Wife of missing Laos activist appeals for help in US

Zee News: 30 April 2014

The wife of a missing Laotian activist appealed Tuesday for US assistance in finding him, warning his case has had a chilling effect on civil society in the communist nation.

Sombath Somphone, a US-educated agriculture expert who ran one of Laos’ most prominent development organizations, disappeared in December 2012 as he was driving home. Closed-circuit footage released by the family showed he was taken away at a police post.

His wife, Ng Shui-Meng, said she was meeting with White House and other US officials to urge the United States to keep pressing Laos to investigate. Since his disappearance, she said that non-governmental groups have scaled back activities or encountered greater impediments from authorities.

“It’s clear that civil society space has narrowed,” Ng told reporters in Washington.

Ng said that Sombath had always been careful to seek government authorization for his work so as to avoid controversy. She said she did not wish to challenge the Laotian government’s assertion that authorities were not involved in his disappearance.

“For me, I am not interested as to who has taken Sombath. I am only interested in getting Sombath back,” Ng said.

“I am concerned that Sombath’s disappearance will disappear from the public view. It’s already 16 months,” she said.

Ng said she was “haunted day and night” by concerns over Sombath’s health as he had been taking medication after a diagnosis of early stage prostrate cancer.

Ng, who is originally from Singapore and is retired from UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, said that Sombath would not want foreign governments to cut off aid to the developing country as a pressure tactic.

“Knowing what he stands for and what he worked for, he would be the last one to advocate the cutting off of any programs that would have a negative impact on the livelihoods and the lives of the people,” she said.

US officials have raised Sombath’s case with Secretary of State John Kerry last year urging Laos “to do everything in its power to account for his disappearance without further delay.”

President Barack Obama’s administration had been looking to improve relations with Laos as part of a strategy of putting greater focus on Southeast Asia.

Then secretary of state Hillary Clinton visited Laos in July 2012 in the first visit there by a senior US official since the communist takeover in 1975.