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”
Sombath Somphone’s 2012 abduction heralded an alarming trend of “disappearances” in mainland Southeast Asian countries.
Eight years ago this week, the Lao civil society organizer Sombath Somphone was driving home in his rusty jeep when he was stopped by police on the outskirts of the country’s capital Vientiane. He was never seen again.
The wife of missing Lao development expert Sombath Somphone on Tuesday marked eight years since his disappearance with no information on the case from the communist government in Vientiane whose agents are believed to have taken him away.
“December 15th is the eighth anniversary of my husband Sombath’s disappearance, and throughout these eight years I have still missed him and want him to return to his family,” Sombath’s wife Ng Shui Meng said, speaking to RFA’s Lao Service on Dec. 9.
“So far, I have received no updates from Lao officials on their investigation into Sombath’s disappearance, and I still don’t know where he is,” she said.
Sombath Somphone disappeared on the evening of Dec. 15, 2012, after his jeep was stopped outside a police checkpoint outside the capital Vientiane, with video footage showing him later being forced into a white truck and taken away.
Though police promised at first to investigate, Lao authorities soon backtracked, saying they could not confirm the identity of a man shown in the video driving off in Sombath’s jeep, and refusing offers of outside help to analyze the footage.
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 had sparked rare popular protests in Laos, where political speech is tightly controlled.
Sombath’s decades of work on behalf of farmers and sustainable agricultural practices helped in him the U.N.’s Human Resource Development Award for empowering the rural poor in Laos, and later the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.
“To date, Lao officials have given me no updates or answers about Sombath. They don’t meet with me, and they just say that they don’t have any information,” Ng Shui Meng, who lives in Singapore, told RFA. “And we have continued to suffer through all these years.”
Philip Alston, Former UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, told RFA last week that the Lao government’s “persistent refusal to undertake any meaningful investigation is a disgrace.”
He said “overwhelming” evidence of direct government responsibility for the disappearance of Sombath makes official denials “entirely unconvincing and disingenuous.”
Laos “has used the strategy of disappearing its opponents in order to instill deep fear and to deter any criticism,” said Alston.
Rights groups press for answers
Rights groups continue to press the Lao government for answers and information in the case.
“We will never forget Sombath even after eight years, and we’ll keep fighting and asking the Lao government [to explain] what happened to him,” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said on Dec. 14.
“We have never received an answer to this question, so we continue to raise this matter with the governments of other countries and with the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. No one should forget what the Lao government did to Sombath,” Robertson said.
“I’m calling on the Lao government to do the right thing—to search for answers about Sombath Somphone for the sake of his family,” added Siriporn Saipetr, a member of the Sombath Somphone & Beyond Project., based in Thailand. “From the closed-circuit TV footage, the government must know what happened to him.”
Vanida Thepsouvanh, president of the Paris-based Lao Movement for Human Rights, said that for the last eight years, the Lao government “has never told the truth about Sombath Somphone.”
“Furthermore, the Lao [People’s Democratic Republic]] doesn’t seem to have any intention of ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance,” she said.
“I think the Lao government is not willing to reveal the truth about Sombath Somphone’s disappearance,” added Bounthone Chantalavong-Wiese, president of the Germany-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos. “They just say they don’t know anything and haven’t seen anything, and that’s concerning.”
“The Lao government should tell his family the truth,” he said.
On Dec. 13, relatives of Sombath Somphone conducted a Buddhist ceremony at the Nakhoun Noi Forest Temple outside Vientiane to mark the anniversary of his disappearance, one family member told RFA.
The situation “getting worse,” experts say, while the government blames lack of progress on COVID-19.
Citizens who criticize the Lao government are forcibly disappeared or arrested without due process, and endure harsh treatment and lengthy prison terms, experts said on the anniversary of key United Nations human rights pacts that the communist nation has ratified but regularly violates.
Human Rights Day Thursday marks the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948.
“We note from the addendum to the UPR report that it is the duty of the Lao government to search for missing Lao citizens including Mr. Sombath Somphone, the Laotian spouse of a Singapore citizen. We hope that Laotian authorities will resolve the case expeditiously and bring about the much-needed relief to his family,” said En Yu Keefe Chin.
UN members and NGOs called on Laos this week to resolve the forced disappearance case of a prominent rural development expert and stop censoring and jailing peaceful critics, as the Southeast Asian nation faced a review of its rights record in Geneva.
In a hearing Monday at the United Nations Human Rights Council, Laos was questioned over the 2012 disappearance of Sombath Somphone, its highly restrictive media environment, and freedom of religion – with one NGO crediting Vientiane for some improvements in treating religious minorities.
The 10th annual International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearance Sunday offers a fresh reminder that Laos has done little or nothing to investigate citizens, including a highly respected development expert, who have vanished in the communist Southeast Asian nation, human rights groups said.
Rural education and development expert Sombath Somphone and others remain unaccounted for, years after disappearing, in most cases after last being seen in police hands.
[Od] had also called… for a U.N. investigation into the disappearance of rural development expert Sombath Somphone.
A Lao democracy activist who vanished under mysterious circumstances in Thailand last year is still missing, with Thai police saying no progress has been made in the investigation into his disappearance.
Od Sayavong, aged 34 at the time he went missing, disappeared in Bangkok on Aug. 26, 2019 after telling a roommate he would be home for dinner, Od’s roommate told RFA in an earlier report, adding that Od’s involvement in politics was the most likely reason for his disappearance.
“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.
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’”