Rarely the centre of regional media attention, Laos is more often associated with being “tiny” and “land-locked” but this week the Southeast Asian nation has been forced to perform some diplomatic acrobatics to manage a growing storm around the disappearance of activist Sombath Somphone.
Anyone who lives there will know that a safety net is always recommended when Laos walks the diplomatic tightrope.
Questions around the disappearance of a much-respected activist and campaigner for sustainable development are coming thick and fast since his abduction on a busy street in the Lao capital of Vientiane. But a more unusual sight for locals and observers is watching the Lao Government crunching through their PR gears.
Laos has been earmarked as the next frontier market in Southeast Asia, following in the footsteps of Vietnam and Burma and the abduction of a leading voice in the NGO community has raised new concerns. Continue reading “A diplomatic nightmare”
“We, 65 national, regional and international human rights organizations, express very grave concern over the lack of progress and information regarding investigations into the fate and whereabouts of Mr. Sombath Somphone.”
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged Laos to investigate the disappearance of a well-known social activist who went missing last month.
Security camera footage shows Sombath Somphone being taken away by unidentified men after he was stopped by police in the capital Vientiane.
Rights groups fear that he was abducted by elements associated with the Communist authorities.
But the government in Laos says it knows nothing of his whereabouts.
Although he is not a political figure, Mr Sombath was a prominent campaigner who promoted fair land rights for small farmers, which is a sensitive issue in Laos, the BBC’s Nga Pham reports from Bangkok.
“We call upon the Lao government to pursue a transparent investigation of this incident and to do everything in its power to bring about an immediate and safe return home to his family,” Hillary Clinton urged in a statement.
Laos is one of the world’s few Communist countries where all land belongs to the state – and there have been complaints about land grabs and abuses by local government, our correspondent reports.
Last week three lawmakers from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines visited Vientiane and concluded that they were not satisfied with explanations they had received about the disappearance from officials.
International Commission of Jurists: 17 January 2013
The ICJ calls on the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) to take an active role in determining the fate and whereabouts of Sombath Somphone, a community leader in Laos.
The ICJ also calls on the AICHR to fulfill its mandate under Article 4, paragraph 1.11 of its Terms of Reference, and develop a common position and strategy for tackling the serious problem of enforced and involuntary disappearances in the ASEAN region.
This position must aim towards hastening the resolution of cases of enforced and involuntary disappearances in the region, as well as effectively preventing these violations in the future.
Sombath Somphone is the founder and former director of the Participatory Development Training Center (PDTC) and 2005 recipient of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.
He also led Laos’ civil society groups in participating at the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) held in October 2012.
He was last seen being stopped by local police at the Thadeau police station on 15 December 2012, at around 5:00pm.
His family has no information on his fate or whereabouts to this day.
Lao authorities continue to investigate Mr Sombath Somphone’s disappearance
Vientiane Times, 17 January 2013
Parliamentarians from the three Asean nations of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia visited Laos recently to meet with the relevant sectors on the issue relating to the disappearance of Mr Sombath Somphone last month.
The delegation of parliamentarians was led by Chairperson of the Philippine Parliamentary Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs Mr Walden Bello. They met with Minister and Head of the Presidential Office Mr Phongsavath Boupha, who is also chairman of the National Steering Committee on Human Rights in Vientiane on Monday.
The main aim of the visit was to meet with the relevant sectors on the issue regarding the disappearance of Mr Sombath Somphone, with the delegation calling for the Lao government to speed up the investigation process to ensure safety and justice for him and his family.
Mr Phongsavath expressed his appreciation of the concerns of the delegation, but said that the Lao government was even more concerned about the issue because Mr So mbath is a Lao citizen, according to a press release issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
He said Mr Sombath used to study in America but decided to return to Laos in 1980s and played an important role in agricultural development in rural areas of Laos, contributing to the socio-economic development of the country.
Press Statement: Disappearance of Lao Civil Society Leader Sombath Somphone
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
January 16, 2013
We are deeply concerned about the well-being of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who disappeared one month ago. Reports indicate that Mr. Sombath went missing on December 15, 2012 after being stopped at a police checkpoint in the capital city of Vientiane. We call upon the Lao government to pursue a transparent investigation of this incident and to do everything in its power to bring about an immediate and safe return home to his family.
Since receiving his education in the United States, Mr. Sombath has worked tirelessly to promote sustainable development in Laos and he inspired a new generation of young leaders. He founded the Participatory Development Training Center, which trains Lao youth and local government leaders in community development and poverty reduction. His disappearance has generated a tremendous amount of concern from his family, friends and colleagues around the world. We urge his immediate return home and send our thoughts and prayers to his family and loved ones.
The Lao government is coming under increased international pressure to step up its promised investigation into the disappearance of a prominent local civic leader, as concerns increase about state involvement in the case.
MPs from other Asean member countries said on Wednesday that Laos’s ruling communist party “clearly had no desire and no political will” to resolve the mystery and urged the government to extend its investigation to the top levels of Laos’s military.
This follows public expressions of concern from the US and other western governments and UN agencies over the case.
The MPs spoke ahead of an expected statement by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton urging Laos to take more action on the case. The three MPs, from the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, visited Vientiane, the Lao capital, where Sombath Somphone went missing on December 15 while driving home one evening from his office. Continue reading “UK Financial Times: Laos under pressure”
Statement of Rep. Walden Bello on the Preliminary findings of ASEAN Parliamentary Delegation to the Lao PDR on the disappearance of Sombath Somphone
We are members of a delegation of ASEAN parliamentarians that visited the Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic to investigate the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, the prominent Lao leader of civil society from January 13 to 15. We went at the request of the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF)
The delegation was assembled in 10 days’ time owing to the urgency of the matter. Despite the short notice, high officials of the Lao PDR met with us, and we are very grateful for this. We had a very frank exchange of views in a cordial atmosphere.
We told the officials we met with that the disappearance of Sombath is an ASEAN concern because Sombath is an ASEAN figure whose work has touched the lives of many people in Lao and other countries in ASEAN. His work on rural development was a model emulated throughout the region. Moreover, at a time when ASEAN is coming together as a real community in the eyes of the world, his disappearance reflects badly not only on Laos but on the whole ASEAN community.
The officials we met acknowledged that the disappearance of Sombath is a blow to the reputation of the Lao PDR and that it could not have come at a worse time, coming on the heels of the country’s joining the World Trade Organization and hosting the Asia-Europe Leaders Meeting (ASEM). They also all acknowledged that Sombat was an important civil society leader who has contributed much to Laos’ development working alongside government, with many of them saying they knew him personally. They also noted the special responsibility of the government to solve Mr. Sombath’s disappearance since the Lao PDR has just signed the Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, being the fourth country in Asia to do so.
One of the Lao leaders we met, Mr. Phoungsavath Boupha, President of the National Committee for Human Rights in the Office of the President, acknowledged that Sombath’s disappearance is not the first case of disappearance in Laos. He cited the case of the sister of the wife of the former ambassador of the Lao PDR to Indonesia who vanished five years ago and has not yet been found. We stressed to the officials we met that this case shows the importance of acting swiftly to find the disappeared, for the longer he or she is not located, the greater the chances that he will no longer surface. Continue reading “Statement of ASEAN delegation”
Since Sombath disappearance on the evening of 15 December 2012, my family and I have been touched by the great love, concern and support shown by friends, colleagues, international and regional agencies, civil society groups, government spokespersons, and the media who have joined hands to urge the Government of the Lao PDR to invest all their resources and capacities in their ongoing investigation of Sombath’s whereabouts, and to return him safely to me and to my family. We are most grateful and deeply touched by such show of solidarity for Sombath’s well-‐ being.
While many articles and statements written about Sombath’s disappearance and urging his safe return have been helpful, some of the reports and comments also contain some factual errors or speculations. My greatest wish is the personal safety and well-‐being of my husband, Sombath, wherever he is. For this reason, I urge all well-‐wishers not to stray away from the facts or to misrepresent Sombath or the nature of his work.
The facts as I know them
Sombath was last seen on 15 December 2012 driving in his jeep behind my vehicle. We were both going home to dinner. The last time I saw him from my rear view mirror was around 6:00 p.m. near the police post on KM 3 on Thadeua Road.
When he did not return home that night, we searched for Sombath’s whereabouts around the area where he was last seen and also searched the city’s hospital in the hope of finding Sombath, but to no avail.
On 16 December, we reported Sombath missing to the village, district and police authorities. Family searches were once more carried out in all the city’s hospitals, but there was no sign of Sombath.
On 17 December 2012, a request was made to the Vientiane Municipality Police Station to view the close circuit TV footages recorded by CCTV cameras near the police post where Sombath was last seen. The police officers on duty were very cooperative and allowed us to view the CCTV footages. From the TV footages, we saw Sombath stopped by the police at the police post. We saw Sombath get out of his jeep and enter into the police post.
Later a motorcyclist came by, parked the motorcycle near the jeep, running into the police post and later emerged and drove Sombath’s jeep away.