Missing Lao activist's wife speaks out, appeals for information

Radio Australia: (07 March 2014)

The wife of abducted Lao rights advocate Sombath Somphone has called on Australia to help maintain the pressure on Laos to do more to resolve the case.

Since Mr Sombath disappeared 15 months ago, Ng Shui Meng has campaigned tirelessly to find out what happened.

Her husband’s disappearance from a police post in central Vientiane generated an international outcry by donor governments, rights groups and NGOs for his safe return.

The Lao government says it is continujng to pursue the case, but little progress has been reported.

Ng Shui Meng has also appealed for anyone in Laos with information to come forward.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Ng Shui Meng, wife of Sombath Somphone, retired academic and former UNICEF representative to East Timor

NG: The reason why I’ve accepted to speak on Sombath is that over the last 15 months, there were a lot of reports on Sombath, some of them were not very accurate in depicting the kind of person he is or the kind of work he has done. So I want to put right what Sombath’s work is and the kind of person he is basically to clarify things to the public out there. As to going back to Laos, I have not done anything wrong and assume the government would understand that my speaking about Sombath’s disappearance is basically about a fact. He has disappeared, the government has acknowledged that he has disappeared and the government has also promised to conduct an investigation around his disappearance and to try and find him.

LAM: Have you made any inquiries with the Laos authorities as to the progress of their investigations into Sombath’s disappearance?

NG: Yes, I have kept in touch with the police team responsible for the investigation of Sombath’s case. I have asked them whether they have any updates for me. Unfortunately, up to now, they told me they still have no new information, except that the police are still conducting the investigation.

LAM: And, of course, it’s been about a year-and-a-half since Sombath disappeared?

NG: Yes, it’s 15 months.

LAM: The case, of course, is widely reported internationally and indeed all reports say that Sombath was taken away after being stopped at a police post in Vientiane and that it was captured on CCTV, but the Laos government has denied any involvement in the disappearance and indeed has refused any outside help in scrutinising or analysing the footage. How do you feel about this?

NG: I’m in no position to understand the various systems at work in Laos. The government said that the state is not responsible. I will have to trust whatever the government has stated publicly and I have appealed to the government right from the beginning and continue to appeal to the Lao government to use all its resources and capacities to conduct an investigation as speedily as possible and identify the perpetrators, find Sombath and return him safely. As an ordinary citizen, I just have to put my trust in what the government has promised to do.

LAM: Australia, of course, is a major aid donor to Laos. Do you think the Australian government should perhaps be more assertive in making the Lao authorities more accountable and also perhaps nurture or encourage more democratic space in Laos?

NG: I think Australia is a very good friend of Laos. I believe that the Lao government consider Australia a very strong ally and has to…

LAM: But do think the Australian government can offer any assistance in getting at the truth of what happened to your husband, what happened to Sombath?

NG: I believe that the Australian government through its embassy has also made inquiries, as to what else the Australian government can do or the Australian public can do I think that Sombath’s case should continue to be an item on their bilateral discussion and also something for the Australian public, interested Australian public to continue to raise the issue, so that Sombath’s case does not disappear from the public view.

LAM: Do you hope to see any Australian government officials to make your case heard with them?

NG: I have had the opportunity to meet with a number of Australian representatives, I have also urged them in my meeting to please use the good office of the Australian government to continue to pursue this case. The representatives whom I met have all agreed that they will not forget Sombath and the case will be something that they will continue to pursue with the Laos government.

LAM: And Shui Meng, you have been campaigning for a thorough investigation into Sombath’s disappearance and it’s been a year-and-a-half. It’s not a journey that anyone should take on their own. What kind of support do you have back in Laos?

NG: The journey has been a very hard one. It’s not easy to go on day-after-day not knowing where Sombath is and there has been no information and no news, so it is a daily struggle. But I have been fortunate to have strong family support in the form of Sombath’s family and they are, we are all united in our aspirations, in our hope to find Sombath and get to the bottom of what happened to him. Externally, I have a lot of friends, both in the region as well as abroad who have shown great solidarity and they have all been great friends to me, but also they have been so supportive because they know Sombath. They know about him, they know who he is, they know about his work, they admire him for his long years of work in community development and his devotion and commitment to improve the lives of ordinary Laos people and they have offered me a lot of support and solace during this very, very difficult time.

LAM: And do you find some comfort in the fact that not just the international media, but also parliamentarians in democracies, like the European countries, for instance, are keeping the issue alive and indeed, an European Union representative visited Laos last year. What did they tell you, what sort of information have you received from them?

NG: Indeed, the support by the international community and governments, including the EU, and also Australia has been very comforting. Every time there is a foreign dignitary that comes to visit Laos, they have asked to meet me and I would always be ready to meet with them. They reassured me that Sombath continues to be an important issue in their bilateral discussion with the Lao government and for which I’m very grateful.

To the Australian listeners and to those who have followed the case and have shown their support. I want to thank them sincerely from the bottom of my heart, not only for myself, but from the entire Somphone family. But I also have a message for the Lao people for the Lao listeners. I know that in Laos, there are many people who are also concerned about Sombath’s disappearance and there are many good people in and outside government. I also appeal to them, if they have any information whatsoever, to please send the information to us, to my family. It has been too long. It has been an agony not to hear anything.