My dearest Sombath,
Yesterday, 17 February, was your birthday. Every time when your birthday comes along, I always miss you even more. I started to write this letter to you, but I could not finish it because it was too painful. It’s been 10 years that you have not been able to spend your birthday with me and your family, and we still don’t know where you are and how you have been this past 10 years.
Even when you were with us, you yourself never remember your birthday, but I will always remember it. Each year on your birthday, I would cook something for you for dinner. In the early days of our marriage, I would try to cook something special, like a roast beef or a good steak. While you were always appreciative and happy with whatever was served up to you, I later realized that what you really liked was something more simple. So later on, I would always try to make what you really liked for your birthday meal, like grilled Mekong fish, wild mushroom soup, and some local vegetables. You told me that simple Lao dishes always reminded you of the food you grew up with, and whenever you had something like a local fish, fresh herbs and wild vegetables, it would always warm your heart and remind you of home.
Sombath, you are truly a man deeply rooted in the land of your birth, and it was much later that I began to truly understand that it was this deep love for the land of your birth that motivated you to devote your time and energy to ensure that your development and education work was always centered around promoting and protecting the best that Laos has to offer – its bio-diversity, and its cultural and spiritual heritage and values.
You told me that many development specialists including the government planners, in the rush to develop the country, often overlooked the special endowments found in the country, and only focused on the drawbacks as factors of under-development. Indeed, you recognized that there were many real challenges that should be addressed to improve the lives and situation of poor Lao people, such as improvement of access and quality of the health and education systems and production processes. However, you also often lamented many of the development solutions proposed by outside specialists were based on imported ideas and strategies, rather than tested local solutions. You, on the other hand believed that Laos, the country and its people, have so much potential, and these potentials were often overlooked because of lack of analytical understanding of the local conditions and practices. That was why you always based your development approaches on the local communities’ own experience and aspirations, rather than on some top-down plans drawn up by external specialists.
A close friend who worked with you in many development areas and appreciated your approaches wrote this about your work to mark the 10th anniversary of your enforced disappearance, which I find really pays tribute to your work. And this is what she wrote:
Sombath, more than ever right
Every day of the last ten years has proved Sombath right. The world witnesses ecological, social and economic crisis. Climate change causes unprecedented disasters, and ecosystem destruction opens the door to pandemic. Younger generations are increasingly worried about their future.
Sombath has been leading the way by practicing sustainable living, calling for radical changes in production and consumption models, exploring alternative development for his country, and investing in young people.
In Laos, the few too coward to engage in a debate, too weak to question themselves, too greedy to curb their enrichment, too scared to face a growing movement, and those few with too much power disappeared Sombath. But they cannot prevent planted seeds to grow.
Sombath continues to live in each of us who had the privilege to know him, each of us he shared his wisdom with, each of us who crossed path with him on his farm, or in a conference room. And Sombath will continue to shine far beyond, as time increasingly proves him right.
I am blessed I met Sombath, I am happy we became friends, I am grateful for all I learnt from him. On our family farm in Indonesia, by following his footsteps toward a sustainable living, we pay tribute to Sombath, to his humanity, to his kindness and to his humility.
Anne-Sophie, a friend
My dearest Sombath, on this your birthday, I want you to be happy and to know that you are still so well remembered by your friends and all those whose lives you have touched. For me, I wish you, wherever you are, another year of good health, happiness and peace.
Love you always, Shui Meng