Sombath’s Story: The Significance of One Marginal Life

Global Asia  March, 2024

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

Silencing of a Laotian Son: The Life, Work and Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone
By Ng Shui Meng
Spirit in Education Movement and International Network of Engaged Buddhists, 2022, 268 pages, $10 (Paperback)

For over 11 years, a Singaporean wife has been haunted by two questions about her Laotian husband: Where is he? What happened to him? She is Ng Shui Meng, who last saw Sombath Somphone driving his rundown jeep on a Saturday evening in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. She was in her car, ahead of Sombath’s, as they headed home for dinner. But he never made it. He was plucked off the streets after being stopped at a police post, bundled into a truck and has never been seen since.

Shui Meng’s ability to trace this chilling display of enforced disappearance serves as an apt opening to her book, which explores the unanswered questions that have haunted her, and the paths in Sombath’s life that led to this nightmare. But what helped her describe the shocking events on that fateful day — Dec. 15, 2012 — also says as much about the oppressive and opaque world of Laos, a communist-ruled, one-party state wedged between China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.

The entire scene of Sombath’s disappearance outside the police post had been recorded by a nearby CCTV camera installed by the police. Shui Meng managed to get her hands on the video shortly after. Yet, efforts to use the footage as proof of state complicity made little headway during her inquiry into Sombath’s fate within the labyrinth of the state and party hierarchy. Apparatchiks summarily denied the state’s culpability, issuing statements over time even blaming Sombath himself for plotting his own disappearance. What that has accomplished was this: a reminder that Laos has its own version of Kafkaesque nightmares.

It also left Shui Meng in painful limbo, joining a grim community who share a similar fate. There are thousands of other family members across Asia who, like her, have had their kin — fathers, husbands, brothers and sons — “disappeared” at the hands of repressive regimes. This dark hole spans countries in at least three corners of the continent, from South Asia and Southeast Asia to Northeast Asia.

But after a nine-year wait, as fear that her memory was fading overcame her, Shui Meng took a new step: to leave a record of the Sombath story set against a backdrop of the dramatic change in his small, impoverished, landlocked country. The book that has resulted is part oral history of rural Laotian life, part adventure story of a Laotian who dared to be different, part a quiet Asian love story, and part an eyewitness account of living under the iron grip of a one-party state.

The story of Sombath that emerges from these pages also offers wider significance for those with an eye on how individuals from the margins in an Asian country have to come to terms with the seismic political shifts in their respective homelands. In Sombath’s case, it was the US war in Indo-China, where Washington had Laos in its crosshairs early on, and then the collapse of the Laotian kingdom in late 1975 that made way for its new communist rulers. The chapters about Sombath’s life as a student in the US, particularly his years at a university in Hawaii, offer clues that could easily have resonated with similar stories of young men and women from Cambodia and Vietnam who, like Sombath, were pursuing their academic dreams in a foreign country while their world, at home, was crumbling.

Shui Meng’s narrative provides a window into a young Sombath who appeared naïve, at times, idealistic, on other occasions, and who thought it was possible to remain apolitical by concentrating on his academic interest in farming and agriculture. But those years, during the height of the Cold War, offered little luxury to sit on the fence. The troubled politics in Laos and the seismic shift in its political order were hard to ignore. A political identity crisis was looming. Sombath had to choose: Which side was he on? Could he simply be a neutral Laotian? Could he offer to raise funds in the US to ease the food scarcity at home but reject being tarred as a communist sympathizer?

Sombath’s determination to stand his ground and pursue his vision — to help the impoverished of Laos with his innovative grassroots development plans — inevitably meant he was going to swim against the political tide. The warm tones in which Shui Meng describes these moments are understandable, such as his courageous decision to return to Laos after his education in the US, by which time nearly 10 percent of the population, including the educated, the skilled and the middle classes, had fled the country after the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) grabbed power. Likewise, Sombath’s ceaseless efforts to offer his own solutions to improve the grassroots economy, which were at odds with the tight-fisted plans of the LPRP, in the decades that followed.

But that meant the kind of wider exposure of a native son that rubbed the communist government raw. Regional accolades, such as winning the Magsaysay Award for community leadership in 2005, added to this. International recognition of Sombath as the country’s most sought-after civil society leader only fed the paranoia of a regime that brooked no opposition. The party’s economic order, as we learn from Sombath’s encounters with party flunkies and factotums, was sacrosanct. There was hardly a sliver of public space to enable different thoughts without the overbearing presence of the state’s security arm.

It did not help that the country had become a posterchild of shattered dreams. After all, the LPRP came to power to usher in a new Marxist and communist economic and political order aimed at lifting the country out of its impoverishment. But its decades of rule have proved otherwise, unlike the economic success stories of Laos’ larger ideological neighbors, China and Vietnam. And the world that Sombath faced by then was one of economic mismanagement and corruption. The rulers had swelled into fat cats at the expense of the ruled. And after years under Vietnamese tutelage, Laos was becoming a vassal state of China.

But that, as the book reveals, had not dimmed his determination to soldier on, political landmines notwithstanding, to do his own bidding towards the ruled. And what Shui Meng has accomplished in this book, which was no doubt painful to write, is two-fold: One was to lay bare the parallel stories that unfolded in Laos — that of its native son and the politics of the place — at a significant time in its contemporary history. The other was to bring to wider attention an expose of a country that has not had as many books written about it, covering the decades that span the pre-war, war and post-war years, as has been the case with Cambodia and Vietnam.

There could not have been a better candidate to fill this void than Sombath’s story. What’s more, as Laos tries to raise its diplomatic profile this year as the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Shui Meng’s book serves as a reminder that its leaders mask a darker side. Sombath’s is one name on a list of Laotians they are trying to keep buried.

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