Vice World News: 23 December 2021
“I wish I had gone up to hug him,” she recalls of the last time she saw him on that December evening in 2012. Today, she’s still fighting for answers.
By Alastair McCready
Shui-Meng’s husband had just finished playing table tennis when he arrived at her shop as she was closing up one early evening. Glancing over across the small handicraft store—adorned with traditional handwoven silk, rattan baskets and bamboo goods—she would tell Sombath that she’d be ready to set off home shortly and to meet her outside.
Driving home in separate cars, Shui-Meng could see her husband’s black Jeep following close behind as they made the short drive through downtown Vientiane—the sleepy, low-lying capital of Laos sitting on the banks of the Mekong river.
It’s a route they’d driven countless times before with no issue. But today, between glances in her rearview mirror, his car would vanish from view. Initially assuming he’d been held up by a phone call, she’d only start panicking as the clock struck 9pm and he still hadn’t come home.
Sombath would never arrive, with that subdued greeting from across the shop floor the last interaction that Shui-Meng would ever have with her husband of more than three decades—a fact that still causes her great pain to this day.
“I didn’t even go up to him, I told him to go ahead. I didn’t even go to see him or give him one last touch. I just waved goodbye to him,” she told VICE World News as the 9th anniversary of Sombath’s disappearance passed on Dec. 15.
“I wish, I wish, I wish I had gone up to hug him and say, ‘let’s go home.’”
Shui-Meng last saw her husband passing through a police checkpoint. She would later find CCTV footage showing him being escorted out of his Jeep by officers. Soon after, an unidentified man on a motorbike can be seen pulling up, getting in and driving his car away.
Despite these images offering a clear lead on what occurred that evening, no answers as to his whereabouts have ever been forthcoming.
Though denied by authorities, rights groups say Laotian civil society advocate Sombath Somphone was almost certainly abducted that December evening in 2012 by police acting on behalf of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, the country’s communist regime that has ruled since 1975. They believe Sombath is one of the many cases of enforced disappearances in Laos, in a deadly trend of state-sanctioned kidnappings that also flourishes in neighbouring Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
As a decade with no trace of her husband approaches, she says that today she is being “stonewalled” by Laotian authorities. While the likes of Hillary Clinton and Nobel Prize winner Desmond Tutu once pressed the Laotian government for answers about Sombath, today the spotlight has moved elsewhere and Shui-Meng cuts a more solitary figure in her fight to keep her husband’s case alive. Today, the country’s authorities no longer even keep up the pretence of investigating his disappearance.
“In a place like Laos, the tallest trees are pruned off. If you become a tall tree like uncle Sombath, you will be pruned.”
“I don’t know when, or if I will ever get answers about him,” Shui-Meng said. A Singaporean national, she says the last meeting she had with police was organised by her embassy in 2017. “Some junior people we know in both the court and the police have told us that this is a political case and you will not get answers until the top leadership in the Party decides to let you know what happened.”
What happened, Shui-Meng believes, was that Sombath was cut down by a paranoid regime who saw his potential to grow into a figurehead for democratic reform in Laos. Though a development specialist who advocated for the welfare of Laos’ poorest, by all accounts Sombath was mild-mannered and cautious—never courting controversy, maintaining a working relationship with the government and shunning the activist label.
Regardless, by the time he disappeared in 2012, “uncle Sombath”, as he was affectionately known, was becoming a highly popular civil society figure in a country where the communist party places itself above all else and is intolerant of rival voices.
“I think that the Lao authorities may have feared that he could have become a bigger icon,” said Shui-Meng, who still runs her craft shop and lives in the home the couple once shared in Vientiane. “In a place like Laos, the tallest trees are pruned off. If you become a tall tree like uncle Sombath, you will be pruned.”
While unlikely to ever receive the answers she seeks as the perpetrators are left to investigate their own crimes, Shui-Meng sees it as her moral duty to not allow her husband’s case to be forgotten. Just last week, she published a book on his life and abduction, a writing process she called both “cathartic and traumatic” as she revisited her long marriage with Sombath, whom she met while the pair were studying in Hawaii in the mid ‘70s.
“I don’t know how many times, even now, I’ve wished that we had valued each other more. It’s when the person is not there, that every uncaring word you’ve spoken to them comes back to haunt you,” she said. “The book is my way to show my love for my husband and to tell the world that he’s here. He lived and walked this earth, and he deserves to be treated as a normal human being.”
But as the months and years tick by, the chances of Sombath returning home lessen. A dark cloud looming over the case, too, is the disturbing track record of enforced disappearances in Laos—the most recent example also being the most gruesome, as the bodies of two men were found floating in the Mekong in 2019, disembowelled and stuffed with concrete.
Staring down this stark reality, Shui-Meng says that hope Sombath is still alive “is what keeps me going.” But barring his safe return, that December night now seems destined to define her existence in perpetuity, as once-simple pleasures like sharing a bottle of wine or enjoying a sunset have become painful reminders of all that she’s lost.
“Normalcy is a kind of luxury that I now believe ordinary people take for granted,” she said, letting out a deep sigh. “I don’t know what normal is anymore.”