Missing Lao NGO Leader's Wife Urges Pressure on Government

RFA: 12 December 2013

Ng Shui Meng at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok, Dec. 11, 2013. RFA

The wife of missing Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone pleaded with the international community to pressure the Lao government to speed up an investigation of his case ahead of the one-year anniversary of his disappearance on Sunday.

Sombath’s wife, Ng Shui Meng, said the Lao government claims to be investigating the case but has offered little information on the whereabouts of the 61-year-old civil society leader, who was last seen on December 15, 2012 being stopped in his vehicle at a police checkpoint in the Lao capital Vientiane.

“I’m hoping that ASEAN, [other countries in] Asia and the U.N.—actors that work to protect human rights—will help pressure the Lao government to look for Sombath as urgently as possible,” Ng, a Singaporean, told members of the media at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok on Wednesday.

Ng said that in the past, the Singapore government had queried the Lao authorities on Sombath’s whereabouts and police investigations into the case.

The Lao authorities responded saying they “don’t know yet” and that police are continuing to search for him, she said.

She lamented that Bangkok had not pressed Vientiane on Sombath’s case, though Thai nongovernmental organizations have worked tirelessly to seek answers about his disappearance.

Sombath was stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane and then transferred into another vehicle, according to a surveillance video. No one has seen him since.

Ng said that her husband, winner of the 2005 Magsaysay Award, had never campaigned against the Lao government and only worked to help the people.

“Sombath is not against the government and has done nothing that is not in line with the guiding principle of the [Communist] Party or government,” she said.

“In reality, he is not against anything. He only wants to help people understand government policy and provide them with knowledge so that they can help themselves.”

Thailand’s The Nation newspaper quoted Ng as downplaying Sombath’s contribution to civil society in Laos, saying that portraying him as a hero in the media could be doing more harm than good for his case.

“When you read what has been written in the press over the past 12 months, Sombath is made to be like a super-Laotian,” she said. “He’s not.”

“We understand that Sombath is already in very dire circumstances if he is still alive, and this is why I appeal to our media friends to be a little more circumspect of the real situation in Laos,” Ng said.

Effect on aid

On Thursday, Anna-Sophie Gindroz of the Swiss NGO Helvetas, which operates in Laos, said Sombath’s unresolved case could affect how aid agencies work in the country in the future.

“Some development partners have already indicated that it would be difficult to continue business as usual with the case of Sombath not being resolved,” she said.

“Sombath was a partner to many aid agencies in Laos and those willing to support civil society in Laos often would consult with Sombath and seek out his advice, so this is certainly why it would be difficult for some aid agencies to maintain the same level of aid if the Lao government pursues this strategy of denial.”

She said that the activist had become a “kind of symbol” in Laos, where despite not being able to discuss the case openly, many people are closely watching how it is progressing.

“[I]n the minds of people—which is the reason that there is a climate of fear—certainly people think that if this could happen to Sombath, it could happen to anyone.”

Gindroz said that the case had likely rattled the activist community in Laos.

“If nothing can happen in terms of solving the case, I believe it would send a very negative signal to the Lao civil society because it probably means that nothing can be done for people whose rights are violated.”

She called on Laos to be “more open” about Sombath’s case and to accept technical expertise from countries willing to assist in the investigation.

Efforts continue

Mugiyanto, chairperson of the Philippines-based Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), said his organization was mobilizing its international and regional network to maintain pressure on the Lao government over Sombath.

“It is very difficult for us—for the families of victims in Laos and also even for the NGOs inside Laos to raise these issues,” he said.

“We are working outside of Laos, pressuring the government and trying to convince it to communicate with the family of Sombath Somphone and his wife to inform them of his whereabouts and his fate.”

He said AFAD would hold rallies outside Lao embassies in several countries throughout Asia on Dec. 15 as part of a bid to pressure the Lao government to resolve the case on the anniversary of his disappearance.

“We still have hope [that he is still alive]. That is why we have asked the Lao government to return Sombath Somphone safely to his wife and family,” he said.

Sombath was the executive director of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Vientiane before his disappearance.

A member of Sombath’s staff, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the activist’s efforts were sorely missed.

“His work is always related to real life in society, focusing on community, the youth and monks as the center of development,” the staffer said.

“His development efforts focus on the needs of locals through activities and projects that include all demographics … even though state officials are a part of the implementation.”