Straits Times: 12 December 2014
By Nirmal Ghosh, Indochina Bureau Chief In Bangkok
ALMOST two years after the disappearance of prominent Lao civil society figure Sombath Somphone in Vientiane, his Singaporean wife Ng Shui Meng, 67, says “the anxiety and despair grows with each passing day”.
Speaking in Bangkok yesterday at the announcement of the Sombath Initiative, she said: “Today marks 726 days, four days short of two years that Sombath has been taken away.
“Some people sometimes ask me, do you think Sombath Somphone is still alive? My answer is, I can only hope that he is still alive, for without that hope I will not have the strength to get up each day.”
The initiative had been formed in the “desperate hope that the Lao and other governments continue to show interest and pressure Lao authorities not to forget but employ all available resources” to probe the case, she said.
The group behind it includes Dr Ng, Philippine lawmaker Walden Bello, Malaysian MP Charles Santiago and Australian senator Lee Rhiannon.
The goal is to “seek resolution” to Mr Sombath’s disappearance and to carry forward his ideas. Activists and law experts speaking alongside Dr Ng maintained that the Lao government has still not produced a satisfactory explanation for his disappearance.
Mr Sombath, 64, who won the prestigious Magsaysay Award for community leadership in 2005, disappeared on a busy Vientiane road on Dec 15, 2012, after being stopped by police for what they described as a routine check. He was seen on a closed-circuit television (CCTV) video alighting from his jeep. A man got into his vehicle and drove it away. A second vehicle pulled up, Mr Sombath and another man got into it and it was driven away. That was the last trace of him.
The Lao government has denied that he was in the custody of the police but said he had been “abducted”.
In the most recent meeting three months ago with Lao officials, however, lawmakers from three Asean states were told there were doubts that it was Mr Sombath in the CCTV footage.
Mr Phil Robertson, Bangkok-based deputy director for Asia of Human Rights Watch, told journalists yesterday: “The investigation is going backwards.”
Mr Sam Zarifi of the independent International Commission of Jurists said the Lao authorities’ response had been “wholly inadequate”.
“Enforced disappearance is a very serious human rights violation,” said Ms Matilda Bogner, Bangkok-based regional representative of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which has called for a transparent and thorough investigation.
The Lao government has been pressured for an explanation since the disappearance, with the issue raised at the highest levels, including by foreign ministers and UN envoys.
An environment and community development activist, Mr Sombath is well known for a consensual approach. Colleagues and analysts say he took care not to challenge the Lao state.
Dr Ng told The Straits Times: “I hope that time will not just allow the case to disappear.”
She added: “For me, it is not important who is involved. My main concern is his safety and safe return.”