Bangkok Post: 17 December 2022
On Thursday, activists gathered in front of the Lao Embassy in Bangkok to mark the 10th year of the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, the award-winning Lao social activist. Every year, activists have launched campaigns to keep the memory of his mysterious vanishing alive.
On Dec 15, 2012, Sombath, recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay award (known as Asia’s Nobel Prize), vanished from a busy street in Vientiane, the capital of Lao PDR.
Grainy footage from a police CCTV camera showed Sombath’s vehicle was stopped at a checkpoint before individuals whisked him into another vehicle and drove him away. CCTV footage also showed an individual arriving at the scene and driving Sombath’s vehicle away from the city centre.
Despite prima facie evidence of what happened, the Lao government has not explained his disappearance.
There is no clear evidence of conflict; Sombath was known as an ever-smiling, peaceful man. Before his disappearance, he played a role in organising the Asian-Europe People’s Forum in Vientiane in October 2012, which addressed natural resources and sustainable development. Sombath is reported to have questioned the government’s land and infrastructure development policy.
For the 10th year, 66 international rights groups this week issued a joint statement criticising Vientiane’s lack of response as “a catalogue of apparent inaction, negligence, cover-ups, and misleading statements” and showing “an overall lack of political will to effectively address Sombath’s enforced disappearance”.
The case reflects the harsh reality of activists or those who criticise the powers-that-be in this region where most governments are authoritarian.
For dictators, enforced disappearance (or kidnapping) is known as an effective and cheap tool to get rid of enemies and warn other dissidents that they might face similar action. It does not leave physical evidence — no blood or other traces of what happened to allow law enforcement officials to track down the culprits.
In some cases, an investigation is held but the outcome is seldom encouraging. That’s also the case regarding Muslim human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaichit.
Somchai was last seen in March 2004 when he was whisked into another car. Five police were charged with coercion in the Somchai case. They were acquitted in 2015.
These cases are just few drops in this deep, dark ocean. As Dec 10 marks annual Human Rights Day, Sombath’s case and other recent forced disappearances are sad reminders that this heinous crime is alive and will not go away. Even worse, the perpetrators are more emboldened.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) must do its part to crack down on such crimes. Asean can encourage member countries to have a legal system and human rights monitoring system in place to investigate such cases and bring the culprits to justice.
With authoritarian governments and law enforcers condoning such violence, political activists and critics of the powers-that-be are still at risk of vanishing in broad daylight.