Missing Sombath a test for ASEAN

Asian Currents: 12 June 2014

Sombath Somphone
Abducted: Sombath Somphone.

ASEAN’s weak response to the disappearance of Lao community worker Sombath Somphone raises questions about the strength of the institution’s commitment to human rights.

By Kearrin Sims

Nowhere in Asia has seen the formation of stronger regional partnerships than those within ASEAN. In 2015 the institution will attempt to undertake yet another step forward in its impressive history of growing regional connectivity through the beginning of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC).

Among other things, the AEC is expected to promote greater regional cooperation around human resource development; enhance consultation on macroeconomic and financial policies; increase infrastructure and communications connectivity; and see ASEAN become a single market and production base. How these arrangements will fit with ASEAN’s non-interference approach to diplomacy remains to be seen, although the region’s history suggests the two will likely find a means of accommodation.

Far more challenging, will be attempts to create an ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC), which is also planned to begin in 2015. Operating parallel to the AEC, the ASCC is designed to promote a spirit of cooperation and collective responsibility, to encourage respect for fundamental freedoms, and to advance social justice and human rights. While the AEC seems achievable, the realisation of the ASCC will face many more challenges.

Sombath Somphone (d.) en compagnie de l'archevêque sud-africain Desmund Tutu en 2006. Wikimedia Commons / Shui-Meng Ng
Sombath Somphone with South Africa’s Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The first and most immediate challenge is to locate Sombath Somphone.

Sombath Somphone is a Lao community development worker. He is the founder of the Participatory Development Training Centre in Laos, and has worked in agronomy, education and poverty alleviation for more than three decades. Sombath is widely respected in Southeast Asia’s development community and has received multiple international commendations for his work, including the highly respected Ramon Magsaysay award.

Sombath’s approach to development is a holistic one. He believes that the sort of high-modernist neoliberal economic framework that the AEC seeks to promote is unsustainable and often detrimental to the livelihoods of the poor. Sombath is not a political activist. However, in a country as corrupt and authoritarian as Laos it does not take a lot to get on the wrong side of the government.

Although the motives behind Sombath’s abduction are impossible to confirm, those who know him best suspect that his disappearance is linked to his coordinating role in the 9th Asia–Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) in October 2012.

The AEPF is a biennial meeting between European and Asian non-government organisations to promote interregional dialogue on human rights, peace and security and environmental justice. The 2012 AEPF, which took place in the Lao capital of Vientiane, was the largest civil society event ever held in Laos.

As one of the best known development workers in the country, Sombath played a key role in the people’s forum, where he delivered a keynote speech. The event also included the presentations of impoverished citizens, at least one of whom told stories of the land loss, insecurity and deprivation that large-scale private investors had brought to many communities in Laos. Such perspectives were not well received by the Lao politburo, whose security forces threatened and intimidated those who gave voice to the injustices that they had experienced. Swiss community development worker Anne Sophie Gindroz, who played an important role in coordinating the event, was given 48 hours to leave the country. For Sombath, the consequences were even more serious.

Anne-Sophie Gindroz: given 48 hours to leave Laos.

On 15 December 2012, two months after the AEPF, Sombath disappeared. The basic details of his disappearance, which have now been frequently recollected in the numerous news articles surrounding his abduction, are as follows:

At around 6pm on 15 December 2012 Sombath was stopped at a police post in Vientiane. The police escorted him from his vehicle and, soon after, loaded him into a small truck. He was then driven away and has not been seen since. Footage of the abduction was captured by CCTV video that is viewable on the https://www.sombath.org website.

Unsurprisingly, the Government of Laos has denied any involvement in the disappearance. However, the circumstances of Sombath’s abduction, and the government’s weak response to try to locate him, suggest otherwise. Relevant authorities have failed to provide adequate information on the progress of investigations, and although the abduction has been reported by multiple international news agencies, it has received almost no media attention in Laos. Offers by other nations to provide technical assistance to investigations have also been refused.

Most concerning for the ASCC is that a push for answers from within the region has also been ignored.

In many respects ASEAN’s response to Sombath’s disappearance has been weak. The ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights has not taken action on the case and this has undoubtedly raised serious questions about the organisation’s capacity for enforcing the values it seeks to uphold.

However, individual states and civil society movements from within the region have not been completely silent on the issue. Singapore has taken a particularly active diplomatic role in calling on Laos for answers, and has requested other ASEAN members to do the same.

At the ASEAN Civil Society Conference and People’s Forum held this March in Myanmar, posters, signs and t-shirts calling for Sombath’s safe return were reinforced by an explicit reference in the Conference Declaration to his abduction.

The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a grouping of political figures who have come together in a non-state representative role, have also been outspoken on the issue, and have stressed that ASEAN’s current failure to formally demand answers from Laos highlights the region’s serious inadequacies in responding to human rights abuses.

Yet, for now at least, any real political pressure—especially as a unified regional voice—has not accompanied these comments.

Clearly the greatest responsibility for locating Sombath falls on the government of Laos. Yet it must also be remembered that enforced disappearances have occurred in many ASEAN countries. This is a region-wide issue that demands a united response.

That ASEAN has plans to promote the ASCC suggests the institution has recognised that the AEC will inevitably bring new contestations over land and other natural resources and new challenges for the protection of human rights.

What Sombath’s case suggests, however, is that the region still has a long way to go towards implementing a sociocultural community that is ‘people-centered and socially responsible’.

Sombath’s case represents a test for ASEAN—and one that must succeed.