Australia: Press Laos to Protect Rights

Human Rights Watch: 12 August 2019

The Lao government has never disclosed the fate or whereabouts of a prominent civil society leader, Sombath Somphone, who was forcibly disappeared in the capital, Vientiane, in December 2012.

Dialogue Should Address Enforced Disappearances, Free Speech

The Australian government should press the Lao government to take serious steps to remedy its poor human rights record at the 6th Australia-Laos human rights dialogue on August 12, 2019, in Canberra, Human Rights Watch said today.

In a June submission, Human Rights Watch urged the Australian government to use the dialogue to focus on enforced disappearances of Lao and Thai nationals, and to press the Lao government to end its systematic restrictions on the rights to freedom of speech, association, and assembly. Other key human rights concerns include abusive drug detention centers, repression of minority religious groups, and violence against women and girls.

“Australia is one of the few countries that has a human rights dialogue with Laos and so should make the most of this opportunity to press for change,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Laos has a horrific human rights record, which is often overlooked.”

Laos is a single-party state that bans opposition political parties and sharply curtails independent groups. The government strictly monitors and controls all television, radio, and publications. It has taken further legislative measures to strengthen censorship and government control.

The Lao government has never disclosed the fate or whereabouts of a prominent civil society leader, Sombath Somphone, who was forcibly disappeared in the capital, Vientiane, in December 2012.

Australia should also press the government to investigate the disappearance of three Thai political activists who were abducted in Vientiane in December 2018. DNA samples from mutilated bodies found in the Mekong River matched two of the missing activists, Kraidej Luelert and Chatchan Buphawan, raising grave concerns for the third activist, Surachai Danwattananusorn, who remains missing. The two bodies had been disemboweled and stuffed with concrete.

“Australia should break the silence that surrounds Laos’ suppression of fundamental human rights and play a key role in encouraging international concern and pressure for reform,” Robertson said.

Related Content: Submission to Australia Laos Human Right Dialogue, June 2019

UN member states must continue to ask “Where is Sombath?” during human rights review

FIDH: 18 July 2019

(Paris) United Nations (UN) member states must use the upcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Laos to continue to demand the Lao government determine the fate or whereabouts of civil society leader Sombath Somphone, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) urged today.

The two organizations made the call in their joint submission for the third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Laos, which is scheduled to be held in January-February 2020 in Geneva, Switzerland.

“Sombath’s case is emblematic of the pervasive culture of impunity for human rights violations in Laos and the climate of fear that has been gripping local civil society. The international community must continue to press the Lao government to deliver justice for Sombath and his family and hold those responsible for his enforced disappearance accountable.” Debbie Stothard., FIDH Secretary-General

In January 2015, 10 UN member states (Australia, Canada, Finland, Germany, Luxembourg, Poland, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK) recommended the Lao government conduct an adequate investigation into Sombath Somphone’s enforced disappearance.

In July 2018, the government said it had been “trying very hard” to investigate Sombath’s disappearance. However, this statement has been contradicted by the government’s ongoing refusal to accept international assistance in conducting the probe and to provide any details about the progress of its investigation.

Sombath Somphone was last seen on the evening of 15 December 2012 in Vientiane. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage showed that police stopped Sombath’s car at a police post. Within minutes after being stopped, unknown individuals forced him into another vehicle and drove away. Analysis of the CCTV footage showed that Sombath was taken away in the presence of police officers, a fact that supports a finding of government complicity.

“The UPR represents a rare opportunity for all UN member states to engage the Lao government on human rights issues. The international community should be relentless in its calls on the Lao government to address the serious and systematic human rights violations that continue to occur in the country.” Vanida Thephsouvanh, LMHR President

The joint FIDH-LMHR submission focuses on the following human rights issues in Laos since the second UPR cycle, which began in January 2015: freedom of opinion and expression; freedom of peaceful assembly; freedom of association; enforced disappearances; torture; prison conditions; freedom of religion or belief; the right to participate in the design and implementation of infrastructure and investment projects; and the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs.

UN Special Rapporteur speaks out for Sombath

76. The Government should finally allow a meaningful investigation of the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a widely admired civil society leader, last seen getting into a vehicle after being stopped at a police checkpoint in 2012.

91. Allowing civil rights sores to fester is not in anyone’s interests. The Government should demonstrate good faith by inviting the Working Group on enforced disappearances to investigate cases including that of Sombath Somphone, and it should remedy the injustices suffered by the Sekong Province detainees.

From the final report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights .

AEPF Calls on EU and UK for action, not just words

The Lao government’s continued silence and obfuscation of the facts around Sombath’s enforced disappearance have subjected his family to six years of fear and uncertainty over his fate and whereabouts, which remain unknown to this day.

European development partners have committed approximately USD 550 million in support of the implementation of the Government’s 8th NSEDP (2016-2020). This represents over 30 percent of all the ODA received by the Lao Government to date. Nearly all of the European ODA is provided in grants.

…it would appear that the ODA support given by the EU and other donors continues and that formally there have not been moves to suspend or change the flow of ODA in spite of human rights abuses by the Lao PDR.

…as a member of the multi-lateral institutions, including The European Union, that are donors to Laos, The United Kingdom should actively engage in, and if necessary initiate, discussions to suspend the flow of ODA to the Lao PDR.

Excerpts from letter to the Rt. Hon. Mark Field, Member of UK Parliament, from Andy Rutherford, member of International Organising Committee, Asia Europe People’s Forum

“If he can disappear, you can too. Keep quiet.”

The second issue is the situation of civil society, again which I take as illustrative. In general, the government assumes that civil society is an extension of itself. In other words, it is there to implement its own policies. It is not there to provide any independent analysis. It is not there to stimulate reflection, discussion, consultation, participation.

And the result is that there is actually an extraordinary amount of fear throughout the society, in terms of free expression.

But this is something of a paradox that I want to mention. It is true from what I know that large numbers of people are not prosecuted for political crimes. They are not imprisoned, they are not tortured, and this is impressive.

What explains it, however, as far as I can tell, is that the government builds upon the particularities of the Lao personality, the Lao culture, and uses very particular examples to send a message that resonates widely through the society.

So you pick on a particular civil society leader, and you disappear him, and you say no more. The message is loud and clear. This man, Somphone, was preaching a very, I shouldn’t say it…now because he was clearly a very inspirational character, but a revolutionary, he certainly wasn’t. An anti-government man, he wasn’t, but a man who wanted to encourage consultations in accordance with Buddhist and other local traditions, he was.

So the message was, if he can disappear, you can too. Keep quiet.

From the press conference of the Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Phillip Alston, in Vientiane, 28 March 2019. Video of the full conference can be seen here, and the report and other materials are available here.

Statement of Solidarity

15th Anniversary of the Disappearance of Dr Somchai Neelapaijit

Statement of Solidarity by Shui Meng Ng (wife of Sombath Somphone, Lao PDR)

Bangkok, Thailand, 12 March 2019

Today at the 15thAnniversary of the Disappearance of Dr Somchai Neelapaijit, I stand in solidarity and in unity with Khun Angkhana Neelapijit and her family.  I stand in solidarity with you, Khun Angkhana, for your relentless and untiring struggle with the Thai court systems to get truth and justice for Somchai.  I also stand in unity with your pain; a pain that no wife, or daughter or son, should ever have to bear to have their loved one torn away from them in such an ignoble manner.  I also stand in unity with your anger against the impunity of the system of injustice that despite the evidence that was repeatedly presented, your case was dismissed based on legal loopholes designed to protect the guilty and deny justice to the victim.

As the wife of another victim of Enforced Disappearance, Sombath Somphone, of Laos, I understand what you and your family have gone through these past 15 years, for I too have to bear the same pain and indignity as you.

However, Khun Angkhana, despite all the pain and suffering you have borne over the last 15 years, you have shown the Thai people, that you will never give up.  You have over the last 15 years become a symbol of the struggle against the injustice of Enforced Disappearance, and you have become the voice for other victims of Enforced Disappearances. Not only have you extended your hand of support to Thai victims, but you have also extended your hand to me.

When Sombath Somphone disappeared on 15 December 2012, nearly 7 years ago, you reached out to me when I was in the depths of my despair and helplessness; not knowing what to do, where to turn, or even to understand what was happening, and why.  You extended your hand to me and you gave me comfort – just by sitting with me and holding my hands. I think nobody can really understand what that means unless you are also a victim of such a heinous crime.

When I look around me and see the other family members of Enforced Disappearance, I am once more enraged by the lack of justice for the victims and families of Enforced Disappearance.  I am angry that state impunity against such crimes can continue unabated in our countries in such a callous manner.  We ordinary citizens expect our governments and institutions to protect us, not act against us.  And yet we are made to feel that we are the “criminals”, or our disappeared loved ones are on the wrong side of the law.

Let’s see what our disappeared loved ones have done, and what laws have they broken?  Who is Somchai Neelapaijit? Who is Sombath Somphone? Who is Billy and the others here today?

Somchai Neelapaijit is a well-known muslim lawyer and human rights defender; he was defending the legal rights of the muslims in Southern Thailand, and he was actively advocating the Thai state agencies to end torture when he was disappeared.

Sombath Somphone is a respected community development worker and a vocal advocate for environmental protection, and land rights for the poor in Laos.

And Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, is a prominent Karen rights activist, fighting for the rights of the Karen minority to have access and protection of their ancestral forestlands and resources.

So are people like Somchi, Sombath, and Billy criminals?  Or are they just people with a social conscience standing up for and defending the rights of those who have no voice in their own communities?

That is the crime of injustice of Enforced Disappearance, and that is why we the family members of the Disappeared must continue to speak up, to get truth and justice for our loved ones as well as for all other victims of Enforced Disppearances in our own countries and beyond.

Today we are here to remind everyone it has been 15 years since Somchai Neelapaijit has been disappeared, and it has been 15 years that Khun Ankhana Neelapaijit has been fighting for truth and justice for him.  It is time to give truth and justice to Somchai Neelapaijit; and it is time to give closure to Khun Angkhana and her family.

We urge you all here today to stand with us the victims; don’t stand with the perpetrators. Help bring our loved ones back to our families”

Laos: EU must demand government address key issues during human rights dialogue

FIDH: 07 March 2019

(Paris) The European Union (EU) must demand the Lao government release detained government critics, investigate all cases of enforced disappearances, and provide adequate compensation to victims of land confiscation and survivors of a recent dam disaster, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today. FIDH and LMHR made the call on the occasion of the 9th EU-Laos human rights dialogue, which is held in Vientiane today. In conjunction with their call, the two organizations released a briefing paper that provides an update on the human rights situation in Laos since the previous dialogue, held in March 2018 in Vientiane, Laos. The briefing paper documents developments on the following issues: 1) arbitrary detentions; 2) enforced disappearances; 3) violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief; 4) the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam disaster; and 5) land rights

The consistent lack of progress on human rights in Laos should compel Brussels to be more vocal in its interactions with the government. The EU should obtain concrete commitments from the Lao government, such as the immediate and unconditional release of all those subjected to politically-motivated detentions. The EU should not fall into the trap of allowing the Lao government to downgrade the dialogue into an empty ritual.” Debbie Stothard, FIDH Secretary-General

At least 14 political prisoners remain incarcerated across the country. They include: Somphone Phimmasone, Soukan Chaithad, and Lodkham Thammavong, who are serving prison sentences of up to 20 years for their peaceful criticism of the government in relation to alleged corruption, deforestation, and human rights violations; pro-democracy activist Bounthanh Thammavong, a Laos-born Polish citizen, who is serving a four-year-and-nine-month prison sentence for a Facebook post in which he criticized the government’s policies and actions; and 10 villagers in Ban Yeup, Thateng District, Sekong Province, detained without trial since July 2017 for cutting down rubber trees to protest land confiscation. With regard to enforced disappearances, the fate or whereabouts of at least 14 individuals remain unknown. The 14 include: civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who disappeared in Vientiane in December 2012; two women, Kingkeo Phongsely and Somchit, and seven men, Soubinh, Souane, Sinpasong, Khamsone, Nou, Somkhit, and Sourigna, who were detained by security forces In November 2009; Somphone Khantisouk, the owner of an eco-tourism business, who was abducted in Luang Namtha Province in January 2017; and Ittiphon Sukpaen, Wuthipong Kachathamakul, and Surachai Danwattananusorn, three Thai monarchy critics living in exile in Laos who disappeared in June 2016, July 2017, and December 2018 respectively. Lao authorities have failed to conduct effective and impartial investigations into all of these cases.

The collapse of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam in Attapeu Province in July 2018 exposed the government’s slow, inadequate, and non-transparent response to the disaster. Despite the apparent severity and magnitude of the disaster, the government immediately sought to downplay the death toll and tried to block independent reporting about the disaster. In late January 2019, authorities eventually revealed that 49 people had been confirmed dead and 22 were still missing. However, activists and local villagers believe the death toll could be significantly higher, as the fate of hundreds of residents remains undetermined. Compensation and assistance awarded to survivors and families of the victims of the dam collapse has been thoroughly inadequate. In addition, despite the formation of two government-appointed investigation committees, no accountability for the disaster has yet been established. Reports also emerged of a lack of transparency and potential corruption on the part of the authorities in connection with the relief effort, particularly in relation to the procurement and construction of ‘temporary houses’ for survivors.

“The Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam collapse shows that investment and infrastructure projects in Laos can often have disastrous consequences for local communities because of the government’s lack of transparency and accountability. Until Vientiane takes bold steps towards key institutional and legal reforms, the EU and its member states should carefully reconsider their economic involvement in Laos.” Vanida Thephsouvanh, LMHR President

Concerns also remain over the ongoing lack of compensation for communities whose land has been confiscated by the authorities to make way for the construction of the 417km high-speed railway connecting the Laos-China border town of Boten to Vientiane. In November 2018, it was reported that 94% of the land required for the railway had been acquired and that the project was more than 40% complete. However, as of January 2019 – more than two years after the start of the project – many of the 4,400 families affected by the railway construction had not received compensation for their loss of land, livelihood, and income.

Enforced Disappearance, Injustice and Silence:  We Have Not Forgotten Sombath Somphone

We can’t believe it has been 6 years already since the day Sombath Somphone was enforced disappeared. The days have gone by so quickly yet the pain and wait remain the same for the family and friends as if the days have not gone by.

Memories and CCTV footages of the day Sombath Somphone was enforced disappeared 6 years ago showed the authority and the police were clearly involved in the incident. Six years later, the Lao government has shown no progress in the investigation and brought no one to be responsible.

We can’t believe that Sombath Somphone, who once contributed so much to the Lao society and development for over 30 years, would be the name the Lao government tries to forget.

Uncle Bath, a prominent senior development worker, is renowned and respected by the civil society and development workers across Lao, ASEAN and the globe. Uncle Bath’s humble leadership was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005 and many others by international organizations. His fruitful contribution to PADETC was recognized by the ESCAP Human Resources Development Award, given by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP) in 2001. Anyone who has worked with Uncle Bath would recognize his charisma.

For what Sombath Somphone has done all his life, it will not be that easy for the world to forget Sombath Somphone regardless of the the prolonged enforced disappearance and the Lao government’s silence and attempt to erase Sombath Somphone’s name. As time passes, his name slowly becomes a symbol of the Lao government’s mistake and failure.

We, the young adults and youth of the Mekong Region, demand the Lao government to promptly resolved this issue for the Lao people and youth. It is time to free us from fear and doubts on the Lao government’s involvement in the enforced disappearance of our beloved uncle Sombath Somphone 6 years ago.

We hope Uncle Bath is still alive and will soon return to his family. We hope he will spend the rest of his life with those he loves and love him. Uncle Bath shall be the symbol of integrity and happiness for the Lao people, towards a path of development based on the Gross National Happiness (GNH).

End enforced disappearance for peace in the Mekong Region
Sombath Somphone & Beyond Project

Six years on, civil society worldwide demands answers to the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone

FIDH: 14 December 2018

14 December 2018: On the eve of the sixth anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, we, the undersigned organizations, reiterate our calls for the Lao government to conduct an independent, impartial and effective investigation to reveal his fate and whereabouts. Continue reading “Six years on, civil society worldwide demands answers to the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone”

Declaration of AEPF 12

We should be reminded that while concerns [regarding Sombath’s dissappearance) continue to be raised in the confines of the Universal Periodic Review and similar human rights dialogues, the policies and programmes of governments, donors, regional development banks and development agencies remain largely unaltered.

People’s Agenda for ASEM Parliamentarians

Final Declaration from The Asia Europe People’s Forum 12, Ghent, Belgium 1st October 2018

https://www.aepf.info/aepf-12-statement

The People’s Agenda for ASEM Parliamentarians is an expression of the visions and demands of over 425 women and men who are citizens from diverse backgrounds, representing people’sorganisations from over 48 countries across Asia and Europe joined together to work for a Just, Equal and Inclusive Asia and Europe. We met in the Asia Europe People’s Forum12 in Ghent, Belgium between 29th September and 1st October 2018 ahead of ASEM12.

We are linked and brought together through the Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF). The AEPF is a strategic civil society gathering of Asian and European social movements, non-governmental organisations and campaign networks that are confronting poverty and inequality and working for social, economic and climate justice.

We are committed to promoting, consolidating and strengthening engagement with ASEM governments’ leaders, parliamentarians and related regional bodies and enabling people’svoices to be shared and heard.

We are committed to working in constructive ways with the governments who are members of ASEM to implement people-centred responses to the current crises in an effective and responsible manner.

We believe that priority must be given to poor, excluded and marginalised people and more democratic and accountable institutions must be in place to assure that processes and measures will lead to a just, equal, inclusive and sustainable Asia and Europe based on respect for gender equality and the promotion and protection of human, economic and socio-cultural rights, environmental security and the protection of our Commons.

Continue reading “Declaration of AEPF 12”