Accidental Heroine

Bangkok Post: 05 January 2016

Angkhana-2016Not prepared to play the victim even after the recent ruling on the disappearance of her lawyer husband, Angkhana Neelapaijit is dedicating her life to helping others who suffer abuse of rights…

Angkhana was known in security quarters as a daring, stubborn and outspoken widow who has always reminded the world about Thailand’s chronic impunity. She strongly supported the wife of the missing Karen land rights activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen on her quest for justice. Angkhana is also a key member of The Sombath Initiative that is looking into the disappearance of Laos’ senior community development figure Sombath Somphone.

Lao government spurns ASEAN civil society

In Laos, which will chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) next year, the government refused to allow a meeting of Southeast Asian civil society groups on the sideline of an upcoming ASEAN summit, and has provided no new information on the whereabouts of Sombath Somphone. He was probably Laos’s best-known civil society activist when he vanished in 2012, shortly after being seen at a police checkpoint in Vientiane.

From The Year in Democracy in Southeast Asia in The Diplomat: 11 December 2015

UK Minister of State speaks up for Sombath

UK FlagWe remain very concerned as to the whereabouts of Mr Sombath Somphone. We regularly raise his disappearance with the Lao government. Laos underwent its second UN Universal Periodic Review under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council, earlier this year. The United Kingdom’s recommendation calling on the Lao government to conduct a thorough, transparent and impartial investigation into Mr Somphone’s disappearance was formally accepted by the Lao government. On 11 September, 1000 days since Mr Somphone’s disappearance, I wrote to the Lao Ambassador to the United Kingdom, to urge the Lao government to rapidly proceed with conducting an investigation. Next month, at the EU-Laos Human Rights Dialogue in Vientiane, the United Kingdom, along with our EU partners, will highlight the lack of progress in the investigation into Mr Somphone’s disappearance.

Hugo Swire, UK Minister of State on 28 October 2015

We need time…

Thongphane SavanphetOn the missing Case of Mr. Sombath Somphone… Today, I would like to reassure that the concerned authorities of the Lao PDR have conducted and are still seriously conducting the investigation and will continue to do so to find out the truth and to bring perpetrators to justice in accordance with the law of the Lao PDR. A missing case is complex and difficult to solve quickly. We need time and our concerned authorities are trying their utmost efforts under the law of the Lao PDR.

Mr. Thongphane Savanhphet, Permanent Representative of the Lao PDR to the United Nations in Geneva, to the 29th Session of the Human Rights Council on 25 June 2015.

Community-oriented learning: A view from Laos

BBC_coverage_of_Sombath_disappearanceAs Somphone’s abduction highlights, attempts to redistribute power away from national governments towards community-identified needs is a highly politicised endeavour that can result in severe, and often violent, suppression. This is particularly so in non-democratic states. Yet it is not an unachievable shift. Indeed, while the post-2015 agenda has displayed a number of weaknesses in its attempts to encourage disparate viewpoints within the agenda-setting process, it nonetheless makes an explicit call for the advancement of such participatory approaches.

For this to occur, however, national governments, global development institutions and bilateral aid donors need to relax their current stature as the privileged interlocutors of development and become more supportive of community-oriented development agendas. It is not uniformity but diversity that holds the key to culturally sensitive development…

Kearrin Sims, in “Culture, community-oriented learning and the post-2015 development agenda: a view from Laos,” in Third World Quarterly, September, 2015.

“People don’t dare speak out”

“This is the biggest catchment for fresh water fish in the world and that demands a strategy for fish,” one source said, adding that Lao staff were aware of the issues but were silenced by fears of upsetting the government.

Sources said the disappearance of agriculturalist Sombath Somphone, an advocate of rural reform and farming practices, almost three years ago had a chilling effect on bureaucrats who must toe the government line on dam construction.

“They are nasty and people don’t dare speak out,” an MRC source said.

The Laos government has fended off a barrage of international criticism over Sombath – who was last seen on CCTV being bundled into a police car – and for having little if any regard for its legal obligations to human rights.

During a recent trip to Laos, one senior bureaucrat told this journalist that anyone publicly opposed to the government’s massive infrastructure plans – aimed at developing hydropower and turning Laos into a net exporter of electricity – “can simply disappear like Sombath Somphone.”

From “Why the Mekong River Commission May Be In Peril,” in The Diplomat, 10 October 2015

The EU, Enforced Disappearance and Lao Civil Society

European UnionNew opportunities await the new EU leaders to raise Sombath’s case and those of other enforced disappearance victims worldwide…

…we need to see strengthened EU and member state commitment to prevent and respond to enforced disappearances under the action plan on human rights. Until Sombath is safely returned, pervasive impunity will impact not only his family but all of Laos’ civil society.

From  “Making the disappeared visible: The EU and the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone,” in New Europe31 August 2014.

The first objective of the 1.8 million Euro project European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights currently being prepared is:

Support to Human Rights and Human Rights Defenders in situations where they are most at risk.

Will this important effort include significant action on enforced disappearance or Sombath Somphone?

‘Absolutely no political will…’

Charles Santiago-FCCT

Yesterday marked the first month of Sombath’s disappearance… His wife was asked to go talk to the police as part of the investigation process. She turned up at the police station at 9:00 AM, and the questions they had for her, after one month of the investigation was, ‘When did you get married to Sombath? How did you guys meet each other? Where do you guys stay and whether you have children?’ …and the questioning was done, the investigation was done by the lowest ranking officer at that particular police station.

Now this raises fundamental questions. The first is it raises the notion that, after one month you call a wife and tell her ‘When did you guys get married, or when did you meet for the first time?’ Which actually shows that the police and the civil administration have absolutely no interest, no political will, to get the the root of this problem. Absolutely no interest, and no political will to resolve this issue, except saying in all our meetings that ‘We want to get to the root of this problem because the credibility of Laos has been hit, and therefore we want to solve this problem as soon as possible.’

But when asked about the investigation itself, there is absolute stonewalling, and the same script being repeated all the time…

Charles Santiago, Member of Malaysian Parliament, at FCCT press conference after travelling to Laos in January, 2013.

We stand ready to support

We know Mr. Somphone as being highly committed to the development of the people of the Lao PDR, and he is very respected in the Lao and International development communities. His family has reported him missing to the Ministry of Public Security, but has received no news about his whereabouts.

We are very concerned about Mr. Somphone’s safety, and we urge the Lao authorities to use its resources to locate him and bring him home safely.

We stand ready to support in any way we can.

From a December, 2012 letter from 22 INGOs to the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Lao government has not requested any assistance, nor have there been any further letters or offers of support from CSOs operating in the Lao PDR.

Articles addressing the effects of Sombath’s disappearance on Lao civil society include:

Click on the Lao Civil Society tag at the bottom of this page for a listing of these and other related content on this site.