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.
Former Thai prime minister Anand Panyarachun has appealed to the Lao government to do more to locate the missing activist Sombath Somphone, who disappeared in Vientiane nearly a month ago.
Anand, who attended the launch of a film at the Bangkok Arts Centre on Thursday evening, said he didn’t want to debate the circumstances of what occurred to Sombath – who exiles claim was abducted by government officials after being stopped at a police checkpoint in the capital.
But he urged Vientiane to do more to investigate, saying the 60-year-old social activist was a “very good man”.
Speaking during a debate on reconciliation televised by Thai PBS after the film showing, Anand said the disappearance of Sombath was bad for the region.
“I hope the Lao government would assume a more active role in finding out the truth of this particularly unwelcome event,” he said.
“It does touch on the value of human rights. There are disappearances [when people go missing] and enforced disappearances [when people may have been seized by the state].
VIENTIANE, LAOS — He was last seen driving home in his old, rusty jeep. And then he vanished.
The disappearance nearly one month ago of Sombath Somphone, a U.S.-trained agriculture specialist who led one of the most successful nonprofit organizations in Laos, has baffled his family and friends and raised alarms that a nascent liberalization of the Communist-ruled country could be sliding backwards.
Mr. Sombath, 60, who won many awards for his public service, was known to be nonconfrontational and adept at forging compromises with the authoritarian government of Laos.
“We have no malice against the government,” said Ng Shui Meng, Mr. Sombath’s wife, who is from Singapore and met Mr. Sombath while they both studied in the United States. “We want to live our lives quietly.”
The disappearance has set off an enormous campaign by Mr. Sombath’s large network of friends and aid workers across Southeast Asia who know him from his development work. The campaign has put Laos, an obscure country run by an opaque Communist party, under increasing pressure to provide answers.
The country has taken halting steps to modernize its one-party system in recent years but has also cracked down on dissent, and its security services have been linked to a series of politically motivated assassinations in neighboring Thailand.
Paradoxically for the Lao government, it is a network of cameras that the municipal police installed over the past three years to monitor “anti-social behavior” that have pointed to signs of the government’s involvement in Mr. Sombath’s disappearance.
Helpful workers at a local police station initially showed the family images of Mr. Sombath’s jeep stopped at a police checkpoint on the evening of Dec. 15. Mr. Sombath then appeared to be driven off in a white vehicle.
The disappearance of a community leader threatens Vientiane’s recent progress.
By Murray Hiebert
The year 2012 marked a coming of age for tiny landlocked Laos. In July Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state since the 1950s to visit the country. The World Trade Organization formally voted in October to allow Laos into the trade grouping after years of negotiations. In early November, Laos’s capital Vientiane hosted the Asia-Europe Meeting, which was attended by dozens of world leaders and senior officials, including the prime minister of China and the president of the European Council. Laos’estimated economic growth of 8.3% last year likely made it Southeast Asia’s top economic performer.
But all this good news is dissipating like mist on the Mekong because of the country’s suspicious response to the disappearance of an internationally recognized development leader. On Dec. 15, Sombath Somphone was driving on the outskirts of Vientiane when he was stopped in his Jeep by police and then transferred by non-uniformed men into another vehicle, as photo and video evidence from that day shows. No one has seen him since.
The Laos government has said it has no idea what happened to Mr. Sombath. Its official news agency speculated that his disappearance may have been prompted by a business or personal dispute. But diplomatic sources in Vientiane who have seen the footage of Mr. Sombath’s roadside confrontation are convinced that he was taken and is being held by Laos’s security apparatus.
For a country that relies on foreign assistance for roughly 70% of its budget, the agronomist’s disappearance—and the government’s subsequent unwillingness to forthrightly address it—has become a major headache. Few in Laos have built bridges between the foreign and local development communities as effectively as Sombath Somphone.
The oldest of eight siblings, he grew up in a poor rice farming family in southern Laos at the height of the Vietnam War. In the early 1970s, he received a scholarship to study education and agriculture at the University of Hawaii.
I first met Mr. Sombath after he graduated in the late 1970s. I had worked in Laos with a small development agency from 1975, when communist forces seized control of the government, until early 1978. Mr. Sombath wanted to know whether he should return home to use his skills to aid the country’s subsistence farmers. Many of his friends warned him not to go back, arguing that the new communist leaders would not tolerate a U.S.-educated agronomist working directly with Lao farmers. Continue reading “Wall Street Journal – Is Laos Losing Its Way?”
The UN and some western governments are preparing to put fresh questions to the Lao government over the mysterious disappearance in mid-December of a prominent education and health campaigner, after Vientiane late last week rejected suggestions by the UN of state involvement in the case.
In a statement to the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Laos denied knowledge of the whereabouts of Sombath Somphone, 60, and said he had not been taken into police custody, as widely reported, but rather may have been kidnapped because of a “personal conflict”.
UN human rights officials, as well as US and European governments, have expressed concern in recent weeks that the activist is being held by the Lao authorities.
Closed circuit video footage from police security cameras showed Mr Sombath, founder of a local non-government organisation Padetc, being stopped by traffic police at a roadside post while he was driving home from work in Vientiane, the Lao capital, in mid-December.
Mr Sombath was following his Singaporean wife in a separate car but never arrived home. The government has denied he was taken into custody at the stop, which they said was a “routine” check, but grainy CCTV footage shows a man resembling Mr Sombath being driven away by uniformed Lao officials.
Vientiane-based diplomats at the weekend expressed doubt about official denials of involvement in Mr Sombath’s disappearance and said their embassies were set to convey further concerns about the case. “We are considering the next move, and it could well be a démarche,” said one western diplomat. Continue reading “UK Financial Times on Sombath's disappearance”
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