Channel News Asia: 16 September 2016
Sombath Somphone’s high-profile disappearance in 2012 came into focus again during the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane. Although world leaders shied away from public mention of the Laotian civil society leader, his other half Ng Shui Meng vows to keep searching for her husband until her “dying day”.
For a moment, just one, Ng Shui Meng’s tough facade cracked as she appeared to contemplate giving up what has been an arduous four-year slog to locate her missing husband Sombath Somphone.
“You always break down. You always try and make sense of things. All kinds of thoughts come through your mind, like ‘Why don’t you jump off a cliff? Why do you bother to wake up?’” said the Singapore-born, Laos-based woman.
It was a departure from the otherwise calm, measured manner of the 69-year-old PhD-holder in sociology, who met with Channel NewsAsia in a muggy shophouse along Chanthabouly District in Vientiane.
As dusk approached, the next-door pub filled up with boisterous members of an Australian delegation, who had descended on the languid capital city for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit from Sep 6 – 9.
For a few days, the global spotlight was trained on the landlocked communist nation as it entertained US President Barack Obama along with some 5,000 foreign officials and journalists. And while the agenda was dominated by issues such as economics and the environment, human rights groups had lobbied for Obama and other leaders to discuss the unexplained 2012 disappearance of Laotian civil society leader Sombath.
He did not receive a single public mention. Asked if she felt it was a wasted opportunity, Ng shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m beyond disappointment.” Instead, she chose to see the positives in meeting with the likes of US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes; United Nations Assistant Secretary General Miroslav Jenca, and Singapore’s Deputy Speaker of Parliament Charles Chong.
“Charles Chong reassured me that Singapore will not forget the case of Sombath, in the context that it affects a Singapore citizen,” she recalled.
Chong, a board member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, told Channel NewsAsia after the Summit: “Since I had communicated with her previously, I called on her to meet up. I told her not to worry. We will not stop until the case is resolved.”
Chong added that Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan had asked the Singapore embassy in Vientiane to follow up and keep Shui Meng updated of any developments.
“I should be grateful for such small mercies, right?” said Ng, a former researcher at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, who went on to work for UNICEF in China, Timor Leste and finally Laos after her marriage to Sombath in 1983.
“At this point, I am thankful for any government or public official; any leader who will continue to raise it, even though so far there are no results. I have no other means.”
“What I fear most is that with the passing of time, the case will be forgotten… For me, I won’t forget. Until my dying day, I will continue to do what I can do. But I hope the world hasn’t forgotten.”
Ng first met Sombath, 66, in the 1970s, during their graduate studies at the University of Hawaii – she in sociology, he in agronomy. They subsequently lived in Laos for over 30 years, working with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in rural areas as part of Sombath’s vision to improve the livelihoods of the farming communities he had grown up in.
The last time Ng saw her husband in the flesh was at their handicraft shop Saoban. “We expected it to be like any normal evening,” she said, her tiny frame fidgeting slightly as she wearily recounted the events of that fateful Saturday December 15, 2012.
Sombath had told Ng: “Let’s go home for dinner.” They were his last words before the couple headed home in separate vehicles around 6:15pm.
“I had him at the back, in my rear-view mirror,” said Ng. “Then I noticed his jeep was not following mine after I passed the police post.”
“I thought maybe he took a turn, went to get gas or whatever so I went home, and told my niece and others in the house to set the table, to wait for ‘Uncle’ to be back in a few minutes and we’ll have dinner.”
“He didn’t turn up.”
“We waited and waited. At 9:30pm, I began to worry. We went out looking for him and traced the route he travelled – I also thought maybe his jeep had broken down. We stopped by two, three hospitals to see if there was an accident; whether anything had happened to him. We found nothing.”
“The whole night, I couldn’t sleep.”
In the morning, Ng went to the local police station, who told her to report the matter to the main station in town on Monday instead. She headed out to look for Sombath again, and upon passing the aforementioned police post, realised there were closed-circuit TV (CCTV) cameras in the vicinity. After making her report the next day, she found her way into the TV room and got a junior officer to play the tape for her.
Her mobile phone video of the CCTV footage, which has since been circulated on YouTube, shows Sombath being stopped at the police post and stepping out of his vehicle. A motorcyclist arrives, parks at the side, and drives away Sombath’s jeep. Moments later, a truck arrives and Sombath is pushed into it.
“That was the last time we saw him,” said Ng.
“I’ve told this story numerous times, and each time it’s still not easy. It brings back the anxiety; the shock. It feels terrible.”
In the years following Sombath’s disappearance, theories about what happened have centered on him being an activist who paid the price for criticising a government ruled by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party since 1975, against the backdrop of a country where protests are rare and political speech is often curbed.
Not true, said Ng. “Sombath always worked with the cooperation of local authorities. His programmes were all approved by the government.”
“He’s not a political activist in the normal sense of the word… He was an activist in the sense that he really worked to improve people’s lives. I don’t think what he has done has run foul of the government in any specific areas.”
Ng suspects he was taken due to his global emergence as a symbol of civil society in Laos.
“People listened to him. Could his reputation, the respect he gained in the region – could it have triggered fear in some conservative elements in the party and military establishment in Laos?”
“In Laos, the government feels it should be the one seen to be doing everything for the people. Ordinary people who gain reputations, or are seen as doing something the government itself has not done or failed to do – are not looked upon favourably,” she explained. “Some decision could have been made at some level that basically Sombath was too much of a symbol that needed to be stopped.”
The “trigger”, Ng believes, was Sombath’s role as co-chairperson of the 9th Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) held in Vientiane in October 2012, which signalled a “blossoming” of civil society in Laos.
“Certain arms of the government and the party perhaps felt it was time to nip civil society in the bud, because it was thriving. People were enthusiastic; people were very optimistic about the opening space for civil society. The AEPF could have alerted some of the conservative elements who don’t want to see an unchecked growth of civil society.”
There were no clear warning signs of what was to come, said Ng, although she recalled that during the AEPF, “plainclothes security” personnel were present – taking photos and notes; attending every panel discussion and interjecting whenever Laos was mentioned.
“I will never know the truth… Frankly, I will never know,” she said. “It still continues to be extremely mysterious to me.”
Ng remembers being “actually quite optimistic” when she first saw the CCTV tape of Sombath being taken away. “I thought, with this kind of evidence, certainly someone will say we will investigate; that something has gone wrong and it’s a mistake,” she said.
“But the first police report that came out basically said he was stopped at the police post for a regular vehicle document check; that they didn’t know what happened to him later; that he could have been kidnapped for personal or business conflicts.”
“When I read the report, it struck me: ‘Uh-oh. It’s an excuse’.”
Undeterred, Ng reached out to contacts at the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs who had worked closely with Sombath in organising the AEPF. She also hand-delivered a letter to the Minister for Public Security, and wrote to the Prime Minister’s Office – all to no avail.
“I tried to contact everybody; anybody I knew. I never got any answers,” she said. “The few I talked to initially were all genuinely surprised. Then after I posted the video on YouTube and they watched it, I think later it was very clear that a wall of silence had fallen around the case.”
“People I used to know and worked with increasingly did not receive my calls, or avoid me up to today. Very few acknowledge me unless I go up to talk to them directly. I sense most of them genuinely don’t know, but also don’t want to be involved – and are maybe also embarrassed. I sense nobody wants to talk to me. Nobody is going to give me any new information.”
Outside of Laos, prominent global figures began to pay attention – with the likes of Hillary Clinton; US Secretary of State John Kerry; Nobel Peace Prize-winning bishop Desmond Tutu and Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop all penning official letters of support for Ng as well as as to pressure the Lao government for answers.
Ng said that various embassies in Vientiane also came forward to offer assistance in the form of video forensics – particularly after subsequent police reports claimed the CCTV footage was “too grainy” to view the license plates of the vehicles, and also that it was not possible to identify the person being taken away as Sombath himself.
In 2014, Sombath’s disappearance was raised in Parliament by Deputy Speaker Chong. Then-Foreign Minister K Shanmugam responded that the case had been taken to “the highest levels”, including with the Laos President. Shanmugam, however, also acknowledged that the matter remains “within the purview of” Laos, and “there is little that countries outside” can do.
Ng agreed. “What else can they do? What else can anybody do?”
On her part, she sees herself continuing to travel the world, giving speeches on Sombath’s case – like she recently did at the Oslo Freedom Forum in May. If Ng has yet to give one in her hometown, it is because she believes “the Singapore public is really not that interested in what happens in other countries”.
“I want to talk to anybody who bothers to talk to me; who will tell the story. I guess the more and more the world hears about it; and the Lao people hear about it… Maybe at some point the wall will crack,” she said.
“I don’t even know what else I can do. I have no strong political ties; I have no big business ties. I’m just an ordinary person… whose husband has disappeared. And what can ordinary people do apart from what I’ve been doing?”
Despite the presence of friends, family and an extensive network of online support, Ng seems to cut a solitary figure in her quest to find her husband.
“Sombath’s mother passed away a year and a half ago, pining to see him, while his father passed before his disappearance. His siblings are still around, but they are Lao people… They are encouraging but they also look to me to be the face of what happened to their brother, because they have even less space to operate,” Ng mused.
“My family back home in Singapore, they know I will not go back; they know I will not leave. I still go back and visit, but they know that no matter what, I will not leave any stone unturned.”
What about her personal safety in Laos? “I really don’t care!” she stressed, with her eyes widened and tone elevated for the first time this interview. “Why should I care? The worst that can be done to me has already happened. What other things worse than that can they do to me?”
“I’m not afraid. I’ve not committed a crime; I’ve not done anything against the law. I’m doing what any other person in my situation would do if they can – look for their husband. I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong.”
The anger at the injustice and the hurt from Sombath’s absence have not abated over the years, said Ng.
“Time never heals a wound like this. Time can never heal a wound like this. It’s not like death – death has closure. You never know what happened, so how can you close the chapter?”
It is the search, and the hope of finding her husband, which has kept Ng going. She also takes comfort in meditation, which Sombath himself used to practice. “It’s helped give me some clarity. It doesn’t take away the pain, but you find ways to deal with it.”
She paused. “The most painful thing is… Sombath and I were just talking about how we spent our whole lives working; that it’s time to take life more slowly; to spend more time with ourselves and enjoy our retirement.”
“I have no idea where he is. I hope he’s still alive. It’s a hope I have to keep. I feel he’s still alive… I feel he’s still alive,” Ng repeated, her voice shaking as she adjusted the wedding band still adorning her finger.
“But alive or not, wherever he is, I still feel it is my duty as a wife to continue to search for the truth. And I will do that, with or without support from anybody. I will continue. It doesn’t matter whether I am heard, or whether people care – I need to care. I need to continue to care.”