17 May 2021
Good day to all. We are gathered together again for another AEPF, the 13th AEPF. This is the 4th time I have been asked to speak at the opening of an AEPF Meeting. While I am grateful that the organizing committee has once more given me the space and time to speak at such an important forum for development activists and practitioners, I must admit, it does not give me much pleasure to give another commemoration talk about my husband, Sombath Somphone, who was disappeared on 15 December 2012, two months after he co-charied the 9th AEPF in Vientiane.
Nine years have passed since Sombath was abducted right in front of a police post in Vientiane, and with evidence of his abduction by uniformed police recorded on CCTV. Yet the Lao government has kept up the charade and denied any knowledge of what happened to Sombath, while at the same time refusing to conduct any thorough and transparent investigation. Over the past 9 years, I have travelled the globe giving countless talks about Sombath – who he is, his life and his work, and his enforced disappearance. I have knocked on the doors of world leaders, representatives of United Nations organizations, and appealed to almost all human rights agencies to take up Sombath’s case and pressure the Lao government and officialdom to give me answers as to what happened to Sombath and to return him safely to me and my family. After 9 years of struggle and campaign to get truth and justice, I still have gotten no answers of Sombath’s whereabouts or his fate. All I get from the Lao officialdom is a wall of silence and lies.
In fact with the passing of time the official smear campaign against Sombath has become more viscious. Whenever confronted with demand for answers of Sombath’s disappearance at international and UN meetings, the Lao officials regularly mouthed the official line of their continued investigations, while at the same time casting aspersions of Sombath’s character by accusing him of amassing wealth though dubious means. Even though such baseless lies gained little credibility among people who know Sombath and are aware of the background and circumstances of the case, these lies nonetheless cause me great pain and anger.
I am enraged by the fact that the perpetrators of such a heinous crime and violation of Sombath’s and my rights could continue to get away with such impunity. I am enraged at the futility of international laws and pressure, against authoritarian governments who could disregard international standards and the rule of law.
Yet, despite my disappointment of the lack of progress on Sombath’s case, and my anger at the injustice caused to my husband and my family, I also know that to give up on fighting for truth and justice is not an option. To give up is to give in to what the perpetrators most want; and to lose hope is to lose part of my dignity, my humanity, and my love for Sombath. So I soldier on against all odds and continue my fight for truth and justice for Sombath and continue my plea for solidarity and support for the satisfactory resolution of Sombath’s case.
This is why I have overcome my despondency and agree to address you at this 13th Asia-Europe People’s Forum. I believe that is also what Sombath wants.
Many of the AEPF participants and development activists already know of Sombath and his work, and many of you, especially those in the Asia region, have also worked with him to promote a more equitable, just, and sustainable development that places people, and not profits, at the center of the development agenda.
Sombath’s development vision and aspiration did not come from theory but are learned from direct experience of growing up in a poor rural family and working in communities all over Laos. His ideas and approaches are not shaped by any political or development imperatives from outside or from above; they have been learned from consultative partnerships and practical experimentation with communities and families, and especially with young people with whom he placed the greatest hope for real change. Sombath always urged the young people to remain mindful of their traditional values and wisdom even as global forces grow stronger. Development is good, he used to say, but for development to be healthy, it “must come from within.” That was what made Sombath’s work so authentic and so trusted by those he worked with.
Now, even though Sombath’s vision and voice has been silenced for more than 9 years, I am struck at how relevant and important they still are. He had warned that past and ongoing development and political mistakes are the root causes of many of the current political, social, economic, and religious fissures across many of our societies, and why we are now living in such a destabilized world where the social fabric of our communities have become torn by hate and distrust.
Nine years ago, at the 9th AEPF Opening speech, he said, “our development model is not balanced, not connected, and definitely not holistic. We focus too much on economic growth and ignore its negative impacts on the social, environmental, and spiritual dimensions. This unbalanced development model is the chief cause of inequality, injustice, financial meltdown, global warming, climate change, loss of bio-diversity, and even loss of our humanity and spirituality. …We are blinded by the power of money and let the corporations rule the world and even over-ride the power of the state. Ordinary people, and civil society, have very little say in all this”
What Sombath believed and worked for to change all his life is becoming even more urgent today, as we face the global crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic. As we are now forced to work-from-home, meet through zoom, have our children learn online, close our businesses, and lose our jobs, we need to think about how we can survive this crisis as families, as communities, as societies, and as a globalized world.
Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic has made it more convenient for authoritarian regimes to use the pandemic as an opportunity to disregard people’s democratic rights and escalate political and physical repressions and violence against their opponents. These autocrats know well that with the domestic challenges posed by the pandemic, international attention is less focused on their violations and they can get away, just as we are witnessing happening in Myanmar, in Palestine, and in Kashmir.
What should we do under such circumstances? As Sombath would often say, “we must think outside the box”. Indeed the old strategies may not be enough for the challenges we face today. Sombath may not be here to brainstorm or share his ideas with you, but he always believe in the collective wisdom and experience of sincere and committed people who havespent their lives working on the ground and know the kinds of challenges people face.
This 13th AEFP will provide opportunities for policy makers, dedicated practitioners, and ordinary people to share and debate and put forth new strategies to address and overcome thechallenges we face today. Indeed through strategic networking, and solidarity of purpose between the people of Asia and Europe, we will strengthen our collective resistance against the trampling of our rights, and the political, social, economic, environmental, and public health injustice we face today.
I close by once more by thanking the organizers of the 13th AEPF and I wishing you great success in your deliberations.