Wife's fears for missing Lao activist

Bangkok Post: 12 December 2013

The wife of a missing Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone has pleaded with the media to stop idolising him, saying the attention could be doing more harm than good.

“When you read what has been written in the press over the past 12 months, Mr Sombath is made to be like a super-Laotian,” Singaporean Ng Chui Meng said. “He’s not,” she told the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand late Wednesday, ahead of the anniversary of her husband’s disappearance in Vientiane on Dec 15, 2012.

“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,” Ms Ng said.

Mr Sombath, 61, went missing after being detained at a police checkpoint outside the Lao capital, where CCTV images captured him leaving his own vehicle, then getting into a pickup truck and being driven away.

Laos’ communist regime has offered no explanation for Mr Sombath’s disappearance, suggesting it may have resulted from a personal dispute.

Laos has been under one-party communist rule since 1975. The local press is tightly controlled and civil society has been described as “fledgling” by international rights groups.

Mr Sombath was born into a farming family and studied agronomy in the United States before becoming involved in farming and community development after his return to his homeland in the early 1980s.

“He is a civil society leader in Laos where civil society is just emerging,” Ms Ng said.

Mr Sombath also became a popular figure among the foreign NGO community and multilateral aid agencies.

“He always told me that he feared the publicity exposed him to too much risk,” his wife recalled.

His disappearance followed shortly after Mr Sombath played a prominent role in the Asia-Europe People’s Forum, held in Vientiane for the first time in late 2012.

The forum brought together civil society and government to discuss a range of governance issues, in parallel with the Asia Europe Summit Meetings.

Sulak Sivaraksa, a prominent social activist in Thailand, said he had grounds to believe that Mr Sombath was still alive.

“Although Laos is a communist country, when they captured members of the royal family in Luang Prabang they did not kill anybody,” Mr Sulak said, indicating it was unlikely Mr Sombath has been executed.