"Where is Sombath Somphone?" asks his wife prior to Oregon visit

The Oregonian: 16 April 2014

In this Sept. 16, 2005 photo given to Associated Press by Sombath Somphone family, Lao leading civil rights activist Sombath Somphone, right, with his wife Shui-Meng poses for a photograph during their holiday trip in Bali, Indonesia. (Courtesy of the family of Sombath Somphone)

By Mike Francis

It’s been 16 months, and Ng Shui-Meng wants to make sure the world remembers that her husband was taken off a public street in Laos and hasn’t been seen since.

Sombath Somphone was a lifelong activist for the poor and disenfranchised of Laos. He worked throughout his adult life on their behalf, advocating for their education, empowerment and happiness. (See his part in the “Happy Laos” video below.)

He was, his wife says, resolutely apolitical. He sought to build consensus, acting as a bridge between the governed of Laos and their governors. On his last major project before he was the victim of what Amnesty International calls an “enforced disappearance,” he co-chaired a key committee for the Asia-Europe Peoples’ Forum with Laos’ minister of foreign affairs.

Yet he evidently troubled some people.

Remarkably, the proof is available in the form of surveillance video, viewable at the Amnesty International website. The site details the circumstances of his disappearance in December 2012: how his car was stopped by traffic police at the end of the workday on a busy road in Vientiane; how he was taken out of view; how he re-emerged and was placed in a different vehicle, which drove away; and how his car was driven away by a person who arrived on a motorcycle.

The rest is a mystery. Nobody has claimed responsibility. The government says it has nothing to do with Sombath’s disappearance. Ng Shui-Meng has heard nothing.

She contacts government officials regularly, asking for updates. They tell her there is nothing new.

She doesn’t accuse the government of being involved, but she wants it to invite external review and collaboration. For example, Amnesty and others have asked the government to allow outside experts to help examine the closed-circuit video footage in an effort to find information that would help identify Sombath’s abductors. They would like the government to allow an independent commission to examine the evidence related to Sombath’s disappearance.

“I believe he may have been taken as a symbol,” she said in a telephone interview this week. “As a message to other people not to get involved.”

Sombath’s startling disappearance, about a week after a prominent Swiss NGO official was expelled from Laos, has raised international concern about the openness and tolerance of the Laotian government. Many organizations and individuals have called for vigorous investigations. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in December that Sombath’s abduction “threatens to undermine” Laos’s efforts to become “a responsible partner in the community of nations.”

Ng Shui-Meng, herself a noted social scientist, is touring the United States to help keep the mystery of her husband’s disappearance in the public consciousness. She will speak Monday, April 21st in Eugene and Tuesday, April 22nd at Portland State University.

Friends and activists have established a website collecting stories about Sombath and letters from supporters at sombath.org.