BBC News: 15 December 2022
By Oliver Slow
Sombath Somphone, a prominent development worker in Laos, was on his way home from work when he disappeared at a police checkpoint on 15 December 2012. His wife, who’s still working to find out what happened to him, believes it was a warning to others.
“It’s been 10 years now and it’s still very fresh in my mind,” Shui Meng Ng tells the BBC.
The drive home that day was supposed to be routine. Her husband met her at the handicraft shop she owned in the capital Vientiane and as usual the couple drove home together in convoy – she was ahead, and he followed behind.
Ms Ng could see her husband behind her for most of the way, but lost him before she reached home.
“I thought he would be a few minutes behind me, but when he didn’t come home, I assumed he had stopped for gas or stopped at a friend’s house.”
Ms Ng grew worried as the evening wore on. When there was no sign of him after three hours – she went out with her niece to try to find him.
They drove Vientiane’s streets looking for his Jeep, and visited hospitals thinking he may have got into an accident, but there were no reports. She also phoned friends to see if they had spoken to him, but nobody had.
As it was a Saturday, she had to wait until Monday morning to report her husband as missing at Vientiane’s main police station. Once there, she asked a junior police officer on duty if she could see CCTV footage from their journey home.
“[The police] said they didn’t have permission to give us the tape, so we filmed the footage and we have this record of what actually happened to Sombath,” she said.
The video footage is grainy, but its capturing of what happened is clear. It shows Mr Sombath’s vehicle being pulled over at a police checkpoint shortly after 18:00, and a police officer asking him to get out of the Jeep.
Shortly after, a man arrives on a motorbike and then drives Mr Sombath’s car away. Minutes later, a pickup truck arrives and Mr Sombath is pushed inside and driven away. He has not been seen or heard from since.
“When I saw the images, I was shocked. Even the police officer was shocked. He said it was clear he had been taken by the police,” Ms Ng said.
However, despite the incident occurring on a packed street – dozens of cars can be seen passing Mr Sombath’s vehicle as it sits by the side of the road – a decade later Lao authorities claim to have made no progress on the case.
They have said the CCTV footage provides no information on the number plates of either the motorbike or the pickup truck, and have rejected all offers of foreign assistance to try to enhance it, saying they have the technical capacity themselves.
“Initially, I was hopeful, because they couldn’t deny something so clear,” said Ms Ng. “But as time went on, the narrative started to change. It went from ‘Yes, we stopped him’, to ‘We don’t know what happened.’
“It’s clear to me – very clear – that there is an official denial and a cover-up,” she said, describing the official investigation as a “sham”.
The BBC contacted Lao authorities but did not receive a response.
Katherine Gerson, a campaigner for Amnesty International, told the BBC that international groups had continued to call on Laos authorities to establish what happened to Mr Sombath and provide justice, but had yet to receive an “adequate response”.
She called on Lao authorities not only to provide an update on their investigation and establish his whereabouts, but also to hold suspected perpetrators to account.
“Failure to do so only places more attention on gaps in the protection of human rights there and only does more damage to the government’s human rights record,” she said.
Laos, a landlocked country in Southeast Asia between China and Thailand, is popular with backpackers loosely retracing the steps of the old Hippie Trail.
A part of French Indochina until the 1950s, a decade later it was the scene of a secret war by the CIA, which trained the Hmong, a highland tribe, to battle the Communist Pathet Lao and the North Vietnamese as a spill-over of the Vietnam War. Communist forces overthrew the monarchy in 1975, and although the fall of the Soviet Union heralded economic reforms, the country remains poor and isolated.
It is a one-party state ruled by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party which, according to the Washington-based watchdog Freedom House, “dominates all aspects of politics and harshly restricts civil liberties”. There is no space for political opposition, nor for genuine civil society or dissenting voices against the government’s narrative.
It was a precarious internal situation that Mr Sombath was able to navigate successfully until his disappearance.
Born into a farming family in rural central Laos in 1952 – shortly before Laos gained independence from France – he received a scholarship in the early 1970s to study in the United States. He returned to Laos to work for decades in agricultural development.
“He comes from a very humble background – a farming background – and has a strong love for the land. He was very curious about the natural environment,” said Ms Ng.
“He spoke a lot about land, but it was mainly about empowering people and helping them to understand laws, but he never directly accused the government or companies of anything,” she said.
In 1996 he established his own organisation, Padetc, which provided training for young people and local government officials in community-based development, retiring months before his disappearance to spend more time with his family, and to meditate and write.
Ms Ng links his disappearance to the role he played in organising the Asian-Europe People’s Forum, which took place in Vientiane in October 2012.
“In the forum there was a lot of enthusiasm and discussions from people from different countries talking about things like natural resources,” she said. “Not talking about them in Laos, but other countries.”
She said she believed the discussions were a “red flag” to Lao authorities about the potential emergence of civil society in the country.
“People will start asking questions – [they think] Lao people will start to raise these issues, and this may be uncomfortable for the Lao regime,” she said.
She believes his disappearance had the desired impact of reducing the role of civil society.
“Since his disappearance the enthusiasm for civil society has lessened. Civil society in Laos is no longer active – it’s definitely had a sobering effect on young people,” she said.
Ms Gerson, from Amnesty International, agreed.
“Sombath’s disappearance shocked civil society organisations, and created fear that will have inhibited their activities,” she said.
Ms Ng, who is Singaporean, still lives in Laos, and said she feels a responsibility to continue raising awareness about his disappearance, because not to do so would be “an injustice to Sombath, to myself, but also to the Lao people”.
Every time she passes the police post where he was detained she feels “heartbroken”
It’s very difficult to lose someone you shared so much with,” she said.
“I hope and I pray that before I die, I will know the truth of what happened to Sombath. If he is still alive, where is he? If he’s not alive, then at least let me be in a position to do the [Buddhist] last rites.
“After 10 years of no answers I’m not expecting that I will get an answer very quickly.”