If Lao officials think the issue of Sombath’s disappearance will go away, they are wrong.
Those were the words of Tuur Elzinga, a Dutch Senator who led the European Delegation to Vientiane last month. And there is plenty of evidence to support Tuur Elzinga’s statement at the website created to raise awareness of the disappearance of Sombath Somphone.
The website at https://sombath.org has now been viewed more than 100,000 times. Citizens from more than 140 countries have visited the site since it was launched in January this year, less than a month after Sombath was abducted outside a police post in Vientiane.
The site has attracted a strong interest from the Lao community at home and abroad, with approximately 25% of visitors living in Laos and another 25% in the United States. Other countries in the top 10 are: Thailand, Australia, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Canada, Singapore and Switzerland.
The plight of the most prominent figure in Lao civil society has also attracted attention from dozens of other countries, from India to Iceland, Japan to Jamaica, and Vietnam to Venezuela.
The content of the site continues to expand and now has links to more than 100 news articles and statements of concern. Also on the rise is the number of subscribers, with more than 1,400 people currently receiving updates by email or through Facebook and Twitter.
One of the recent additions to the site was a Statement from John Kerry, US
Secretary of State:
Regrettably, the continuing, unexplained disappearance of Mr. Sombath, a widely respected and inspiring Lao citizen who has worked for the greater benefit of all of his countrymen, raises questions about the Lao government’s commitment to the rule of law and to engage responsibly with the world.
The Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacy (SAPA) working group for ASEAN released a message during an event held in front of the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs on April 12th. The statement calls on the leaders of ASEAN to put enforced disappearances on the agenda of their upcoming summit:
On April 24 and 25, these ASEAN leaders will gather in Brunei under the theme of “Our People, Our Future Together.” But how can we invest our future in an ASEAN where peoples’ basic rights are continuously ignored and violated, a community where people are abducted and forced to disappear? We cannot be part of this. If ASEAN wants us to be part of this community then they should put the interests of the people above everything else. They should respect and uphold basic human rights.
The entire statement can be read here. A related letter from the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs can be read here. A video of the event can be seen here.
The event was organized by Focus on the Global South, Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), and Families of Victims of Involuntary Disappearances (FIND).
Those who assert there is little civil society in the Lao PDR (Laos) have apparently never attended a celebration or festival in the country. Nor have they given due consideration to the staggering diversity of ethnicity and cultures, and the myriad and dynamic ways Lao communities have for centuries dealt with food shortages, natural disasters, and management and sharing of natural resources. Inside Laos, the current elite also seems to have forgotten that it was this same ability to organise and cope in the face of diverse, changing conditions that fed and sheltered the revolutionary struggle.
But if one were to put a face to those aspects of Lao civil society more recognized at the national and international levels, it would be that of Sombath Somphone.
Sombath grew up in rural Laos as the eldest child of a farming family. Passion, determination and a keen intellect led him through education at local, national and international institutions to obtain a BA in Education and an MA in Agriculture. While thousands of others were still fleeing Laos after the country gained independence in 1975, Sombath returned to work with the new government and his compatriots. Over the next three decades Sombath worked with remarkable persistence and humility to promote sustainable agriculture, participatory development and learner-centred education.
In 2005, he received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership for “…his hopeful efforts to promote sustainable development in Laos by training and motivating its young people to become a generation of leaders.” Sombath is one of only two Lao citizens to receive this award, often called Asia’s Nobel Prize, in its 55-year history. A practicing Buddhist, Sombath advocates a holistic approach to living, guided by respect for nature, compassion and honesty.
On the evening of December 15, 2012, Sombath Somphone was abducted at a major street in Vientiane after being stopped by the police. Recorded by a CCTV camera, the abduction shocked people inside the country and across the world. The abduction itself as well as the government’s responses, continue to raise many troubling questions and paint the Lao government in very poor light. Continue reading “Where is Sombath Somphone?”
On December 15th 2012 Sombath Somphone disappeared, taken away in a truck by unknown persons after being stopped by police in the Lao capital, Vientiane. Nobody has seen or heard from him since.Today, March 25th 2013, is the 100th day since Sombath’s disappearance.
Despite sustained appeals from many hundreds of individuals and organizations and widespread, ongoing media coverage, the Lao government has yet to conduct a satisfactory investigation into Sombath’s disappearance or provided any explanation for his abduction. There have been repeated enquiries through diplomatic channels and two delegations of parliamentarians to Laos, one from ASEAN and one from Europe.
On the 6th February 2013 the European Parliament unanimously passed a resolution on ‘Laos: the case of Sombath Somphone’. The resolution formally calls on the EU to include Laos and the case of Sombath Somphone in its priorities for forthcoming sessions of the UN Human Rights Council.
In the absence of the safe return of Sombath to his family, many organisations and institutions and bodies outside Laos, are committed to beginning a new phase of international activity. The members of the International Organising Committee of the Asia Europe People’s Forum are committed to this new phase of activity. There is a deep commitment that from today until Sombath is safely returned to his family that the continuing disappearance of Sombath would begin to preface or even dominate bi-lateral, multi-lateral and international discussions with and about Laos.
This could happen with discussion at the WTO, with the Asia Development Bank, at the UN Human Rights Council to name but a few instances. Even, if it is still necessary, in due course it could influence discussions about Lao PDR’s graduation from LDC status.
Whilst Sombath has not returned safely to his family, there will be a growing negative effect on foreign engagement and foreign investment in Laos at a time where Laos is deeply committed to developing stronger ties and links. In 2013 there is now a very real possibility that the credibility of Laos will be deeply tarnished with significant negative effects whilst Sombath is not returned safely to his family.
In addition to Sombath’s disappearance there are also concerns that there is an increasing perception that the ‘spaces’ for dialogue, discussion and debate on how to achieve more sustainable economic and social development in Laos are becoming constricted. The climate of positive and constructive dialogue that was a part of AEPF9 is felt to have dissipated. This is of great concern and there is a call for positive measures and actions to be taken by the Lao Government to enable a secure environment that encourages learning and reflection and provides space for open, respectful, diverse and constructive debate for people committed to Sustainable Development in Laos.
Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
March 24, 2013 2013/0338
STATEMENT BY SECRETARY KERRY
100 Days since the Disappearance of Lao Civil Society Leader Sombath Somphone
Today marks the 100th day since the disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, a respected individual known for his work with non-governmental organizations, the government, and the international community. Video footage suggests that Mr. Sombath may have been abducted from a police checkpoint in the capital city of Vientiane. The United States shares the international community’s serious concerns about Mr. Sombath’s safety and well-being. We call on the Lao government to do everything in its power to account for his disappearance without further delay. We are concerned at the lack of significant information we have received from the Lao government about Mr. Sombath’s case, despite our offers to assist with the investigation and numerous expressions of concern about Mr. Sombath’s welfare.
Mr. Sombath’s disappearance resurrects memories of an earlier era when unexplained disappearances were common. We note that Laos has taken steps in recent years to become a responsible partner in the community of nations, including its accession to the World Trade Organization and its hosting of the Asia-Europe Summit Meeting last November. Regrettably, the continuing, unexplained disappearance of Mr. Sombath, a widely respected and inspiring Lao citizen who has worked for the greater benefit of all of his countrymen, raises questions about the Lao government’s commitment to the rule of law and to engage responsibly with the world.
We join with countless organizations, governments, journalists and concerned citizens around the world in demanding answers to Mr. Sombath’s disappearance and urging his immediate return home.
The International Oganising Committee of the Asia Europe People’s Forum has issued a statement saying that due to the disappearance of Sombath Somphone and other recent developments “the legacy of the AEPF9 in Laos is in great jeopardy”
The 9th Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF9) took place from 16 to 19 October 2012 in Vientiane. Sombath Somphone was the co-chair of the Lao National Organising Committee and a key note speaker during the Opening Day. He also facilitated the production of the highly acclaimed ‘Happy Laos’ film which was shown at the closing of the Forum.
The AEPF in Vientiane was initially deemed a success, but subsequent events have led to a reassessment by the Internal Organising Committee (IOC). The latest statement by the IOC identifies four developments in Laos:
The ‘disappearance’ of Sombath Somphone on December 15th 2012
The expulsion of Anne-Sophie Grindroz, the Country Director of Helvetas.
An increasing perception that the ‘spaces’ for dialogue, discussion and debate on how to achieve more sustainable economic and social development in Laos are becoming constricted.
An increasing number of reports of harassment at the local level of participants in the AEPF9 who have been taking forward initiatives to promote sustainable development.
Due to these developments, the IOC is now of the view that…
The lived reality for many people in Laos today is in sharp contrast to the rhetoric of the Vientiane Declaration on Strengthening Partnership for Peace and Development agreed at the end of ASEM9.
The IOC statement concludes by calling upon the Government of Laos to sincerely and accountably take forward their commitments to enable space for open, respectful, diverse and constructive debate.
Press Statement by the European Delegation, 9th March 2013
A European Delegation was in the Lao Capital, Vientiane from the 6th to 9th of March 2013 to express their grave concern that Sombath Somphone, highly respected member of Lao civil society, has still not returned safely to his family. Sombath disappeared on the 15th December 2012, taken away in a truck by unknown persons after being stopped by police in Vientiane. Nobody has seen or heard from him since.
The Delegation formally presented to the Lao National Assembly and the Vice Foreign Minister of the Lao PDR the European Parliament Resolution on ‘Laos: the case of Sombath Somphone’, unanimously adopted on 6th February 2013.
Dutch Senator and Delegation leader Tuur Elzinga stressed that the delegation strongly felt that it was within the capacities of the Lao Government to ensure Sombath’s safe return to his family and that it is therefore essential that appropriate actions are prioritised.
He also stressed that for every day that passes without Sombath’s safe return to his family, the credibility of Laos weakens.
The 8th of March 2012 is the 83rd day since Sombath’s disappearance and for many organisations a 100 days is a time for reflection and taking stock on progress. If no positive result has been achieved a new phase of international activity will inevitably be entered as the European Parliament resolution formally calls on the EU to include Laos and the case of Sombath Somphone in its priorities for forthcoming sessions of the UN Human Rights Council. The year 2012 started a positive year for Laos’ credibility, both nationally and internationally, hosting the ASEM9 Summit and entering the WTO. Unfortunately this credibility is now at stake.
Senator Elzinga: ‘If Lao officials think the issue of Sombath’s disappearance will go away, they are wrong. It will be the first item on any agenda in bi-lateral, multi-lateral and international discussions with and about Laos, until Sombath is safely returned to his family’.
Representative of the Government of the Lao PDR, the Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Alounkeo Kittikhoun
The Vice President of The National Assembly of the Lao PDR, Mr.Somphanh Phengkhammy and members of the National Assembly including Mr. Onsy Saensouk, Vice Chair of National Assembly Committee for Security and National Defence , Mr. Kisinh Sinphanngam Vice Chair and the National Assembly Law Committee and Mr. Khongsy Sisengdeuane, Deputy Permanent Secretary.
The Chargé d’Affaires, Head, of the European Delegation in Laos and Ambassadors from European Union member states in Laos
Representatives from Lao development organisations
Representatives from International NGOs based in Laos
Ng Shui-Meng, the wife of Sombath Somphone
Note for press:
Tuur Elzinga, Senator (for the Socialist Party) in the Dutch Parliament and member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
Elzinga was accompanied by Andy Rutherford, a representative of the International Organising Committee of the Asia Europe People’s Forum (AEPF), who had worked closely with Sombath in the preparations for and organising of the AEPF9 that took place in Vientiane between 16th and 19th October 2012 in the weeks before ASEM9.
Photo shows Senator Tuur Elzinga formally presenting the unanimously agreed Resolution of the 6th February 2013 of the European Parliament on ‘Laos: the case of Sombath Somphone’ to the Lao National Assembly. Vientiane, Laos Thursday 7th March 2013
(Bangkok, February 19, 2013) – Lao authorities have failed to provide information on leading social activist Sombath Somphone since his apparent enforced disappearance in December 2012, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its human rights commission should intervene in the case with the Lao authorities, who have denied detaining Sombath, and who have not reported his fate or location, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Lao government’s long silence about Sombath Somphone’s whereabouts increase 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.”
There is strong evidence that Sombath, a prominent 60-year-old social activist who received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005, was forcibly disappeared by Laotian authorities in Vientiane, the capital, 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 6 p.m. near the police post on Thadeua Road (KM 3) 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 6:03 p.m. 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.
On December 19, the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement confirming the incidents as recorded on the security camera, but claimed he was kidnapped for personal or business reasons. Lao authorities have told Sombath’s family, foreign diplomats, United Nations agencies, and civil society groups across Asia that they have been investigating the case. But to date, they have provided no information on Sombath’s whereabouts, his fate, or who was responsible for his enforced disappearance, Human Rights Watch said.
“Lao authorities have not answered the simplest questions about this case, such as why, if Sombath was kidnapped, did the police at the scene do nothing to protect him,” Adams said. “The absence of any real investigation points to the government’s responsibility.”
Enforced disappearances are defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the fate or whereabouts of the person.
Enforced disappearances violate or threaten to violate a range of fundamental human rights protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Laos is a party, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and extrajudicial execution.
Laos is one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in September 2008. As a signatory, Laos is obligated under international law to refrain from acts that would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty.
Members of ASEAN, to which Laos belongs, should publicly raise their concerns about Sombath’s enforced disappearance, Human Rights Watch said. On February 19, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the commissioners of the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), calling for them to investigate the case. AICHR’s Terms of Reference provides the commission the right “to obtain information from ASEAN Member States on the promotion and protection of human rights.”
“Sombath’s disappearance is a major test for ASEAN and its human rights commission,” Adams said. “ASEAN’s silence in Sombath’s case reflects a deeply rooted lack of credibility in protecting the basic rights of people in Southeast Asia.”
The latest letter from Human Rights Watch to the Lao Government can be downloaded here.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr today held talks with Deputy Prime Minister and
Foreign Minister Dr Thongloun Sisoulith of Laos, in Vientiane. After the meeting, Bob Carr confirmed via Twitter that he had expressed concern about the case of Sombath Somphone during his meeting.