One year on, still no trace of prominent Lao

The Straights Times: 17 December 2103

Remembering Sombath Somphone outside the Lao embassy in Bangkok on Sunday Dec 15 - one year after his disappearance. -- ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH
Remembering Sombath Somphone outside the Lao embassy in Bangkok on Sunday Dec 15 – one year after his disappearance. — ST PHOTO: NIRMAL GHOSH

By Nirmal Ghosh, Indochina Bureau Chief In Bangkok

It has been a year, but Ms Ng Shui Meng still momentarily tenses whenever the phone rings. Twelve months have passed, yet there is still no trace of or information on her husband Sombath Somphone, who disappeared in Laos on Dec 15 last year. The incident was recorded on a CCTV camera but to date remains unsolved.

Given that Mr Sombath, internationally recognised for his work with farming communities, was pulled over by police that evening, Laos is under pressure from foreign governments to give an explanation. On the first anniversary of the disappearance last Sunday, the civil society organisation Mr Sombath founded held its annual fair in Vientiane. If the practice continues, it will be an annual reminder of that fateful evening.

Hours later, a US State Department statement said Washington remained “deeply concerned over the fate of Sombath Somphone, one of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic’s most respected civil society figures, on the one-year anniversary of his abduction”.

“Sombath was abducted on the evening of Dec 15, 2012, from a Lao police checkpoint in Vientiane. This deplorable event was recorded on Lao government surveillance cameras,” the statement said.

“We welcome the recent statement by Lao President Choummaly Sayasone that the Lao government is very concerned about Sombath’s disappearance and would continue its investigation and take all measures necessary to resolve the case. We look forward to learning the results of a full, thorough, and transparent investigation.”

A stronger statement was issued by 62 non-government organisations on Dec 13.

“Despite the Lao government’s pledge to ‘thoroughly and seriously’ investigate Sombath’s disappearance, the authorities’ probe has been inadequate and unproductive,” it said.

“In spite of widespread international calls for his return, including from the European Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) parliamentarians, the USA and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Sombath’s whereabouts remain unknown and there has been no progress in the investigation into the circumstances of his enforced disappearance. In addition, the authorities have rejected offers of technical assistance to analyse the CCTV footage.”

Significantly, the statement referred also to nine cases of alleged “arbitrary (detention) by Lao security forces” in 2009, and one in 2007. The whereabouts of all those who were detained or who disappeared remain unknown, it said.

In a separate statement on Dec 16, Mr Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said: “One year since Sombath Somphone ‘disappeared’, the Lao government clearly hopes the world will just forget about what happened to one of its most prominent citizens.”

It added: “Foreign donors to the Lao government should make Sombath’s enforced disappearance a priority until he can return home.”

Mr Sombath, who in 2005 won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership, grew up in a village, growing rice. When he was about eight or nine years old, he and his family fled to Thailand for a year to escape the Indochina war.

“He understands how poverty and hunger impacted the lives of rural families,” said his wife, Ms Ng.

“He knows the limits and challenges of living hand to mouth and from once agricultural season to another. He knows about the importance of nature… and the people’s dependence on this for their livelihoods. He also knew about the suffering of war; he grew up when Laos was engulfed in the Indochina war. He lived all of this as a reality, not as a theoretical construct.”

Mr Sombath studied agronomy and soil science at the University of Hawaii. Turning down the offer of an American green card, he returned to Laos to help rebuild a country ravaged by war.

On Dec 11 at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, Ms Ng spoke publicly for the first time since his disappearance. She talked about his life and work and recalled how he always challenged the concept of using high inputs for agricultural production, which was the rage during the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s that boosted crop yields around the world. He was also an early champion of integrated organic farming long before it became fashionable.

And he would tell fellow Laotians locked in internal battles: “Why are we fighting like dogs in a cage, why can’t we work together and build our society and make it a better place for ourselves and for future generations?”

He was impressed by Quaker culture, and influenced by Buddhist thinkers including the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh and Sulak Sivaraksa. And he was impressed by Bhutan’s concept of gross national happiness as opposed to gross domestic product.

But he was dogged by the Cold War mentality that today has still not left Laos.

“After he returned,” said his wife, “the Lao government and people in authority did not trust him. They looked upon Sombath with suspicion, suspecting he could be a CIA plant or a subversive, and that would dog his entire life even up to today.”

She added: “Soon after he disappeared, the rumours that went around town were that Sombath Somphone is not Lao, he is actually an American, he is working with right- wing groups and the diaspora in the US to subvert the government.”

Ms Ng had to ask the US embassy to issue a statement clarifying that Mr Sombath does not have a US passport.

His disappearance has lifted the lid on the reality of Laos – an opaque one-party state whose old generation leadership, analysts say, remains steeped in a Cold War mentality. Indeed, many analysts in Vientiane have told The Straits Times they are sceptical that international concern has any effect at all on Laos’ politburo.

In a piece last week on Mr Sombath’s disappearance, M. Rajaretnam, a former special adviser on community building and outreach to Dr Surin Pitsuwan, Asean secretary-general from 2008 to 2013, described Laos as a “Kafkaesque world where intrigues and byzantine conspiracies lurk in secretive labyrinths”.

And he warned that while Laos has the sovereign right to punish its citizens, “Asean also has an obligation to preserve its credibility and ensure that Laos does not become the next pariah state”.