Voice of America: 21 December 2016

The wife of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone is calling for judicial reforms in Laos and for the government clarify the fate of her husband, saying she will “never give up” in seeking the truth behind his disappearance.

Shui-Meng Ng, made the appeal as rights activists marked the fourth year since his enforced disappearance from a police checkpoint in the Laos capital of Vientiane in December 2012.

“The message to the [Laos] government is ‘come clean’ — tell us the truth and my message to the Laos government is — ‘I will never give up’,” Shui-Meng told reporters in Thailand.

Activists say police closed-circuit television (CCTV) on December 12, 2012 shows Sombath being arrested at a police checkpoint. The recording goes on to show him brought out of the check-point and placed in another vehicle, which drove away. Another individual is seen driving Sombath’s jeep away.

The U.S. educated Sombath was the only individual to return to Laos after the end of the Indochina war out of a group of students who studied at U.S. universities.

From a poor farming family, Sombath became well known for promoting simple but innovative methods for improving crop yields and supporting organic farming.

An inspiration for Lao farmers

Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson, said Sombath’s years of work in “grassroots rural development” had inspired thousands of Lao farmers and families and helped them “farm better and live better”.

But Robertson says Sombath’s uncertain fate prompted fear among Lao civil society groups, “that their survival is at the whim of the government”.

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIFH), in a statement marking the anniversary of Sombath’s disappearance also called on the Lao government to clarify the whereabouts of 10 other activists who had disappeared since 2007.

In 2009, authorities detained a group of men and women planning to participate in pro-democracy demonstrations. Earlier, in 2007, an outspoken critic of Chinese-sponsored agricultural projects also disappeared.

Seeking the truth

Shui-Meng says since Sombath vanished she has faced an enormous struggle to find the truth about her husband’s fate.

“Report it to the police, put his disappearance in the newspaper, try to get the lawyers to work on it, meet with people, meet with the ministers, write to the ministers, write to the prime minister, president — the whole lot,” she said.

“You appeal, you appeal, you go to every level and you are faced with a wall — that is so thick that you can’t even try — no matter what you do that it’s most difficult to crack,” she said.

Shui-Meng accused Laos authorities of “acting with impunity”, amid institutional and justice system failures.

“This is something I cannot let go, and I will continue no matter how long or how difficult – that is the greatest challenge — the challenge of not getting an answer, the challenge of people you know they lie, they do not want to tell you the truth — it’s essentially impunity,” she told reporters.

Human Rights Watch has accused Laos of failing to carry out “any serious government investigations, leading to a “pattern of delay, denial and cover-up”.

“Four years on, Sombath’s family is no closer to learning the truth about his fate than they were in the weeks after he went missing,” said the right’s group’s Robertson.

Laos is yet to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance it signed in 2008. Laos is also a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Earlier this year Laos installed a new prime minister, Thongloun Sisoulith, a former deputy leader and foreign minister. Thongloun has been viewed by analysts as a ‘reformer’ in his crackdown on abuses in areas such as the environment and illegal timber trade.

Shui-Meng says while the government’s new direction has been welcomed, there is little evidence of a policy change in relation to human rights.

“The new government under the new Prime Minister [Thongloun] has taken some actions — or made some directives to address some of the most challenging development issues facing the country — like logging,” she said.

“The image is so bad that I think the government has to address [these problems]. But on human rights issues they have not indicated that there’s going to be any change,” she said.