Foreign Donors Slam Laos Over Lack of Progress on Missing Civil Society Leader

Radio Free Asia: 20 November 2014

A 2005 photo of Sombath Somphone in the Philippines.

Donor countries to Laos have pressed the government of Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong on the whereabouts of the country’s most prominent civil society leader who disappeared nearly two years ago.

European and U.S. development partners mentioned the case of Sombath Somphone at a roundtable meeting with members of the Lao government last week in the capital Vientiane, during which they discussed the country’s progress and challenges in implementing various development goals.

The civil society leader went missing on Dec. 15, 2012, when police stopped him in his vehicle at a checkpoint in the capital. He was then transferred to another vehicle, according to police surveillance video, and has not been heard from since.

“Sombath’s case has been raised by several development partners such as the European Union … [and] the United States,” said a foreign representative at the meeting, speaking to RFA’s Lao Service on condition of anonymity.

But a high-ranking official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Laos said the government had not been complacent on the issue, and was putting efforts and resources into the investigation, the source said.

The official also suggested that the development partners turn their attention to Laos’ “more pending and important issues” which were more pressing than the Sombath case.

“The government of Laos hopes to have more information about the case soon that they will be able to share in the near future,” the source said.

Lack of progress

The EU development partners noted the Lao government’s lack of progress with the Sombath case, despite a reassurance at last year’s roundtable meeting that it was continuing the investigation and would bring the perpetrators to justice.

“One year later (and almost two years after the disappearance occurred), we note with grave concern that no progress has been made, and Mr. Sombath has still not returned to his family,” said a statement issued by the European donor countries.

They also said they had invited the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances to become involved in the case.

“Continued uncertainty around this case will not reflect well on the Lao PDR [People’s Democratic Republic] in the upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process,” the statement said, referring to a human rights review each U.N. member country undergoes every four years.

Laos is scheduled to be reviewed in January.

Some international rights groups and Sombath’s wife, Ng Shui Meng, suspect that government-linked organizations or criminal elements may have abducted the activist.

They also accuse Laos of being reluctant to investigate his enforced disappearance, and say the case has created a fearful environment for other activists in the country.

Sombath received the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership—Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize—for his work in the fields of education and development.

Laos previously rejected international assistance with the investigation into Sombath’s disappearance, including a U.S. offer to provide technical help to enhance the quality of some blurry images of the surveillance video footage.

Land grabs

The donor countries also encouraged the government to ensure that the expropriation of land in Laos is restricted to use for public purposes only.

Laos often comes under fire for land grabs in which the authorities evict people from their homes for development projects without paying them fair compensation.

“In cases of expropriation for public purposes, affected parties should receive full, fair and prior compensation both in cases of individually and communally held land,” the statement said.

Laotians are granted the right to occupy land through the state. Some of them can sell the right to use their land if their family has inhabited it for generations.

However, citizens cannot officially own property, and the government reserves the right to reclaim land when it is deemed to be “in the public interest,” such as for national development projects.

The donors urged the government to “define clear policies and laws to protect customary rights in order to secure the livelihoods especially of rural and vulnerable groups” when it comes to expropriating land.

Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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