enemies along the way, including corrupt state officials, the landed elite and business leaders, and high level politicians.

Sombath’s disappearance is really not so mysterious given his activism and the dominance of forces in his country’s government which cannot tolerate dissent and are bent on preserving and enhancing their power and privileged positions by all means possible, including foul. He was last seen in Vientiane on the evening of Saturday December 15, 2012 when he was driving home in his jeep. When he failed to return home, his family and friends immediately contacted the police, visited hospitals, and informed embassies.

Although no information has been forthcoming as to what has happened to Sombath, what is available is CCTV footage which that shows him being stopped by the police and then abducted. Sombath’s disappearance has been taken up by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch as well as by other prominent human rights organisations and governments largely outside our region.

Amnesty International’s report on Sombath

In its detailed report titled ‘Laos: Caught on Camera. The Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone’ published in June 2013, Amnesty International has examined the background events that led up to Sombath’s disappearance and chronicled its unsuccessful efforts to meet with the Laotian authorities to discuss the case.

The report has concluded that:

“Sombath Somphone has most likely been a victim of enforced disappearance, which is a serious human rights violation and a crime under international law. The organisation concludes that Lao officials are responsible for Sombath’s disappearance, whether through direct perpetration or through complicity, support or acquiescence, in violation of Laos’s obligations under international law.”

Among its recommendations, Amnesty International has called on the Lao government:

“to establish a new, independent commission to undertake an impartial and thorough investigation into Sombath’s disappearance and ensure that all steps are taken to locate, rescue him from his captors and return him safely to his family without further delay. The commission should identify those officials responsible for Sombath’s enforced disappearance, including those with command or superior responsibility, with a view to bringing them to justice, in proceedings that meet international standards of fairness. The commission’s report and recommendations should be made available to the public. Sombath and his family should be provided with reparations for the human rights violations and suffering they have entailed.”

The Amnesty International report and its recommendations have been totally ignored by the Laotian government.

More needs to be done to pressure the Laotian government

Although strong concern on Sombath’s disappearance has been expressed by the international community, there is less interest in this flagrant human rights violation by governments in the Asean region. Various high level intergovernmental commissions and committees tasked with human rights monitoring have failed to speak out publicly or have not pressed the Laotian government to act transparently, urgently and responsibly to ensure the safe return of Sombath. Clearly much more needs to be done by all quarters, especially by major stakeholders of human rights in this part of the world to ensure a resolution of this case which is a damning indictment of the state of human rights in Laos and also in the Asean region.

As for me, in addition to the personal pain and concern for Sombath’ family and hope for his safe return, there will always be a question in my mind on how easily I could have been a part of what has transpired. I will always remember the last time we met in his Vientiane home by the bank of the Mekong River. Sombath had teased me about working for an international development agency whose ideology ran counter to that of ACFOD’s. He had also – and this was not in jest – asked me to work with him in PADTC and offered a plot of land adjoining his house which he said could be the site of my new home should I take up his offer. Would my presence – could my presence have made a difference or would I also have disappeared together with Sombath?

As the days tick by with no sign of his return, I am sure that Sombath will want the causes for which he has fought to be undiminished by his absence but to be inspired towards the path of equality, justice and freedom which he stood for.