Editorial: Asean Must Bring Silence in Sombath Abduction to an End

The Nation: 25 February 2013

Group’s claims to being a people-oriented community are at stake

The disappearance of Sombath Somphone in police custody last December continues to haunt Laos, once considered the “heavenly land” in continental Southeast Asia. With regional and international pressure increasing by the day, it is amazing to watch the old guard in Vientiane playing things out. For decades, Laos has escaped international scrutiny because it is a small and landlocked country without any strategic imperative. However, with the rise of China, Laos has become an important strategic outpost. As such, the country has brought attention to itself.

Laos joined Asean in 1997 without much fanfare. It delayed its membership for two years for fear that it would upset ties with China. Since joining the grouping, it has maintained a low profile all along, fearing controversy. However, with its ongoing mega-dam construction projects, it has been hard for Laos to remain silent on these issues, especially as they relate to the environment and villagers’ relocation. For instance, the construction of Xayaboury Dam has already caused havoc within the communist hierarchy – who are only used to affirmative answers – because of the myriad negative views against the dam.

Now, in a globalised world, Laos has to contemplate which route it wants to pursue. The recent reforms in Myanmar have already shaken the Laotian establishment. Myanmar’s political reforms were progressive in comparison with the pace of reforms in Laos since 1984. The country can no longer hide in obscurity and hope to get away with – if the worst fears of some are realised – the murder of one of its most famous sons.

When Asean was drafting its charter and terms of reference for human rights, the Laotian delegates were the most conservative and persistent in ensuring that the grouping would not move too fast. However, with the dramatic reforms in Myanmar, Asean as a whole has to think hard about how it can reform to provide further dynamics for political and social transformation. Much has been said about economic cooperation.

The time has come for Asean to speak up. Secretary General Le Luong Minh needs to display his leadership. During the weeks since he has assumed the position, he has spoken widely on the South China Sea and regional integration. How can Asean become one community when its leaders continue to turn a blind eye to assaults on the human dignity of their own citizens?

The notion that Asean can be a people-oriented community will be a farce as long as none of the Asean leaders speaks out on human-rights violations.

The disappearance of Sombath reveals the true nature of an archaic, inward-looking group of communist leaders who are becoming increasingly irrelevant to the dynamic changes within the region. Asean must take up the case of Sombath; its credibility is at stake. The Laotian government must be held accountable for his disappearance and can not longer remain mute. In the absence of cooperation from Vientiane, Asean should join hands with the international community to ensure that justice is done in this landlocked country that for too long has been far beyond the watchful eyes of the world.

Asean Urged to Step in over Missing Activist

The Nation: 21 February 2013

Asean and its human rights body were urged to intervene in the disappearance of Lao social activist Sombath Somphone amid the failure of the authorities in Vientiane to trace his whereabouts.

File photo : Sombath

The Lao government’s long silence about Sombath’s whereabouts are increasing our concerns for his safety,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“The authorities seem more focused on deflecting international criticism than genuinely investigating Sombath’s disappearance,” he said

There is strong evidence of the role of Laotian authorities into the disappearance of Sombath, a prominent 60-year-old social activist who received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005, more than two months ago, Human Rights Watch said.

He was last seen by his wife, Ng Shui Meng, on December 15 as they were driving separately back from his office to their home for dinner. Shiu Meng lost sight of Sombath’s jeep at around 6pm near the police post on Thadeua Road in Vientiane, and he never arrived home.

Security camera footage from the Municipality Police Station, obtained by Shui Meng, shows that Sombath’s jeep was stopped by police at the Thadeua police post at 6:03pm.

Sombath was then taken into the police post.

Later, a motorcyclist stopped at the police post and drove off with Sombath’s jeep, leaving his own motorcycle by the roadside. Another truck with flashing lights then came and stopped at the police post.

Two people got out of the truck took Sombath into the vehicle, and then drove off. “It’s been incredibly frustrating to not have more visibility into the progress of the investigation,” Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, told AFP by telephone from Vientiane after talks with the Lao vice foreign minister.

“I was assured that they are investigating – that’s what the vice minister told me – but I made sure that he understood that not having more information is not helpful,” Baer said, expressing disappointment that he was unable to meet any officials from the ministry of public security.

The campaigner won the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership for his work in poverty reduction and sustainable development in a country that remains one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations.

The secretive one-party communist state – which exerts total control over the media and does not tolerate criticism – has in recent years gradually given local civil society groups more room to operate.

But Sombath’s disappearance has sent jitters through the activist network.

“There’s no question that it’s had a chilling effect,” Baer said.

“For as long as the case remains unresolved and Sombath doesn’t come home to his wife, the international community as well as many people here who know and love him will continue to ask questions,” he added.

US Presses Laos over Missing Activist

Agence France-Presse, February 19, 2013

A US rights envoy on Monday appealed to Laos for more information on a prominent activist missing for two months, saying the case was having a “chilling effect” on civil society groups.

Sombath Somphone, the 62-year-old founder of a non-governmental organisation campaigning for sustainable development, disappeared in Vientiane while driving home on December 15.

Sombath08 - people get into back door of JeepCCTV images showed him being taken away from a police post by two unidentified individuals.

“It’s been incredibly frustrating to not have more visibility into the progress of the investigation,” Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, told AFP by telephone from Vientiane after talks with the Lao vice foreign minister.

“I was assured that they are investigating — that’s what the vice minister told me — but I made sure that he understood that not having more information is not helpful,” Baer said, expressing disappointment that he was unable to meet any officials from the ministry of public security.

The Lao authorities have previously suggested Sombath might have been abducted over a personal dispute but said they had no information about his whereabouts.

The campaigner won the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership for his work in poverty reduction and sustainable development in a country that remains one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations.

The secretive one-party communist state — which exerts total control over the media and does not tolerate criticism — has in recent years gradually given local civil society groups more room to operate.

But Sombath’s disappearance has sent jitters through the activist network.

“There’s no question that it’s had a chilling effect,” Baer said.

“For as long as the case remains unresolved and Sombath doesn’t come home to his wife, the international community as well as many people here who know and love him will continue to ask questions,” he added.

Asean Rights Body Must Show It Is Relevant

The Nation: 13 February 2013

Supalak Ganjanakhundee

The Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), whose second set of commissioners were recently sworn in, should address the disappearance of Laotian social activist Sombath Somphone to show it is a relevant organisation with the teeth to promote and protect the basic rights of people in this region.

Magsaysay Award-winner Sombath went missing on December 15 while driving back home from his office in Vientiane. Closed-circuit TV footage shows him being stopped by police at a checkpoint before being led away by a group of unknown men in a pickup truck.

A week after the disappearance, Laotian authorities issued a statement that failed to explain the situation or to commit themselves to any action, and which only showed their intention to distance themselves from the case.

In mid-January, Laotian Ambassador to Geneva Yong Chanthalangsay told the United Nations Human Rights Council there was no new information, and repeated speculation that a personal or business conflict may have been behind Sombath’s abduction.

That’s the only action the authorities in Vientiane have taken so far. They have shown no further intention to investigate the case. The incident appears to be in danger of fading from public attention.

Authorities around the world, including officials from the United States, the European Union and the United Nations, have expressed concern over Sombath’s disappearance and have appealed to the government in Vientiane to pursue a transparent investigation and to do everything in its power to ensure his safe return.

Lawmakers from some Asean countries visited Vientiane last month but returned without a clear answer about his fate. Continue reading “Asean Rights Body Must Show It Is Relevant”

Chinese media cover the case of Sombath

The China Southern Weekly has published a long article about the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, including reference to this website.  Based in Guangzhou, the outspoken Southern Weekly has faced its own difficulties in recent weeks (see here).

Screen Shot 2013-02-10 at 9.48.27 AMIntroduction:  “An effort to locate one woman’s missing husband has brought the Lao government unexpected international pressure, as the future of the country’s national image has been bound to Sombath Somphone’s disappearance and prospects for safe return. Analysts have even interpreted Sombath’s mysterious disappearance as a sign of the direction of political developments in the country. These international concerns are without doubt not good news a country which entered the WTO only two months ago.”

The entire article (in English and Chinese) can be downloaded here.

EU steps up pressure

EU steps up pressure on Laos over activist’s disappearance

Straits Times, 01 Feb 2013

BANGKOK – The European Union has piled more pressure on Laos with a strong expression of concern over the disappearance in December last year of prominent Magsaysay Award winner Sombath Somphone.

Screen Shot 2013-02-01 at 22.53.08 PMIn a one-hour meeting on Friday morning in Vientiane, senior European diplomats raised the issue with Laos’ Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith. “They also spoke for other like-minded countries – the United States, Switzerland, Japan and Singapore,” said a diplomatic source familiar with the meeting, known in diplomatic jargon as a démarche.

The 62-year-old Mr Sombath, who is married to a Singaporean national, is one of Laos’ most prominent civil society figures. His Participatory Development Training Centre was active in education, health and food security issues. He won the Magsaysay Award – Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize – for Community Service in 2005. He is no firebrand, however; instead, he is known for his mild manner and his nuanced approach to sensitive issues.

He vanished on the evening of Dec 15. CCTV footage of the incident showed him pulling over in his jeep at a busy intersection in Vientiane and getting out to speak with police. Minutes later, a man on a motorbike pulled up and drove away in his jeep. Next, a big car with hazard lights flashing pulled up and Mr Sombath got in. He has not been heard from since.

Disappearance of Sombath Somphone: Time for Intervention by ASEAN?

By Tan Kwoh Jack

No. 014/2013 dated 24 January 2013. This is from the RSIS Commentaries are intended to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy relevant background and analysis of contemporary developments. S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU  to see the original go here

Synopsis

The disappearance of prominent Lao activist Sombath Somphone is garnering regional and international attention. With the signing of the ASEAN Human Rights Charter it is in the interest of ASEAN countries to engage more actively on the issue.

Commentary

ON 15 December 2012, the prominent Lao public intellectual Sombath Somphone mysteriously “disappeared”. Closed-circuit video footage released by the Lao authorities showed uniformed personnel in Vientiane stopping Sombath’s car before taking him away. Analysts believe that his disappearance is connected to his activist work in sustainable development, and that elements within the Lao government may be responsible for this incident. Sombath’s disappearance has garnered regional and international attention in the past month: three Members of Parliaments from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines: Charles Santiago, Lily Wahid and Walden Bello made a special three-day trip to Vientiane to seek some answers from the Lao government. During the press conference in Bangkok afterwards, they rebuked the Lao administration for lacking in political will to resolve the issue. Consequently, they plan to collect the signatures of MPs in every ASEAN country to increase pressure on the Lao government. They will also be submitting a report to the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights. Singaporean link The US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is the latest and most prominent politician to publicly comment on the issue, calling on the Lao government to pursue a “transparent investigation”, and to “do everything in its power” to obtain Sombath’s return. Besides the MPs of the three countries other ASEAN members including Singapore might want to pay attention to this case. Sombath’s wife, Ng Shui Meng is a Singapore national. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said it is rendering consular assistance to Ms Ng. Sombath shares with Singapore an active interest in strengthening sustainable development as one of ASEAN’s key objectives and has made significant contributions in this area. The US- educated Sombath pioneered the use of participatory methods in poverty alleviation in Laos and is a winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award – commonly referred to as the Nobel Prize of Asia.

Implications on ASEAN Human Rights Charter

With the signing of the ASEAN Human Rights Charter (AHRC) in November last year, ASEAN members may find it increasingly difficult to remain silent on issues pertaining to human rights. These issues emerging from within ASEAN will start to bring into question the efficacy of the AHRC. This suggests that ASEAN’s long- standing principle of non-interference will have to evolve into something more expressive, if not more “interventionist”.

Lao inaction on Sombath’s case may affect the credibility of the AHRC and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. Sombath’s case is a good opportunity for ASEAN members to take a collective stand and further strengthen the Charter. This will address the initial accusations made by non-government organisations that the Charter is “not worthy of its name”.

Officials may worry that any statement that an ASEAN government makes in regard to human rights, will inevitably bring to the fore its own record. This is yet another reflection of the blurring lines between the international and the domestic. For example should a country articulate a more assertive foreign policy of human rights – under the aegis of the AHRC – it may have to take on parallel positions related to civil society and liberties within the state. At times, it may even find itself having to justify its domestic policies to the other ASEAN neighbours, as Myanmar did in recent years.

A more interventionist ASEAN?

That said, Sombath’s disappearance is as much a human rights issue as one of the rule of law and due process. In recent years Singapore and Laos have ramped up bilateral economic and political relations. The air route between Singapore and Laos has re-opened, expanding tourism exponentially. Successive trade delegations have brought Singapore’s government-linked companies and private enterprises into Laos. Laos is a popular destination for Singapore volunteers engaged in community development projects. Last year, the animal rights group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society set up a research and education centre in Laos to combat the problem of Lao bear bile products being sold in Singapore. This reflects the growing endeavour of Singaporeans to undertake community projects in developing countries. All these point to the expanding presence of Singaporeans in Laos, and invariably, violations of the rule of law and due processes “over there” will, in one way or another begin to concern Singapore. At the regional level, pressures on ASEAN to take a more interventionist stance on violations of human rights will also increase with the adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Charter.

Tan Kwoh Jack is an Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

Laos under spotlight

Laos under international spotlight in search for land rights activist

The Guardian: 24 January 2013

Sombath Somphone disappeared a month ago after stopping at a police checkpoint, yet officials deny knowing his whereabouts.

Activist Sombath Somphone

Though it rarely makes international headlines, Laos has been in the spotlight for the past month. One of its most well-respected activists has gone missing after stopping at a police checkpoint. His disappearance has prompted the Laos government to suggest he was “kidnapped”, but rights groups suspect he may have been abducted after campaigning against land grabs.

Sombath Somphone, 60, disappeared on the night of 15 December in the capital, Vientiane, and was last seen by his wife, Ng Shui Meng, who was driving ahead of him as the couple returned home in separate cars. CCTV footage shows the activist stopping at a police post, leaving his vehicle, and his Jeep being driven away by someone else. Later, a pickup truck with its lights flashing arrives, Sombath gets in, and he and two other men drive off.

Although Sombath has not been seen or heard from since the checkpoint stop, the government insists it has nothing to do with his disappearance.

In an official statement carried by the state news agency KPL soon after Sombath went missing, a government spokesman said he may have been “kidnapped perhaps because of a personal conflict or a conflict in business”, and that the pickup truck in question was driven by two men “not possible to identify”. Their vehicle, the statement added, “went away to an unknown destination”.

Sombath’s family and friends say he had no such conflicts and that no ransom has been demanded. Continue reading “Laos under spotlight”

A diplomatic nightmare

Where’s Sombath? Laos scrambles to manage a diplomatic nightmare

Asian Correspondent: 18 January 2013

Rarely the centre of regional media attention, Laos is more often associated with being “tiny” and “land-locked” but this week the Southeast Asian nation has been forced to perform some diplomatic acrobatics to manage a growing storm around the disappearance of activist Sombath Somphone.

Sombath04 - person in black gets in jeepAnyone who lives there will know that a safety net is always recommended when Laos walks the diplomatic tightrope.

Questions around the disappearance of a much-respected activist and campaigner for sustainable development are coming thick and fast since his abduction on a busy street in the Lao capital of Vientiane. But a more unusual sight for locals and observers is watching the Lao Government crunching through their PR gears.

Laos has been earmarked as the next frontier market in Southeast Asia, following in the footsteps of Vietnam and Burma and the abduction of a leading voice in the NGO community has raised new concerns. Continue reading “A diplomatic nightmare”

BBC reports US concern

Sombath Somphone: US concern over missing Laos campaigner

BBC: 17 January 2013

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged Laos to investigate the disappearance of a well-known social activist who went missing last month.

Security camera footage shows Sombath Somphone being taken away by unidentified men after he was stopped by police in the capital Vientiane.

Rights groups fear that he was abducted by elements associated with the Communist authorities.

But the government in Laos says it knows nothing of his whereabouts.

Although he is not a political figure, Mr Sombath was a prominent campaigner who promoted fair land rights for small farmers, which is a sensitive issue in Laos, the BBC’s Nga Pham reports from Bangkok.

“We call upon the Lao government to pursue a transparent investigation of this incident and to do everything in its power to bring about an immediate and safe return home to his family,” Hillary Clinton urged in a statement.

Laos is one of the world’s few Communist countries where all land belongs to the state – and there have been complaints about land grabs and abuses by local government, our correspondent reports.

Last week three lawmakers from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines visited Vientiane and concluded that they were not satisfied with explanations they had received about the disappearance from officials.

Source:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-21055404