Civic space remains ‘closed’ in Laos in ratings published by the CIVICUS Monitor in December 2021. The rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly remained severely restricted, and the state exercised strict control over media and civil society.
In recent months the government has continued to repress its people, both inside the country and outside its borders. An exiled Lao dissident has sought refuge in Canada after he was arrested in Thailand and threatened with deportation. The Hmong community continued to face state-sponsored discrimination, amidst an increased push for foreign investments in the Xaysomboun region. December 2021 marked nine years since human rights defender Sombath Somphone was forcibly disappeared. Continue reading “Political Dissident From Laos Finds Refuge as Ethnic Hmong Indigenous People Remain at Risk”
It was with a mix of profound sadness and deep admiration that I read Shui Meng Ng’s recently published biography of her husband, Silencing of a Laotian Son: The Life, Work and Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone. Sadness because this December will mark 10 years since Sombath was disappeared, 10 years since CCTV footage showed his jeep being stopped by police and his being bundled into a truck before it speeds away. As Shui Meng writes in the book, these were “the last images I have seen of Sombath since.”
Admiration because in all of that time Shui Meng Ng has never stopped pressing for answers, never stopped fighting to prevent Sombath from being forgotten about and never stopped believing that despite the huge power imbalance, she can hold the Laotian authorities to account. I invited Shui Meng to the Dublin Platform in 2013, ten months after Sombath’s disappearance, and the words she spoke then epitomise how she has lived the last decade:
Despite the concerns for safety of myself and my family, Sombath’s disappearance has taught me that silence is a form of defeat. I cannot accept such defeat and I cannot ignore such violations of my husband’s rights.
This type of courage, and commitment to do what is right, is apparent in great supply in the pages of Silencing of a Laotian Son which details Sombath’s journey from a childhood of poverty and hardship, a year of which was spent as a refugee on the Thai side of Laos border, to academic excellence in the USA.
Above all though what shines through is Sombath’s absolute dedication to improving the lives of his fellow Laotians. Following the Communist takeover of Laos in 1975, it would have been easy for him to settle and make his life in the US, where he was studying at the time, but he chose to return to Laos in the 1980s to try to introduce new farming and land management techniques that he had developed through his studies. Shui Meng remembers that when Sombath first arrived in the US, he was astounded by the abundance of food in American households, and “food security was one of the reasons why, later in life, Sombath chose to study agronomy. His aim was to find ways to reduce food insecurity for poor farming households in Laos.”
Sadly Sombath’s efforts were blocked at every turn by the Laotian government who were suspicious of him because he studied in the USA. Ironically, when he was in the USA, the FBI were interested in him because he wanted to go home to Communist Laos. This absurd situation is what happens when politics is placed above human rights. Sombath persevered and founded the first indigenous non-profit in Lao PDR providing training to rural communities to foster development on their own terms.
It is believed that Sombath was finally disappeared as a result of his involvement in the Asia-Europe People’s Forum in November 2012, a biennial conference to promote exchange between civil society in Asia and Europe. It was the first time that an international civil society event was held in Lao PDR, and during it Sombath spoke on the importance of government dialogue with civil society, and listened as fellow Laotians spoke out about illegal land seizures. Some of those who spoke out were reportedly threatened by officials and Sombath, unsurprisingly, wanted an investigation into those threats. He vanished a few weeks later.
My predecessors have written a number of times to the Laotian authorities on Sombath but only received repeated claims of ignorance about his fate. In February of last year I joined with the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and two other Special Rapporteurs in writing once again to the Laotian government asking why no further updates on the investigation had been provided to Shui Meng or published since shortly after his disappearance. We also asked why the authorities had not met with Shui Meng since 2017, despite their assurances that they would regularly provide her with updates. The authorities have yet to respond.
In Sombath’s disappearance, Laos has lost one of its best. In writing this book, Shui Meng has ensured that Sombath can continue to serve as an inspiration to future generations of Laotians and to human rights defenders everywhere.
Silencing of A Laotian Son: The Life, Work and Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone
By Ng Shui Meng
International Network of Engaged Buddhists/Paperback/292 pages/ US$10 (S$13.50) before delivery costs/ Buy at inebnetwork.org/book-shop
The image on the cover is the last-known one of the man, a grainy screen grab from a closed-circuit television camera from the evening of Dec 15, 2012, in front of a police post in Vientiane, Laos. Community development worker Sombath Somphone, who would be 70 this February, has not been seen since. Even his Jeep has not been found.
His Singaporean wife Ng Shui Meng, who moved to Laos to be with him in 1986, covers more than half a century in the book, which is written in a simple, straightforward and gentle manner.
“I wish I had gone up to hug him,” she recalls of the last time she saw him on that December evening in 2012. Today, she’s still fighting for answers.
By Alastair McCready
Shui-Meng’s husband had just finished playing table tennis when he arrived at her shop as she was closing up one early evening. Glancing over across the small handicraft store—adorned with traditional handwoven silk, rattan baskets and bamboo goods—she would tell Sombath that she’d be ready to set off home shortly and to meet her outside.
Driving home in separate cars, Shui-Meng could see her husband’s black Jeep following close behind as they made the short drive through downtown Vientiane—the sleepy, low-lying capital of Laos sitting on the banks of the Mekong river.
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.