Ng Shui Meng speaks of her husband Sombath Somphone in the present tense, with a firm matter-of-fact tone about his disappearance, a way, I presume, for her to maintain control in a situation where she has none and knows nothing but heartbreak. Yet I hear the deep sentiment behind the words. To her, Sombath is much more than the internationally acclaimed, award-winning development worker who vanished one night years ago. He is her partner, companion and mentor, a man with a quiet presence whom she relies on even in his absence. Although short and thin, he stood out in a crowd partly because of his shock of silver white hair. Most older Lao men dye their hair, she explains. Government officials all have black hair but Sombath has this head of white hair, and he always wears a cotton peasant jacket and yet there is something about him that makes everyone feel deferential toward him. That may have been a contributing factor to his disappearance, Shui Meng muses, this deference, the tranquil influence he has. He would never call himself an activist. He is not confrontational. Sombath believes in cooperation and works with Lao officials. In private he can be critical of the government but never in public. He’s a pragmatist and strategic about what he does. Although he is not political, he inspires people. Perhaps that is what led to his undoing.
On December 15, 2012, Somphone was stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and was never seen or heard from again. Lao officials denied any involvement. Officials with human rights organizations believe Somphone was the victim of a forced disappearance by the government. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded answers and the European Parliament expressed its concern but to no avail. The Lao government insisted it knew nothing. Almost nine years later, his fate and his whereabouts remain a mystery. His friends can only speculate on why he was taken. Continue reading “The Forced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone”
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”
… two weeks later another AEPF organizer, Sombath Somphone, disappeared after being stopped at a police checkpoint on a busy Vientiane road. Although the government pleaded that it was investigating Sombath’s disappearance, its failure to make any progress over the following years intensified speculation that he had been silenced due to his advocacy work. After these incidents, government leaders targeted civil society in speeches and, in 2014, introduced guidelines to tighten the regulation of international NGOs.
From the 2018 Bertelsmann-Stiflung’s Laos Country Report. Laos was ranked 106th out of 129 countries on the foundation’s Transformation Index
Sombath continues to be an inspiration to many in Laos and beyond. Those who struggle for justice, for sustainable development, for respect of fundamental rights deserve better than silence.
…it is of utmost importance that international community present in Laos clearly condemns his enforced disappearance. It is not enough to ask for an investigation. A clear condemnation is necessary to defend Sombath’s legacy in the area of sustainable development. We cannot let propaganda damage Sombath’s reputation and contribution to his country, and have rumors being spread on reasons justifying what happened to him, to the point that Sombath has become a taboo in his own country.
Party leaders furthermore urged tighter control over civil society organizations in the face of alleged but unsubstantiated efforts to undermine the party. In the wake of community leader Sombath Somphone’s unexplained disappearance in late 2012, the deplorable investigation of which attracted condemnation from around the world, increased pressure on civil society organizations produced levels of fear and self-censorship reminiscent of a more oppressive past. In this context, leaders’ ongoing claims to be strengthening the rule of law – another rhetorical theme in Laos – continued to fall flat.
In 2016 it will be 20 years since the Government of Laos (GoL) first announced its goal to graduate from Least Developed Country (LDC) status by 2020.1 During this time, much has changed. With the exception of a few years following the 1997 Asian financial crisis, economic growth has remained strong and in 2011 the World Bank raised Laos’ income categorization from a low-income economy to a lower-middle income economy.2 Foreign Direct Investment has also growing rapidly and strong progress has been made on a number of the country’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG) targets. This has led the UNDP to categorize Laos as the 6th most successful country for improved human development over the past 40 years.3
Yet alongside these markers of progress, there is another story to be told about ‘development’ in Laos. This is a story of widening inequality, severe environmental degradation, human rights abuses, state and private sector corruption, persistently high maternal mortality and malnutrition rates, land grabbing and forced resettlement as well as tensions with fellow ASEAN countries over controversial Mekong hydropower projects.4 These widespread and often interrelated challenges have led to new forms of poverty and damaged the country’s international reputation. Continue reading “Laos in 2016: Sustainable Development and the Work of Sombath Somphone”