Disappeared in Laos

Overland Journal: Spring 2014

The arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorisation, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law.

– Article 2, The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance

The last time Ng Shui Meng saw her husband, Sombath Somphone, alive was early in the evening of Saturday, 15 December 2012.

Sombath was driving his old jeep home. Shui Meng, who was travelling in her own vehicle in front of his, noticed him being stopped at a police post on Thadeua Road, a main thoroughfare in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. Having your car stopped by the police is not uncommon in Laos. Usually it involves a simple identification check. Sometimes, police attempt to shake down drivers for a small bribe to supplement their meagre wages. As such, Shui Meng thought nothing of it and drove on home, expecting Sombath to join her later.

When her husband didn’t arrive for dinner she began to worry. She searched the vicinity of the police post where he was last seen and also visited Vientiane’s hospitals on the assumption he might have had an accident. She called his phone but was diverted to his message bank.

A fluent Lao speaker, Shui Meng reported Sombath missing to police the next day. She and Sombath’s family also rechecked the city’s hospitals and retraced the previous night’s events along Thadeua Road. It was then they noticed the Chinese-funded CCTV cameras mounted at various points along the road, one of which overlooked the police post where Sombath was last seen.

The police officers on duty when Shui Meng and other members of Sombath’s family showed up at Vientiane Central Police Station were helpful and expressed no qualms when asked if the family could film the CCTV footage with their mobile phone and video cameras. They watched the CCTV footage several times before a senior policeman entered the room and ordered his junior colleagues to switch it off and for the family to leave.

The blurred, almost ghostly, night-time vision showed Sombath parking his jeep after being stopped, getting out of the vehicle and going into the police post. The traffic continued around him; no-one else was stopped.

A man riding a motorcycle arrived soon after, parked and ran into the police post. A couple of minutes later, an individual, who appeared to be the motorcyclist, drove off in Sombath’s car. Another man emerged from the direction of the police post and stood by the road. Seconds later a pick-up truck with flashing lights pulled up on the scene. The waiting man got into the truck with two other men, one of them apparently Sombath. Two individuals on a motorcycle emerged from somewhere near the police post and drove away. The truck followed.

A particularly disturbing aspect of this sequence of events, described in detail in a 2013 Amnesty International report, Laos: Caught on Camera, was that the passenger on the motorcycle ahead of the pick-up truck containing Sombath appeared to fire his pistol into the air before riding away. Whether, as the report speculated, this was meant to warn off potential witnesses, signal for the pick-up truck to leave, or done for some other reason, is unclear.

The point is that the video showed the people who took Sombath were armed. It also explains why he didn’t resist.

Shui Meng has described Sombath as ‘a child of the soil’. The eldest of eight brothers and sisters, Sombath was born in 1952 in Khammouane Province, central Laos. His family were subsistence farmers. A year after he was born, what was to become a long-running civil war started between the Royal Lao Government in Vientiane and the nationalist Pathet Lao, headquartered in the country’s remote north.

The conflict gradually morphed into a proxy war between the superpowers. The US backed the royalists, while the Soviet Union, through its North Vietnamese allies, supported the Pathet Lao. Hanoi used the heavily forested mountains running down Laos’ eastern border with Vietnam as a supply route to Vietcong forces. The Americans, via the CIA, clandestinely funded ethnic Hmong hill tribes to fight against the Pathet Lao. Between 1963 and 1973, the height of the conflict, the US dropped over two million tons of ordnance on Laos. The bombing displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians. Many, including Sombath’s family, fled over the Mekong River into Thailand.

In the early 1970s, Sombath received a scholarship to study agriculture at the University of Hawaii, where he met Shui Meng, a Singaporean national. Upon graduating, Sombath decided to return to Vientiane to help rebuild his country. It is important to emphasise how radical his decision was: Washington may not have been successful in bombing Hanoi back to the Stone Age, but they made a good attempt of sending Laos there. The country was decimated. The communist government that took power in 1975 was an international pariah. Educated Lao were fleeing en masse. Sombath could have stayed in the US, yet he chose to go back.

Sombath worked with rural Lao communities. In 1996, despite the government’s intense suspicions of independent organisations, Sombath was granted permission to establish the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) to provide training for young people and government officials in rural development. In 2005, he received a Ramon Magsaysay Award (Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize) for community leadership. In mid-2012, he retired as director of PADETC, intending to spend more time with his family, meditating and writing.

Shui Meng told a 2012 seminar at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand that, as a student in Hawaii, Sombath was unconvinced by the prevailing mantra of the time that to improve agricultural production, farmers in the developing world needed modern high-tech inputs, like chemical fertilisers and insecticides. He thought assistance to Lao farmers should focus on what was culturally relevant and practical in the context of their rural society. Sombath didn’t oppose ‘development’, but he thought Laos’ small size and overwhelmingly rural nature meant it could never go the same way as countries like Taiwan or South Korea. Laos had other advantages that needed to be leveraged, he argued. In particular, while the country might be ‘cash poor’, it was socially and culturally rich.

During his time in Hawaii, Sombath came into contact with the Quakers and their theory of non-violent action. Later, he became influenced by what is known as ‘engaged Buddhism’. Just as liberation theology sought to apply Catholic teachings for social justice ends, engaged Buddhism sought to apply Buddhist teachings to practical social situations in order to alleviate injustice.

I lived in Laos for three years in the early 1990s. I worked for a time at the United Nations Children’s Fund, where Shui Meng also worked. After I left the country, I travelled back on several occasions as a journalist and tourist. The few times I met Sombath he always seemed calm and mild-mannered, exuding confidence and wisdom gained from hard experience. He understood that working in Laos meant working with the government in a collaborative and transparent manner. He was careful to ensure he always gained official permission for activities he undertook and advised anyone who sought his counsel to do the same. Sombath was never critical of the Lao government – which makes his disappearance so perplexing.

The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) has controlled virtually every facet of the country’s political life since 1975. Its leaders attempted to extend this dominance over the economy in the late 1970s but it proved a disaster, and market reforms were gradually introduced. These reforms were kicked up a notch in the late 1980s when Laos introduced its own version of Perestroika. More recently, buoyed by the example of China and Vietnam, the government has further opened up the country to foreign investment.

But the LPRP’s monopoly on power has never been up for grabs. Laos has no free press, and internet access is far lower than any of Laos’ neighbours. For the approximately 3 per cent of the 6.6 million Lao who are party members, there are (reportedly) internal debates, but the rest of the population is not encouraged to be involved or interested in politics.

Laos has achieved some success in generating economic growth. In particular, investment has flowed into agriculture, including rubber plantations and other cash crops. The main beneficiaries, however, have been a small group affiliated to the ruling party. Poverty remains high outside the cities. Growth has also had negative side effects such as increasing corruption, widespread land grabbing and extensive deforestation.

While Vientiane’s neighbours have attracted widespread condemnation for their poor human rights records, Laos continues to be viewed as a peaceful nation and remains a fashionable tourist destination. Instances of overt state-sponsored control in Laos are either low key or occur in remote areas. An example is the brutal eradication of the remains of the CIA-sponsored Hmong resistance. While Laos’ official history states that 80 000 people underwent re-education in the years after 1975, little is known about the system of camps in which this took place. Rumours have persisted that a few may still exist, again in remote rural parts of the country. In a recent piece for Index on Censorship, the Committee to Protect Journalists called Laos ‘the region’s black hole for news … Because there is no functioning independent media, there are few overt press freedom violations.’

Occasionally events occur that puncture Laos’ placid image. In October 1999, four organisers of an aborted pro-democracy rally in Vientiane were arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison. Despite having completed their sentences, the four were never seen again. Sombath’s disappearance was another such event.

No-one is certain why Sombath was disappeared, but speculation pointed to his participation in the Asia–Europe People’s Forum (AEPF), the parallel civil society event attached to the biennial Asia–Europe Meeting (ASEM), hosted by Laos in October 2012.

The decision to host ASEM was the most recent in a series of carefully calibrated moves on the part of Vientiane to showcase its increasing openness. These have included signing up to the World Trade Organisation and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), hosting events such as the ASEAN Summit in 2004 and the Southeast Asian Games in 2009, and launching a stock market at the beginning of 2011.

As part of its duties, the ASEM host government must include a regional civil society gathering, supposedly designed to collect feedback for the formal summit. The Lao government asked Sombath to organise the AEPF. Shui Meng has always maintained Sombath and his government colleagues saw the AEPF as an opportunity to foster greater cooperation between Lao civil society and the authorities.

Over a thousand participants from across the region attended the AEPF. Crucially, over a hundred Lao also attended. Plain-clothes police were out in force, taking notes and photographing local participants. There were orchestrated interventions ‘on behalf of’ local villagers, and some Lao participants were harassed during and after the event. Two AEPF sessions were particularly controversial. The first was a workshop on water resources that included criticism of the Lao government’s plans to dam the main stream of the Mekong River. The second was a forum on land, during which local villagers told of how their land was appropriated by powerful interests. Apparently this included some villagers whose land had been taken to build luxurious villas to accommodate ASEM heads of state.

Although Sombath’s civilian government counterparts were supportive of the AEPF process, Laos’ security apparatus – what locals sometimes refer to as ‘the dark power’ – was deeply unsettled by attempts to air the country’s dirty laundry in public. Even worse was how the AEPF showcased local people’s ability to organise and articulate their grievances.

On 7 December, the director of a Swiss NGO (one of the co-organisers of the AEPF) was expelled from the country for criticising harassment of Lao participants.

Sombath’s disappearance occurred eight days later.

A deluge of international outrage followed in the weeks and months after Sombath’s disappearance. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch condemned what had happened and pressed the government to find Sombath, as did the European Union and parliamentarians from across Asia. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged the Lao government to do ‘everything in its power to bring about an immediate and safe return home [of Sombath] to his family’. Some ASEAN member states and the Australian government made numerous behind-the-scenes presentations on Sombath’s behalf. There was also a barrage of negative international media coverage.

The official government response has been to claim that the police are investigating and to deny any involvement in Sombath’s disappearance. As of the time of writing, there have been no new developments. The formal investigation has turned up nothing of substance.

The closest the authorities have come to proposing a theory about the incident was four days after Sombath was taken. An official Lao news report stated:

Following the preliminary assessment of the incidence from the CCTV footage, the authorities concerned viewed that, it may be possible Mr. Sombath has been kidnapped perhaps because of a personal conflict or a conflict in business or some other reasons and at this stage the authorities are not in a position to say exactly what has actually happened, why Mr. Sombath has gone missing and who have been involved in the incidence [sic].

Those familiar with the case have dismissed allegations of a personal or business conflict. A more credible theory is the security apparatus, nervous in the wake of the AEPF, wanted to send a warning, and targeting Sombath was a high-profile way of doing so. Another possibility, not unconnected to the first theory, is that a powerful Lao politician took the initiative to disappear Sombath, using a covert section of the security apparatus, and that this politician has subsequently been protected by the regime’s leaders.

It should be stressed that Shui Meng has never accused the Lao government or blamed them for her husband’s disappearance. Her line has always been she just wants her husband returned and it is the government’s responsibility to conduct a thorough investigation of the matter. ‘We are ordinary people,’ she said to me. ‘We have no ability or desire to fight the state. We just want Sombath back.’

To this end, she has also pointed out inconsistencies or shortfalls in the investigation process to date. For example, Lao authorities have claimed the CCTV footage is too dark to reveal the number plates of the car that took Sombath away. Why, then, have they declined offers of international technical assistance to help do this? Why the police on duty did not stop Sombath from being detained, especially when one of the individuals involved discharged a gunshot in public?

Laos’ police and security apparatus extends throughout the entire country, from the highest level to the most remote village. Almost nothing of major consequence occurs without government knowledge. Whether the authorities were directly involved in Sombath’s disappearance or not, it is inconceivable that they have been unable to locate him or bring to justice those who disappeared him. The only explanation for this lack of progress that makes any sense is that the state has decided at the highest level that they don’t want to find him.

Shui Meng still lives in Vientiane. She has described Sombath’s disappearance as having had a ‘devastating chilling impact’ inside the country. Any signs of nascent civil society have disappeared as people go to ground to avoid something similar happening to them: ‘People are watching. They know if nothing can be done for him [Sombath], nothing can be done for others.’

Her numerous letters and appeals to the Lao government have gone unanswered. Meanwhile, people Shui Meng contacted in the government in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s disappearance, and who expressed surprise and sympathy, now avoid her questions and say nothing. A smear campaign has also been orchestrated: false rumours spread that Sombath was a CIA spy and an American citizen, that he embezzled funds from PADETC and has gone to America to live on the proceeds.

On a personal level, Shui Meng still struggles to process what has happened. Why would someone seek to remove a person who has contributed so much to Lao society? How long does she have to wait for news about her husband? A day? A month? Years? Will she ever find out what happened to him? It is one thing if there is a body: the family can mourn and adjust to the loss. But to be left uncertain is agonising.

Despite this, she maintains it is important not to lose hope. She believes Sombath is still alive and intends to keep fighting for him.

Her message, repeated to whomever she meets, is to keep putting pressure on Laos, keep reminding them Sombath is not forgotten. ‘Silence on this case is a form of defeat. Don’t let Sombath disappear. Really disappear.’

More information about Sombath Somphone, his work and the international campaign to locate him and return him to his family can be found at www.sombath.org.

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