Wall of silence around activist's disappearance

The Nation: 17 June 2014

Phil Robertson

A year and a half later, where is Sombath Somphone? In Laos that simple question has been blocked by a wall of silence.

He was last seen driving home on December 15, 2012, in the capital, Vientiane, before he was forcibly disappeared. Government security video footage clearly shows that he was stopped at a police checkpoint, taken into the office, and then brought out and forced into another vehicle. Credible reports placed him later that night at a police station in Vientiane, and since then he has not been seen or heard from again.

Sombath Somphone is an internationally acclaimed civil society leader and 2005 Magsaysay Award winner who concentrated his life’s efforts on agricultural development in Laos. Hailing from a modest rural background, he possessed an acute understanding of rural poverty and the need to improve agricultural productivity and sustainability in ways that would positively impact the lives of Laos’ farming communities.

Yesterday marked a dark mid-term anniversary: exactly a year and a half since Sombath’s “disappearance”. Since then, the Laos government has repeatedly failed to conduct a serious investigation, much less push for accountability and provide answers. Offers by governments such as United States and others to provide technical assistance to the Lao authorities to analyse the video showing Sombath’s arrest have been repeatedly turned down. At one point, one of the investigating police officers publicly stated that the investigation had been halted, only to be contradicted by a more senior officer following international outcry.

Repeated efforts by foreign diplomats based in Vientiane and visiting from abroad have met denials from Lao authorities who state that Sombath’s disappearance was related to a personal or business conflict. The European Parliament recently passed a resolution expressing concern at the government’s lack of transparency in investigating the case and urging it to take prompt action in accordance with international human rights law.

Many of Sombath’s friends and colleagues still wonder what the Laos government saw in his actions that prompted them to forcibly disappear him. What is clear is Sombath’s contributions to rural development have generated much admiration and support around the world, as evidenced by the continuous global campaigns and persistent demands to account for Sombath’s whereabouts from his family, friends, and independent groups.

His wife, Ng Sui Meng, has emphasised that Sombath is not a “political activist” as some would try to label him. She has said that Sombath’s work never stood in opposition to the government. Instead, his strategy towards development was inclusive, focusing on collaborative engagements with both civil society and the authorities. He deliberately abstained from controversial issues, perhaps partially in recognition of the very real risks involved in any perceived dissent against Laos’s broadly repressive government.

Enforced disappearances violate a range of fundamental human rights protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Laos has ratified. These include prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; and extrajudicial execution. An enforced disappearance is a continuing offence, meaning that Laos continues to be in violation of international law so long as it fails to provide information on Sombath’s whereabouts. And the government’s refusal to explain how it intends to ensure that others do not share his fate should be of grave concern to others.

The past years in Laos have seen some measure of relaxed economic controls alongside major crackdowns on perceived dissent. The case of Sombath Somphone is not unique, though the extent of arbitrary arrests and secret detentions is difficult to ascertain. Extensive media control encourages self-censorship, and makes communication without repercussion difficult.

The Lao people have reason to fear their government because they know the authorities can act with near absolute impunity. Sombath’s case is merely the best-known example of the government’s complete disregard for basic human rights. If the Lao government were serious about reform, it would end its harassment and arbitrary arrest of human rights defenders, independent journalists and social activists. All cases against those who are facing criminal charges for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association should be dropped with urgency.

The Lao government should recognise that Sombath Somphone is too well-known and too well-regarded for concerned governments to step back or forget him. Lao officials will be dealing with his disappearance every single day that they do not come forward with information about his true fate. And those responsible for this crime are digging themselves into a deeper hole each day they say nothing – because some day they will have to answer for their actions.

This wall of silence around Sombath Somphone cannot continue. The world will not forget about what happened to one of its most prominent citizens. The demand for Sombath’s return will not dissipate, and Sombath’s cause will be continually reinvigorated with renewed urgency to unveil the truth.

Phil Robertson is the deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.