Dear Sombath…from a respectful youth

Dear Respected Uncle,

SB-Xieng Khuang-2008

I hope you are well. Five years ago, I asked you for advice about a new job. You never refused to help. Even if you had a lot of work, you would always find time for me. The only exception was that it could not conflict with the time you played ping pong. I smile whenever I think about that. Even when I was not asking about work directly, you gave guidance and encouragement when I needed it.

It has been three years that I don’t know where you are, but I still remember what you told me the first time I met you: “Be a half-full, or nearly full glass, but never a full glass. To never be full leaves room for new lessons, it leaves us open to learn what is right, to absorb new thoughts, to move us forward and give us encouragement. For that which is not appropriate, pour it out so you won’t get misled, so you can move in a better direction.” I can remember your words well, and recall them often, especially when I encounter a problem.

It has been three years, and I am not the only one who remembers what you taught. I have met many others who have grown with the thoughts you shared. They remember your words as well. The passing time has not erased what you built. Your work has been taken up by a new generation strengthened through your efforts. You opened opportunities for us to develop ourselves, and we can move forward on our own.

With this letter, I want to thank you again for your valuable guidance. Thank you for your impressive achievements which benefit society. We have learned and adapt them for our use. Thank you for giving us youth a chance to grow, and thank you for the opportunity to know you. Finally, I hope that what you have built will continue to spread and foster the development of society and the next generation.

With love and respect,

A youth that admires your vision

Dear Sombath…from Galileo

Dear Sombath,

GalileoI began meeting you only after they said you were gone, a victim of enforced disappearance.

I first met you in an email sent by my colleague at Focus on the Global South, Joseph Purugganan exactly one year ago, when I first joined the organization as a budding activist. He mentioned of the dramatic rise in the killing of environmentalists all over the world and the need to programmatically address the issue of extrajudicial killings and criminalization of dissent, as part of the Sombath Initiative and Focus’ broader Power and Democracy program. I was intrigued by your life so I began digging deeper and learning more about your ideas and ideals.

We are similar, in a way, in our preference of working in the field with the people rather than writing about it.

I met you for the second time, in Malaysia, in the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum (ACSC/APF). People were talking about you. People spoke of how you pioneered the use of Participatory Rural Appraisal in Laos and how you helped the Lao people to come up with solutions by themselves. Continue reading “Dear Sombath…from Galileo”

Dear Sombath….from SY Chin (3)

 Greetings Sombath,

Sombath-BambooI am mindful that 12 December 2015 marks the beginning of the fourth year of your disappearance.

I found in the course of my travels over the past year that your absence has not faded the reputation of your splendid development efforts. It may have strengthened it instead. Development specialists — ranging from a film-director to several policy-researchers — have asked about you after discovering that I am from the ASEAN Region.

Your wisdom about sustainable development issues has again been proven in the debates leading up to the 2015 Paris Climate Talks. ASEAN’s and Laos’ position would have been so much stronger if we had you speak up on the challenges that now confront our Region.

I hope we will hear you speak soon.

SY Chin, Publisher

Dear Sombath…from Anne-Sophie Gindroz (4)

This is a letter written to contribute to mark the sad third anniversary of Sombath Somphone disappearance:

Dear Sombath,

Tomorrow will be three years already, three years that we have not heard of you… But memories don’t die. I remember the first time I met you: it was during an official reception held in a hotel in Vientiane. I had heard about you before that night: you were referred to by many as one of the most respected community leaders, a passionate educator, a fervent defender of sustainable development and the founder of the first non governmental education institution in Laos. So I was a bit intimidated when a friend grabbed my arm and pulled me among the guests, saying “Come, I am going to introduce you to Sombath, he is here!”. I am not sure whom I was expected, but I recall feeling impressed talking to a smiling man, dressed in traditional cotton shirt, speaking with a soft voice. I remember this deep impression of standing in front of a wise, very modest and so gentle person.

Later I met you again at your organization: open door, natural cotton curtains, bamboo mats, and this calm attitude and gentle smile on your face. When we visited you on your farm, you shared with generosity and enthusiasm your experience developing organic agriculture, and you took the kids for a walk to a nearby fish pond. With any interlocutor, you keep this extraordinary capacity – that many people start losing when they become “important” – to listen to others. Even in official meetings, you were showing the same serene and confident attitude of a man who knows where he goes, but is always ready to enrich his journey through mutual learning with others.

I feel grateful for the few privileged moments we spent discussing without agenda, sharing without expectations, dreaming with passion and joking with joy!

I am wondering, what would you say or do today for those who cowered in fear? Would you bring them on your farm and create a friendly environment? Would you divert the tensions by focusing on simple but meaningful little things? Would you rebuild trust through a joint and reachable endeavor? Would you fight fear with humor?

Dear Sombath, we miss you and will continue to ask for your return. But as we sadly mark this third anniversary of your disappearance, I am guessing  that wherever you are, you would certainly not like to witness us all stuck in the past, and would encourage your dearest family, friends, students and partners to carry on what you have started. You remain such an inspiration!

The journey is never finished as long as there are people to take few more steps. And I trust they are many and they know where to go.

In solidarity,


Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (10)

My dearest Sombath

SB & ShuimengToday, 15th December 2015 marks the third anniversary of your disappearance. Each year, I dread the dawning of this day, as I am once more reminded of that fateful evening when you were so abruptly taken away from my life. I remember that evening 3 years ago so well. You and I were supposed to meet back at home for dinner – except you never came home. And now dinner for me can never be the same! In fact life can never be the same!

The past three years have been one long struggle for the search for truth as to what happened to you; where have you been taken; are you well, or… I don’t know anymore. But I still hold on to the hope that you are still alive and will come back to me one day.

My dearest Sombath, I want you to know that you have not been forgotten, even though some of your close friends and colleagues within government and non-government circles are still so intimidated by your sudden disappearance that they do not even dare to speak your name, or acknowledge in public that they know you or have worked with you. I used to feel very angry and betrayed by their actions; but now I don’t even want to waste any energy by getting angry with them anymore. It is not for me to judge them; they are their own best judge. Continue reading “Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (10)”

Dear Sombath…from Christina McMellon (2)

Dear Sombath,

Last month I finally graduated. To be honest I hadn’t been that bothered about going to the graduation. It reminded me of what you said before the Asia Europe People’s Forum, that certain people were more focused upon the teacup than the tea–what is important is the experiences and learning gained over the last 5 years of working on the PhD not being presented with a piece of paper saying that I am now a doctor. But in the end it was a wonderful day surrounded by family and friends celebrating the culmination of the process. You were present in my thoughts throughout the day, just as you are present in my thesis.

As I reflect upon what I want to say in this letter I realise the personal impact that your disappearance has had upon me.

This world is not always an easy place to live. Clichéd though it is to say, it feels like every time I see the news there is a new atrocity about which I feel both angry and helpless. Your disappearance has, perversely, given me a way in to really reflect upon and connect with the complex human aspect of these distant news stories.

When I think about what has happened to you I am filled with rage. Every time I see Shui Meng’s and Jit’s facebook posts talking about how much they miss you my heart breaks over again. But when I think of you I often think of you laughing at me, telling me not to take life so seriously and that happiness isn’t as complicated as I’m trying to make it and that all I can really do is focus on calming my own mind. I think of your love of Laos and Lao people and your commitment to the traditional wisdom of Lao communities. I think of the impact that you have had on so many Lao young people and the ongoing impact that your ideas are having in the country and beyond.

Happiness is both complex and simple. The world is both unjust and wonderful. I am capable of simultaneously feeling unbearable sadness and overwhelming joy.

Thank you for being so honestly you. You continue to inspire and provoke me.


2015年国際失踪者デーに向けて シュイ・メン氏の手紙

Mekong Watch: 30 August 2015




でも、失望の中にあっても、言葉があなたに伝わっていないようであっても、私は伝えたい。この数週間、私は希望と信頼が再び芽生えるのを見つけたのです。この数週間、私は東京、ソウル、ジャカルタ、マニラで、「非自発的失踪に反対するアジア連盟」(Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearance: AFAD)やその他の人権団体が主催した、沢山のロビー活動に参加したのです。これらの活動は様々な地域の皆さんや団体に、あなたの失踪、それから他の方々の失踪について思い出してもらう活動でした。それぞれの場所で私は心から寄り添ってくれる友人や支援者に会いました。そして忘れてはならないことは、失踪者の家族に会ったことです。 Continue reading “2015年国際失踪者デーに向けて シュイ・メン氏の手紙”

Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (9)

My dearest Sombath

I have been thinking of wShumeng-Gwangjuriting you many times over the last few months, but each time, I would start and after a few words I could not continue. It is getting so hard, so hard to even put my thoughts into words. What can I say to you that could be comforting for you anymore? I just pray and hope you are still keeping well and also have not lost hope of regaining your freedom.

However, tomorrow will be 30 August; it will once more mark the International Day of the Disappeared. I re-read the letter I wrote you on this day, last year. The sentiments expressed then remain today. I don’t need to be reminded of the pain and despair that disappearance wrecks upon me only one day each year. I carry the pain and despair every moment of everyday!

However, despite the despair and the seeming lack of words to reach out to you, I want to tell you that over the last few weeks, I have found a rekindling of hope and faith. Over the past few weeks, I participated in a number of lobby activities in Tokyo, Seoul, Jakarta and Manila organized by AFAD and other Human Rights Organizations. These activities are to remind people and organizations from across the region of your disappearance, and that of the other disappeared. In each of these places I met with very sincere friends and supporters. More importantly, I also met with family members of the disappeared. Continue reading “Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (9)”

Speak Out!

Logo-Speak Out


Nothing strengthens authority so much as silence.

Leonardo Da Vinci


While authorities have silenced Sombath, please help to sustain his voice and vision for his country and his people.

You can write a Letter to Sombath. Details can be seen here, and examples here. Shorter messages can also be submitted, such as these sent for The Inspiration Tree.

Letters and messages should be about Sombath, his work, his ideals, or what these mean to you. They can be in either Lao or English. Letters can be up to 500 words, and messages up to 50 words.

Letters and messages should reflect Sombath’s way of working: positive and caring messages will be given preference over those that are negative or accusatory.

Letters and messages should be sent to [email protected]. If possible, please include your full name. However, you may write anonymously or with a pseudonym if necessary.

Selected letters and messages will be posted on the website.. However, your contact information will not be included.

Thank you!

Dear Sombath….from Amelia Merrick

Dear Sombath,

This is the second or third letter I’ve written to you. I was too afraid to send you the other ones, but now that I’m in Canada I am less fearful. Sombath, there is so much I would like to tell you about how you impacted my work.

Do you remember back in December 2012 when we had that dinner party at my house? It was a warm, starry evening. We had a lot of food and a few bottles of good wine. I was still new in my role and I shared with you that I felt discouraged because of the heavy reliance on an infrastructure-driven approach to development in Laos. To me, it felt like there was very little space for community members, let alone children to be part of their own development journey and I didn’t see that change could be possible.

But by the time that the food was eaten, the clattering of forks stilled and the last drops of wine were drunk, you changed my opinion and gave me hope. You told me that change was possible and you encouraged me that children and youth must be part of the story. Honestly, I was skeptical… but you were right!

There are no words to describe the trauma and loss we felt when just ten days after our dinner party you were disappeared.   I remain thankful to God that I had that beautiful dinner with you. At the time I didn’t realize it, but that dinner changed my life and changed the way I would approach my work in Laos. Continue reading “Dear Sombath….from Amelia Merrick”