… 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
[The UN Human Rights Committee] …regrets the paucity of relevant information provided by the State party regarding the measures taken, and the progress achieved, in investigating the enforced disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone…
[The Lao PDR should] Step up efforts to conduct a thorough, credible, impartial and transparent investigation into the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone, and in all other cases of alleged enforced disappearances…
Enforced disappearances continue to be reported and there has been no progress in investigations or prosecutions. While the Lao PDR has accepted recommendations to investigate the enforced disappearance of leading civil society member Sombath Somphone, who was not been seen since being stopped by traffic police and taken away in a pick-up truck in Laos in December 20127, they have taken little to no action. No steps have been taken to review new evidence in the form of video footage provided by his family. The Government has also failed to establish the fate or whereabouts of other alleged enforced disappearances, including that of Kha Yang, a Lao ethnic Hmong arrested after his forced return from Thailand in 2011, and of Sompawn Khantisouk, an entrepreneur who was active on conservation issues and abducted in 2007 by men believed to be police.
31. The missing of Sombath Somphone is an unexpected incident for the Lao government as it happened after the Lao PDR successfully hosted the 9th ASEM in Vientiane in November 2012.
32. His missing is of concern to the Lao Government like the missing of any Lao citizen. Immediately after the missing happened the Lao Government established an investigation committee within the Ministry of Public Security to conduct investigation into the missing incident. From day one of its work the committee sent notice to all police headquarters across the county to find any clue which may be related to the incident. Furthermore, the investigation committee sent out notice to Interpol and ASEANAPOL for them to have looks for any information which may be related to the case. The Investigation Committee has always been open to views or suggestions to help the investigation and Committee is ready to receive suggestions from any interested parties with regard to the investigation which is still ongoing to the present time. It is the duty of the Lao government to find out the truth and bring perpetrators to justice in accordance with the law of the Lao PDR which has signed the Convention on Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
33. The Lao Government would like to reaffirm that the investigation committee is still seriously conducting the investigation. The investigation committee in the past made briefing to the Medias and all interested parties on the progress of the investigation and most recently the chief of the investigation committee met with foreign ambassadors and his wife whom the committee informed of the investigation. In addition, the Lao PDR accepted a number of recommendations under the UPR which are relating to the missing case.
From Lao Government’s response to Letter of Issues submitted by the UN Human Rights Council (CCPR). The full letter and response can be download here.
Southeast Asia’s performance is especially disheartening. The “disappearance” of Sombath Somphone, an internationally acclaimed civil society leader who was kidnapped from the streets of Vientiane in late 2012, is a glaring example of a worsening of the human rights situation in Laos.
This event is without a doubt the largest civil society event ever organized in the Lao PDR and regarded as the most successful AEPF to date. On that note, we Lao NPAs and iNGO civil society organizing partners of the AEPF9 are proud to share the AEPF9 Final Statement and look forward to cooperating with you in related follow up actions.
The decree [115/PM] reflects the view of the Lao government that civil society has a role to play in the country’s development, but civil society should play this role under the government’s control and in line with government policies and goals.
…The government accepts that CSOs have a role in service delivery in close collaboration with the state. The presence of CSOs on the ground is recognized, and the government expects efficient and inclusive service delivery, but also the downward accountability of CSOs.
…Donors (both INGOs and bilateral donors) expect Lao civil society to take up a broader and more diversified role beyond service delivery. Their general rationale for supporting civil society is the need for an improvement in governance and the promotion of a plurality of voices in Lao society.
…Cases of threat and harassment also happened to a number of other activists. People were put into insecurity and fear and Lao civil society in effect relapsed to an even worse state than prior to AEPF. The trust between government and civil society receded.
…In the past two years, the government has enforced more restriction and control on the participation of civil society in Round Table Meetings and other venues. The registration of non- profit associations (NPAs) has been more difficult with a very few new successful registrations since.
…Meanwhile, the AEPF incidents have left Lao civil society in trauma. Critical CSOs emerging during the period leading to the AEPF have either closed down or significantly diluted their work. Civil society workers now feel insecure when they speak of issues that differ from or critical of the government.
Monk’s chanting is not very interesting to the young people. But at the same time the young monks are very active and they want to do something. So I think linking these dynamic monks with young people is important so that the young people can learn about cultural and spiritual aspects though actually doing the work.
The space for civil society to conduct human rights activities remains non-existent in the Lao PDR, in breach of Article 22 of the ICCPR. Political groups other than the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party-backed organizations are banned. The government has routinely used its influence to manipulate the membership of civil society organizations’ boards and has forced some organizations to change their names to remove certain words, such as “rights.”
…Lao authorities continue to arbitrarily arrest and detain government critics and charge them under provisions of the Criminal Code. In many cases, little or no information is provided to those arrested on the reason for the deprivation of their liberty or the charges they face. Lao activists have been detained incommunicado without access to legal assistance, and held in prolonged pre-trial detention. This amounts to a clear violation of Article 9 of the ICCPR [see also below, Article 14].
…The government has continued to refuse to adequately and effectively address the issue of enforced disappearance in the country. To this day, the fate and whereabouts of at least 13 activists remain unknown. In the most emblematic case, the government has failed to conduct a thorough, credible, and impartial investigation into the enforced disappearance of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who disappeared after being last seen at a police checkpoint on a busy street in Vientiane on 15 December 2012.
Excerpts from the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) submission to the List of Issues for the 121st session of the UN Human Rights Committee. The full submission is available here, and the Lao government report and other documentation here.
Vientiane has never adequately addressed the 2012 disappearance of prominent community activist Sombath Somphone, a globally recognised figure. His apparent abduction indelibly scarred Laos’ international reputation.