New Guard, Old Problems: What Sombath Somphone’s Continued Disappearance Says About Rights in Laos

The Diplomat: 13 December 2017

The development suggests that more of the same is at work in this realm in the Southeast Asian state.

Five years after Lao activist Sombath Somphone disappeared after being snatched off the streets of Vientiane by police, rights concerns in the tiny, landlocked Southeast Asian state still remain significant and unresolved.

Last year’s change in government, with a new prime minister in charge of the one-party state, had also raised hopes that this type of atrocious and anachronistic behavior might finally have come to an end with Thongloun Sisoulith touted as a more moderate leader.

But those hopes are proving about as realistic as finding Somphone alive.

Perhaps even more disappointing, as noted by Human Rights Watch, is that while donor support for the development of Lao civil society organizations has increased significantly, so too have government restrictions.

This included, “numerous arrests, harsh sentences, and a more stringent decree on non-profit associations in the past year alone. A climate of fear and self-censorship prevails among local groups, as well as donors and other international organizations.”

Somphone’s abduction was captured by CCTV cameras fixed on a busy Vientiane street, and Laos authorities insist their investigations are continuing. Yet they have not provided any additional information as to what happened despite pressure from civil society groups, Western governments, the UN and Singapore where his wife lives.

Initially, authorities in Vientiane had said they had no knowledge of his whereabouts, insisting he had not been taken into police custody and suggested he was probably kidnapped because of a personal dispute.

The video that captured his last public moments tells a different story.

It shows police stopping Sombath’s jeep at 6:03 p.m. on December 15, 2012. An unidentified men then takes him into the Thadeua police post.

Soon after a motorcyclist stops at the police post and drives-off in the jeep, and left his own motorcycle on the side of the road. Minutes later a truck, flashing its lights, stops.

Two people got out of the truck, put Sombath into the vehicle and drives off.

Plenty of unexplained evidence to start with.

The video can still be seen here.

Sixty-two NGOs have called for fresh investigations.

The response is standard fare in these parts, as it has been since the Communist takeover of an essentially clan-based country in 1975. The ethnic Hmong and activists know this all too well.

In 2016, Somphone Phimmasone, Lodkham Thammavong, and Soukan Chaithat were detained for criticizing government policies on social media and holding a peaceful protest calling for human rights and democracy in Laos in front of the Lao embassy in Bangkok.

They were jailed in May for up to 20 years.

“The imprisonment of Somphone, Soukan and Lodkam sends a chilling message across Lao civil society that the government is determined to crush the slightest sign of activism and opposition to its authoritarian rule,” said Vanida Thephsouvanh, President of the Lao Movement for Human Rights.

Human Rights Watch has also called on Lao authorities to provide information on the fate or whereabouts of ten other activists who it says are victims of enforced disappearance.

Laos ranked just 173th of 180 countries on the last year’s Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. It’s an embarrassing and disturbing rank, which for the senior people within ASEAN who have the best interests of their people at heart should be of serious concern.

Somphone shunned politics and was revered for his proactive work in modernizing antiquated farming techniques, improving food security and using his NGO, the Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC) to work for improved education and health facilities.

That won him a Magsaysay award in 2005 for his dedication to community service, and he was known for having a soft approach that has made him few, if any, enemies. The exception, as is most often the case, is the group of powerful people with a dislike for people who empower the impoverished.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter on @lukeanthonyhunt

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