Southeast Asia’s Desaparecidos

The Diplomat:  10 June 2020 by David Hutt

Enforced disappearances — a tragedy all too familiar in Latin America — are increasingly becoming a feature of Southeast Asian politics, too.

One of bloody characters of Latin American history is that of los desaparecidos, the activist or dissident or just unfortunate person who says the wrong thing who suddenly disappears, never to be heard of again. Sometimes their body is discovered years later, but in most cases they remain missing forever.   

In the English language, there is no word that conveys the sense of hopelessness and not knowing. The family who finds a murdered loved one can at least grieve – but for the families of those who remain disappeared, it is the not knowing that most consumes their anguish. Having spoken to families of desaparecidos from Argentina to Guatemala, the not-knowing is still as raw as it when their loved ones disappeared decades ago. Continue reading “Southeast Asia’s Desaparecidos”

Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (21)

Closure of PADETC

My dearest Sombath,

Today I write to tell you that PADETC, the organization you started since 1996, is officially deregistered.  It has been a difficult decision for me to request to deregister PADETC, an organization you had worked so hard to establish and lead for so many years.

However, over the past 7 years since you disappeared, the authorities have denied renewal of PADETC’s license of operation.  In fact some people in government do not even want to hear the name of PADETC mentioned.  For this reason, most of the PADETC staff have left the organization.

Even though the passing of PADETC is sad, I am sure you would support my decision to deregister the organization.  I remember you telling me back in 2008, that you had to prepare for PADETC to evolve to meet the changing times.

In 2008, you had already started to pave the way for PADETC to devolve from being just a development/training organization dependent on external donor funds to become self-sustaining independent entities.  To prepare for this process, you had started mentoring and coaching your staff, based on their capacities and interests, to branch out and develop their own operation units that would be initially affiliated with PADETC, but over time these would become their own independent organizations or enterprises.  PADETC itself would downsize and be transformed into a small mentoring and coaching center, and would eventually be dissolved.

So between 2009 to 2012, some of your more enterprising staff were already running their own affiliated units, providing consultancy services in the following areas: media training and audio/visual production; community forestry management; community services; organic farming training and operations; finance and management operations; and small business enterprises.

Your enforced disappearance in December 2012, fast-forwarded your plans of pushing his staff out to the real world and establish their own organizations.

Over time most of your staff have left PADETC, some for fear of being associated with you, but a number went off to establish their own organizations, with many continuing to use your development concepts of sustainable development and guiding principles in their own work.

So, my dearest Sombath, despite your disappearance, and despite you not being here to guide and mentor many of the young people and younger staff you have trained, your vision and mission have continued and your concepts on sustainable development have spread far and wide.

As you so often said to me, “everything changes, the only unchangeable thing is change itself”. Once more your foresight has proven correct.

I am sure, wherever you are, you will also be relieved and pleased to know that despite the fact that PADETC is no more, your ideas and your vision of PADETC have lived on in many different forms.  Like a strong steady tree, its seeds have spread far and wide.

Be strong and be happy, my love

Shui Meng

Dear Sombath….from Shui Meng (20)

Reflections on what it means to be Locked Down

Dearest Sombath,

I don’t know whether you know that the whole world is now facing a serious pandemic caused by a coronavirus named COVID-19.  It’s a Sars-like virus, but appears to be much more contagious, and has so far infected more than a million people world-wide and caused more than 50,000 deaths.

So to slow the spread to the virus, many countries across the globe have declared a lockdown, meaning that people should stay at home and not go anywhere unless really necessary.

In Laos, the Prime Minister announced a lockdown from 01 -19 April. All schools, offices and businesses are closed with people asked to work from home.  Pimai celebrations, parties, and gatherings involving large numbers of people are also forbidden.

So, over the last few days, I, like most residents in Vientiane, have stayed at home. Just 3 days into the lockdown, I begin to feel uneasy, with a sense that the house is like a prison.  Yes, I can walk around in the garden, read, listen to music, watch TV, do everything I can normally do in the house, except go out.

Today, my thoughts suddenly wondered to you – thinking to myself, what it would have been for you these last eight years living a locked down (or more likely locked-up) existence somewhere.  I asked myself, what is your situation – are you kept in isolation in a small room, or are you allowed some freedom of movement.  How are you keeping yourself physically and mentally busy? Are you able to keep healthy; what kinds of food do you have; do you have access to reading and writing material; and how are you keeping mentally alert?

In the past I have also often thought about such things, and even though I know it would be very difficult for you, I could never quite understand how bad or terrible it could be.  But now when my own freedom of movement has been somewhat restricted, the full force of what your deprivation of freedom actually meant, and the toll it would take on your physical and mental wellbeing came to me more vividly than ever.  It hit me in the gut like nothing has ever hit me before, leaving me gasping for air.

My love, I can only hope that you, who I know is strong of mind and of spirit, would be able to draw on your inner strength to sustain you.  I can also only hope and pray that the injustice you were made to suffer will quickly be righted, your freedom restored, and you will come home to us soon.

My dearest, I also hope that wherever you are, you will not be expose to the COVID-19 virus.  I can only hope and pray for the best for you and for those people you are with. May you be well, may you be healthy. and may you be happy.

Praying for you as always.

Shui Meng

Dear Sombath….from Shui Meng (19)

My dearest Sombath

Today is Valentine’s Day. Lots of people are showing their love by sending red roses and candies to their loved ones.

I recalled one Valentine Day many years ago, I asked you why I did not get any roses from you. You smiled and said “Why would I just give you roses on one day to show my love for you.  Don’t you see, I have planted ‘Star Flowers” for you and when it blooms you will see a constellation of stars like my love for you”.

Today, the Star Flowers you planted are again blooming, and it made me reflect once more on your wisdom and on what really counts.  For you whatever you do, you do with intention which is never shallow or just to please.  Very often in the past, I had wished your were not so bloody pragmatic and practical, but now that you are not here with me, I understand that all you did for me, for our family, and for others, you did them with thoughtful intention and loving kindness. Continue reading “Dear Sombath….from Shui Meng (19)”

Activists Protest Laos’ Rights Record at UN Meeting in Geneva

Radio Free Asia: 21 January 2020

“Speakers and protesters at Tuesday’s meeting in Geneva repeatedly mentioned the disappearance of rural development expert Sombath Somphone in December 2012.”

Dozens of human rights activists held protests Tuesday in front of the headquarters of the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHCR) as the council conducted Laos’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR) meeting in Geneva.

Led by the Germany-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos, the crowd picketed the meeting in an attempt to draw attention to human rights abuses in Laos.

Speaking to RFA’s Lao Service, ADL President Bounthone Chanthalavong-Wiese said that Vientiane has not yet implemented the 116 recommendations it agreed to five years ago — the last time it was reviewed by the council. Continue reading “Activists Protest Laos’ Rights Record at UN Meeting in Geneva”

UN member states must highlight Laos’s severely restrictive civic space environment at its upcoming UN human rights review

Forum Asia: 17 January 2020

  • “Establish a new commission tasked with carrying out a prompt, thorough, independent, and impartial investigation aimed at determining the fate or whereabouts of human rights defender Sombath Somphone.”

Your Excellency,

As you will be aware, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) will face its third review under the UN’s UPR mechanism on 21 January 2020.

Following its last review in 2015, the government of Lao PDR committed to reassess the policy framework and restrictions on domestic and international civil society organisations and facilitate an enabling environment for them; to fully respect and ensure freedom of expression by revising legislation; to ensure freedom of assembly in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); and to investigate individual cases such as the enforced disappearance of human rights defender Sombath Somphone. Continue reading “UN member states must highlight Laos’s severely restrictive civic space environment at its upcoming UN human rights review”

Don’t forget ‘disappeared’

Bangkok Post: 21 December 2019

One year ago this month, Thai activist Surachai Danwattananusorn disappeared mysteriously from his residence in the Lao capital of Vientiane, while the bodies of his two aides were found in the Mekong River. Also, seven years ago this month, Lao activist Sombath Somphone suffered a “forced disappearance” in Vientiane.

These men were all prominent critics of the state, and this is perhaps a good enough explanation as to why neither the Thai and Lao governments have managed to unearth the truth behind the disappearances and killings.

Mr Surachai fled Thailand a few days before the 2014 coup and lived in exile in Vientiane to avoid being thrown behind bars for alleged lese majeste offences. He was followed by his aides, Chatchan Bupphawan and Kraidej Luelert, who used their time in Laos to criticise the military junta and the institution. Continue reading “Don’t forget ‘disappeared’”

Stopping Enforced Disappearances: Where is Sombath Somphone?

https://youtu.be/1HtQ-MSvDww

On 17 December 2019 a panel discussion was held at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Bangkok, Thailand. Panelists included:

  • Angkhana Neelapaijit: Director, Justice for Peace Foundation; Magsaysay Prize Award winner 2019, and wife of Somchai Neelapaijit who was enforcibly disappeared in 2004
  • Ng Shui Meng: Wife of Sombath Somphone, who was enforcibly disappeared in 2012
  • Katia Chirizzi: Deputy Director, Office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, Southeast Asia
  • Phil Robertson: Deputy Asia Director, Human Rights Watch

Click the link above for video of the event.

Denuncian impunidad en desapariciones forzadas en Tailandia

El Siglo de Torreón: 18 December 2019

Numerosas víctimas de diferentes países asiáticos han sido contabilizadas por lo menos 20 años

Activistas y familiares de desaparecidos forzados denunciaron este martes en Bangkok la impunidad con que este crimen se comete en el sudeste asiático, donde hay decenas de casos sin resolver en medio de un ambiente de “miedo”.

Así lo expresaron en una conferencia sobre desapariciones forzadas celebrada con motivo del séptimo aniversario de la desaparición del activista laosiano Sombath Somphone, que continúa en paradero desconocido desde que fue detenido en un control policial en diciembre de 2012 en Vientián. Continue reading “Denuncian impunidad en desapariciones forzadas en Tailandia”

Still No Progress on Seventh Anniversary of Sombath Somphone’s Disappearance

Radio Free Asia: 17 December 2019

Ng Shui Meng, wife of Sombath Somphone, who has been missing for seven years in what is widely believed to be an enforced disappearance, attends a press conference on Dec. 17, 2019. RFA

The wife of a missing Lao activist told a gathering to mark seven years since his disappearance that she has not heard any information from Lao authorities about his case in more than two years and believes they “stopped searching long ago.”

Sombath Somphone, who disappeared on Dec. 15, 2012—exactly seven years ago Sunday—when police stopped him in his vehicle at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the capital Vientiane.

Before his abduction, Sombath had challenged massive land deals negotiated by the government that had left thousands of rural Lao villagers homeless with little paid in compensation. The deals sparked rare popular protests in Laos, where political speech is tightly controlled. Continue reading “Still No Progress on Seventh Anniversary of Sombath Somphone’s Disappearance”