Silence over missing activist in Laos

Asia Times: 12 February 2014

By Shui Meng Ng

Thirteen months after the forced disappearance of civil society activist Sombath Somphone, the European Parliament issued a second resolution calling on the Lao government to “clarify the state of the investigation”, “to answer the many outstanding questions around [his] disappearance”, and “to seek and accept assistance from foreign forensic and law enforcement experts”.

The European Parliament reiterated its concern that ”the lack of reaction by the Lao government raises suspicions that the authorities could be involved in his abduction”. This second resolution was preceded by countless other private and public appeals from governments and their representatives around world.

Statements from international organizations, development agencies, civil society groups, and academics have also urged Lao authorities to find Sombath and return him safely to his family. Scores of reports and editorials by major international and regional news networks have added to the global chorus calling for accountability.

These myriad efforts, however, have so far failed to yield results. There is still no information of Sombath’s whereabouts, or any substantive details on the progress of the official investigation into his disappearance.

While I am grateful, as his wife, for these efforts by the EU and the continued international pressure to get answers, I cannot help but feel the Lao authorities will just shrug aside this latest EU resolution, as they have done with all the other statements of concern and appeals from around the world.

The Lao government can continue to ignore international pressure because there have been few concrete consequences for their inaction. Tough words have not been followed by equally tough actions. It is disappointing that the outpouring of concern, as well as the pubic and private intercessions on behalf of Sombath, have so far yielded precious little.

At most, the response has caused some irritation to Lao officials whenever visiting or resident dignitaries raise the issue of Sombath’s disappearance. But it has been nothing that could not be brushed aside with the standard official response of “we have found nothing yet, but the relevant authorities are still doing their best to investigate the case”.

Similarly, the many international and regional press reports critical of how Laos has handled Sombath’s disappearance have had little impact inside the country. Most Lao people, including Lao leaders and officials, do not read beyond what is in the state-controlled local media. Except for publishing occasional official statements about Sombath’s disappearance, the local media have remained stubbornly silent on the issue.

Not one word from the international press, organizations or governments about Sombath’s case has to date been reported in the Lao media. The intent seems to be to scrub out Sombath’s name and existence from the collective consciousness inside the country. Within Lao officialdom, no one wants to hear his name, no one wants to be reminded of his disappearance, and no one dares to talk openly about him. Those insiders who have dared to ask about his case have invariably been told: “Don’t ask, it’s none of your business.”

While I am terribly pained and discouraged by the lack of concrete results, I nevertheless still believe that at some point the silence will be broken. More and more Lao people who avoided me in the past have come forward to quietly express their sympathy for the lack of news about Sombath.

Lao culture is generally gentle and non-violent. Lao people are taught from childhood to be kind and compassionate. I have faith that there are still many sincere and good people inside the security agencies and decision-making bodies of the Lao government and ruling Party – people who know Sombath and his work or who have worked closely with him in the past.

I have faith there are some among them who understand the damage the lack of credible answers on Sombath’s case is causing the country. They understand how hollow and incredulous the official police statements sound to both foreigners and their compatriots, and realize these statements do little more than fuel the impression that “the authorities could be involved in his abduction”, as suggested by the EU statement.

I have faith that at some point, someone or some group within the government’s decision-making bodies will be wise and courageous enough to realize that the withholding of information about Sombath’s case is unproductive and only undermines the dignity and credibility of the Lao security apparatus and leadership.

This is especially true as national leaders express aspirations to assume a greater role in many international and regional bodies, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and other UN agencies. Laos is keen to show the world that it is ready to graduate from its Least Developed Country status, not only in terms of economic growth but also regarding international standards of good governance and the rule of law.

These aspirations are good for Laos as a nation and as a people. So I have faith that some among the Lao leadership realize it is not worth having Sombath’s unsolved disappearance continue to blemish its international image and will decide to put an end to the impasse. At that point, they will find ways to openly or discreetly reveal the facts about the case or accept international assistance in conducting a transparent and thorough investigation.

When that happens, I am sure the diplomatic community inside and outside of Laos and all other concerned groups will breath a collective sigh of relief. Only then will Laos begin to regain respect and trust, in both tangible and intangible ways. Surely, such revelations would be in the best interest of the country.

And when that happens, my family and I can end our daily agony and start to rebuild our shattered lives. I can only hope that such common sense will prevail sooner rather than later. But until that happens, there is still need for the international community to continue to press for answers and consider more concrete repercussions for Sombath’s still unexplained and unpunished disappearance.

Shui Meng Ng is the wife of disappeared Lao activist Sombath Somphone.

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