Two years on, still no sign of Laos' activist Sombath

Global Post: 15 December 2014

Rights groups on Monday urged Southeast Asian nations to turn up the pressure on Laos over the disappearance of prominent activist Sombath Somphone who vanished from the streets of Vientiane two years ago.

Sombath, an award-winning campaigner for sustainable development, disappeared after he was pulled over at a police checkpoint in the Laos capital on the evening of December 15, 2012.

His case has cast a dark cloud over civil society in Laos, an impoverished tightly-controlled communist country, and raised the issue of impunity for powerful state and business interests held responsible for routinely killing or “disappearing” activists across the region.

A group of around 80 regional rights groups said the Laos government’s silence on Sombath was part of a strategy of “consigning to oblivion” crimes of enforced disappearance.

“Regrettably, all other ASEAN member states have remained conspicuously silent on the issue of Sombath’s disappearance,” the groups said in joint statement  released by the International Federation of Human Rights.

ASEAN, the often cosy 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations diplomatic club, must “break its silence” over the issue, the statement said.

Major global figures including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Archbishop Desmond Tutu have called for Sombath’s safe return, while a 2013 European Union delegation to Laos pressed for the stale probe into his disappearance to be revived.

Diplomats and rights groups in Laos have told AFP the last time the authorities gave an update on their investigation into Sombath’s disappearance was June 2013.

CCTV cameras in Vientiane captured the moment his battered jeep stopped at the police checkpoint. Sombath is later seen getting into an unknown vehicle.

Despite the disappearance from a public spot, local authorities stand accused of failing to carry out even the most cursory of investigations as well as withholding any information.

“The only intelligent conclusion is that there is in fact no investigation taking place at all and that the obstinacy is part of a cover-up for state officials implicated in his abduction,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP and vice-president of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a signatory to the statement.

Santiago called on ASEAN members to use their diplomatic clout to press Laos to ramp up efforts to find Sombath.

But ASEAN members are traditionally loath to intervene in each other’s business, perhaps aware of shortcomings in some of their own rights records as well as the need to preserve diplomatic face.

While hard numbers are lacking, rights campaigners say dozens — and likely hundreds — of people have vanished across Southeast Asia in the past two decades, often after coming up against local business, criminal or political interests.

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