Enforced Disappearances

Function 8: 08 March 2019

Today we are launching the first of a series articles about Sombath Somphone, a well-known Lao development worker who was abducted on 15 December 2012 – nearly seven years ago. Sombath Somphone’s disappearance was caught on Police CCTV, showing that Sombath was stopped by the police at a police post, and then later pushed into a white van. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7-MmZUvMZWI&fbclid=IwAR1FQmGFvnlLQV8U9LBWmm45CjHhQpGRPlEpKNe3nTZzllAwaVc5oLnhK8U

The Lao Police and the Lao Government denied they were involved, but his wife and family have never been given any details about the investigations into his disappearance.

Through these articles, we hope to inform our readers about Enforced Disappearances, one of the most heinous form of human rights violations, which is still commonly used in many countries in ASEAN to silence their dissidents or critics. We also hope to support his wife, Ng Shui Meng, a Singaporean, to seek truth and justice for her husband, Sombath Somphone, and to urge the Lao Government to resolve the case and to return Sombath to his family.

Who is Sombath Somphone?

Sombath Somphone was born in 1952 in a poor village near the Mekong River in central Laos. He grew up, like so many farm boys from rural Laos, working in the rice fields, fishing in the rivers and ponds, and hunting in the forests to help his family. Growing up poor, and living so close to nature taught Sombath the meaning of poverty and the importance of the natural environment for survival. This understanding later shaped his commitment to work to promote sustainable development and environmental protection as the basis for food security, material well-being and stable livelihoods for Lao communities.

Even though Sombath’s family was poor, Sombath’s love for learning and determination helped him win a USAID scholarship in 1970 to study Education and Agriculture at the University of Hawaii. He completed his Masters in Agriculture and returned to live in Laos in 1979. This was soon after the end of the Indochina War in 1975 and the founding of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic under the Lao Communist Party.

Sombath could have remained in the United States, like his other Laotian classmates, who did not want to return to their war-torn homeland under communist rule. But Sombath chose to go back to Laos because his family needed him, and also because he wanted to use his skills in agriculture to help farmers improve their livelihoods.

Over the next three decades, he worked with rural communities all across the country, sharing his knowledge and skills in low-cost and improved agriculture techniques. He did not work only in agriculture, but also in forest conservation; improved water and sanitation, setting up of small recycling centers; training of young people to become change agents in schools and communities; and helping rural groups, especially women groups, to establish small-scale rural enterprises.

Sombath’s approach to development is also very much rooted in a Buddhist rejection of modern materialism. He is a leading proponent in Laos of the idea that development must come from within, and must be ecologically sustainable. He advocated ‘gross national happiness’ rather than the narrow definition of development that emphasizes large gains in material wealth. He was an articulate and prominent practitioner of this philosophy in Laos and has developed close ties with other leading proponents of Buddhist-based development throughout the region.

In 1996, he officially established PADETC (Participatory Development Training Center), a first-ever Lao-NGO, to foster sustainable, equitable, and self-reliant development in Laos. It uses participatory learning and training of young people, civil society groups, and community leaders to become the key change agents in their communities, with an emphasis on a balance of economic development, ecological sustainability, cultural integrity, and spiritual well-being.

Over the years, Sombath’s tireless and dedicated work earned him a great deal of respect and following, first inside Laos and later also increased recognition in the region and beyond. In 1973, he was awarded the UN ESCAP (Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific) Award on Poverty Reduction. In 2005, he won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for Asia.

In the citation of the award given to Sombath, the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation said:

… Sombath presides unobtrusively yet restlessly over PADETC’s many projects. His hopes rest with the young. He urges them to remain mindful of their country’s traditional values even as global forces grow stronger. Development is good, he assures them, but for development to be healthy, it “must come from within.”

The work of Sombath Somphone was unfortunately cut short by his enforced disappearance on 15 December 2012. His disappearance is a great tragedy, not only for his family, friends and colleagues, but also a tragedy for the Lao people and the country as a whole.

In subsequent articles we will share with you more of the circumstances around Sombath’s disappearance as well as some of the innovative work he did in Laos.

6th PADETC Fair

This year marks 6th year anniversary of PADETC fair. The theme this year is to celebrate the work and passion of Mr. Sombath: “Promoting Ecological Sustainability: Towards a more liveable Laos for all.”

There will be a Buddhist ceremony for blessing starting on the evening of December 13th. On the 14th there will be Buddhist prayer in the morning and a booth display from PADETC’s former learning centers at the former PADETC office.

Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (14)

My dearest Sombath,

Five years – five long agonizing years – have passed since your abduction in front of the police post on Thadeua Road where you were so clearly seen on CCTV footages to have been stopped by the police, made to get out of your jeep, and taken away in a white truck.

Now 5 years on – I am still no nearer to getting any answer as to what happened to you. Instead, the wall of silence sealing off the truth to your abduction just became thicker inside Laos. But despite the silence and despite the fact that many officials inside Laos do not want to hear your name mentioned anywhere, I and your friends and colleagues continue to hold you dear in our hearts and minds. “We will never forget” is our promise to you.

So on 15th of December this year, we are once more gathered on the grounds of your beloved PADETC Office to hold a blessing ceremony for you. Nine monks chanted sutras to bless you wherever you are. More than 200 of your co-workers, friends and fellow partners of the development community and diplomatic community turned up to show their support and solidarity for you, and the work you have started through PADETC. Continue reading “Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (14)”

Activists Pressure Lao Government on Missing Civil Society Leader

Voice of America: 15 December 2017

Five years ago, Shui-Meng Ng and her husband, Sombath Somphone, were driving their car through Vientiane. It was on that day that he disappeared.

Security camera footage at a checkpoint showed police officers stopping his Jeep. Sombath, a well-known civil society leader, is shown getting out of his vehicle. Moments later, a lone motorcyclist arrives, parks his bike, and drives away in the Jeep. Then an unmarked white pickup pulls up and Sombath gets in the truck, which drives away.

Activists say the police closed-circuit television shows Sombath being arrested at the police checkpoint. Shui-Meng has not heard from her husband since.

“Today, Sombath is still missing,” she told VOA’s Lao Service. “I have no choice, I cannot remain silent. I cannot let the … work of Sombath and his dreams and hope for building a better society in Laos” be forgotten. Continue reading “Activists Pressure Lao Government on Missing Civil Society Leader”

Five years of silence…

Five years ago, Sombath Somphone gave the following keynote speech at the Asia-Europe Peoples’ Forum.

How many donors, diplomats or civil society organisations in Laos will dare to share his words today?


Challenges for Poverty Reduction and Sustainable Development – A View from Laos

Sombath Somphone Founder and Advisor to PADETC

Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF9) 16-19 October, 21012, Vientiane, Laos

Excellency Dr. Thongloun SISOULATH, Deputy Prime Minister of the Lao PDR; Respected friends and colleagues from Laos, Asia, and Europe;

Ladies and gentlemen…

What an honor and what a pleasure it is for me to be welcoming you all to our small country, a land of gentle people but with big hearts. I am especially honored to represent Laos at this Asia-Europe People’s Forum to address you today and to share with you some thoughts on how we can together work towards reducing poverty and building a more sustainable future for ourselves and for our children. Continue reading “Five years of silence…”

Monks and young people

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.

Sombath Somphone, Towards Global Transformation: Making Change Happen, at the 3rd International Conference on Gross National Happiness, November 2007, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand.

Sombath’s Work

This website is being slowly upgraded, including the page on Sombath’s Work. Any additional links, materials, media, comments and/or corrections will be greatly appreciated.

Many would like to forget Sombath and his work, and return to the status quo. Please help prevent that by sending your contributions to [email protected]

Friends and colleagues of Sombath are also encouraged to write Letters to Sombath.

Finally, can anyone identify the year and occasion of this picture?

Sombath & Quaker Service Laos

Sombath speaking about integrated agriculture

Sombath worked closely with Quaker Service Laos (QSL) during the late 1980s and early 1990s. He made significant contributions to their programs, including the Rice Integrated Farming Systems (RIFS) project.

History of Quaker Service Laos Development Work 1973-1999″ mentions the RIFS project, and how it evolved into The independent Participator Development Training Center (PADETC) .

While QSL staff wrote a plea to the Lao government soon after Sombath’s abduction, subsequent requests to contribute their thoughts about Sombath and his work have been unanswered.

Those who worked with Sombath are encouraged to share their experiences by writing a Letter to Sombath.