Asean Urged to Step in over Missing Activist

The Nation: 21 February 2013

Asean and its human rights body were urged to intervene in the disappearance of Lao social activist Sombath Somphone amid the failure of the authorities in Vientiane to trace his whereabouts.

File photo : Sombath

The Lao government’s long silence about Sombath’s whereabouts are increasing 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,” he said

There is strong evidence of the role of Laotian authorities into the disappearance of Sombath, a prominent 60-year-old social activist who received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005, 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 6pm near the police post on Thadeua Road 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 6:03pm.

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. “It’s been incredibly frustrating to not have more visibility into the progress of the investigation,” Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, told AFP by telephone from Vientiane after talks with the Lao vice foreign minister.

“I was assured that they are investigating – that’s what the vice minister told me – but I made sure that he understood that not having more information is not helpful,” Baer said, expressing disappointment that he was unable to meet any officials from the ministry of public security.

The campaigner won the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership for his work in poverty reduction and sustainable development in a country that remains one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations.

The secretive one-party communist state – which exerts total control over the media and does not tolerate criticism – has in recent years gradually given local civil society groups more room to operate.

But Sombath’s disappearance has sent jitters through the activist network.

“There’s no question that it’s had a chilling effect,” Baer said.

“For as long as the case remains unresolved and Sombath doesn’t come home to his wife, the international community as well as many people here who know and love him will continue to ask questions,” he added.

Urgent Appeal of Parliamentarians across Asia and Europe

Urgent Appeal of Parliamentarians across Asia and Europe for Mr. Sombath Somphone

 February 5, 2013

His Excellency
Thongsing Thammavong
Prime Minister
People’s Democratic Republic of Laos

Dear Excellency,

Re: Request urgent investigation into the disappearance of Mr. Sombath Somphone

We, members of parliament across  Asia and Europe, write to you deeply concerned about the safety and well-being of Mr. Sombath Somphone one of the most prominent Lao co-organizers of the Asia Europe People’s Forum 9, the founder and former Director of PADETC and one of the most respected and influential voices for sustainable people-centred and just economic and social development in Laos as well as in Asia.

Mr. Sombath Somphone has been missing since about 5 pm on Saturday December 15th 2012. His wife and colleagues last saw Mr. Sombath Somphone on December 15 at 5 pm when he left the PADETC office in Vientiane to go home.  He left the office in his own car; his wife was in another car.  He did not reach home and his family has had no news from or about him since then.

We are concerned about his safety, his state of health and his well-being.

We are aware that the International Organising Committee of the Asia Europe People’s Forum has worked intensively with Mr. Sombath Somphone over the last year. His contribution to the successful Asia Europe People’s Forum 9 in Vientiane on the 16-19 October was extremely significant, widely recognized and deeply respected.  In addition he is a highly respected educationalist, inspiration for sustainable development and a recipient of the prestigious international Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005.  He has dedicated his life to sustainable development and poverty reduction in the Lao PDR, and has contributed positively to numerous international processes, including the AEPF9. Mr. Sombath is an inspiration to development practitioners all over the world.

We are deeply concerned for Mr. Sombath’s safety and well-being and his disappearance is cause for great alarm.

We urge the Lao Government to immediately and urgently initiate an investigation into Mr. Sombath’s disappearance.  And, we call on the government to undertake all actions necessary to ensure his immediate safe return to his family.

Yours sincerely,

SIGNATURES Continue reading “Urgent Appeal of Parliamentarians across Asia and Europe”

Sombath Somphone & Beyond: Human Rights Violation in the Mekong Region and Its Impacts on Mekong Youth

(A Thai PBS news report on this event is available here.)

Music for Peace and Mekong Youth Discussion 
Tuesday, February 5, 2013, 15.00-19.30pm 
Pridi Banomyong Park, Thammasart University (Main campus)

sombath_music for peace (2)It has been a month and a half since December 15, 2012 when Sombath Somphone, a renowned Laos civil society leader went missing. Even with an important evident from street’s CCTV where Sombath was last seen in Vientiane, the Laos capital showing that he was stopped by the traffic police and being taken by a group of men, there is still no clear explanation of what really happened to him and where he is. The whole world keeps asking the same question, “Where is Sombath?” to the Laos government and the movement to ask for the safe return of Sombath has become the global action.

Sombath Somphone has been one of the key supporters to youth network, both in Laos and Mekong region. The human Rights violation to Sombath is therefore consider a major destructive matter that weakens not only the human rights standard of Mekong and ASEAN region, but also the future of youth movement. Yet, the similar human rights violation has still going on in the Mekong region. According to a report of Justice for Peace Foundation, there are more than 200 citizens went missing in relate to the conflict in three southern provinces of Thailand.With and without the report to the eye of public, such violation also going on in other Mekong countries in China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in different forms.

The youth network believe that such violation to basic human’s right and humanity of people in our countries should be ended, and believe that everyone, especially the young generation, should take part in questioning and bringing significant change to create a more peaceful society for our better future.English Schedule_2-1

On February 5, 2013, Thailand’s youth groups, NGOs and academic alliances, together with Mekong youth network will co-organize the Music for Peace and Mekong Youth Discussion under title “Sombath Somphone& Beyond: Human Rights Violation in the Mekong Region and Its Impacts on Mekong Youth in Thammasart University (main campus). This event, combining between the youth discussion, music and exhibition by numbers of professional musicians and representative from Mekong youths,aims to bring the message of peace, love, and harmony among Mekong countries to the citizens of the region and to invigorate young Mekong peace-builders. The event also aims to collect the sign-on petition and messages that will be pass on to relevant groups for Sombath’s safely return. Let us work together to encourage our advocates, young and experienced, to overcome such fear and violence and create a real peaceful society for all.

For more information, please contact;

  • Ms. Jaruwan Supholrai, Thai Volunteer Service Foundation

      Tel: 08 1072 2714    Email: [email protected]

  • Ms.Saksinee Emasiri, Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University,

      Tel: 08 5212 1980 Email: [email protected]

Disappearance of Sombath Somphone: Time for Intervention by ASEAN?

By Tan Kwoh Jack

No. 014/2013 dated 24 January 2013. This is from the RSIS Commentaries are intended to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy relevant background and analysis of contemporary developments. S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU  to see the original go here

Synopsis

The disappearance of prominent Lao activist Sombath Somphone is garnering regional and international attention. With the signing of the ASEAN Human Rights Charter it is in the interest of ASEAN countries to engage more actively on the issue.

Commentary

ON 15 December 2012, the prominent Lao public intellectual Sombath Somphone mysteriously “disappeared”. Closed-circuit video footage released by the Lao authorities showed uniformed personnel in Vientiane stopping Sombath’s car before taking him away. Analysts believe that his disappearance is connected to his activist work in sustainable development, and that elements within the Lao government may be responsible for this incident. Sombath’s disappearance has garnered regional and international attention in the past month: three Members of Parliaments from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines: Charles Santiago, Lily Wahid and Walden Bello made a special three-day trip to Vientiane to seek some answers from the Lao government. During the press conference in Bangkok afterwards, they rebuked the Lao administration for lacking in political will to resolve the issue. Consequently, they plan to collect the signatures of MPs in every ASEAN country to increase pressure on the Lao government. They will also be submitting a report to the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights. Singaporean link The US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is the latest and most prominent politician to publicly comment on the issue, calling on the Lao government to pursue a “transparent investigation”, and to “do everything in its power” to obtain Sombath’s return. Besides the MPs of the three countries other ASEAN members including Singapore might want to pay attention to this case. Sombath’s wife, Ng Shui Meng is a Singapore national. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said it is rendering consular assistance to Ms Ng. Sombath shares with Singapore an active interest in strengthening sustainable development as one of ASEAN’s key objectives and has made significant contributions in this area. The US- educated Sombath pioneered the use of participatory methods in poverty alleviation in Laos and is a winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award – commonly referred to as the Nobel Prize of Asia.

Implications on ASEAN Human Rights Charter

With the signing of the ASEAN Human Rights Charter (AHRC) in November last year, ASEAN members may find it increasingly difficult to remain silent on issues pertaining to human rights. These issues emerging from within ASEAN will start to bring into question the efficacy of the AHRC. This suggests that ASEAN’s long- standing principle of non-interference will have to evolve into something more expressive, if not more “interventionist”.

Lao inaction on Sombath’s case may affect the credibility of the AHRC and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. Sombath’s case is a good opportunity for ASEAN members to take a collective stand and further strengthen the Charter. This will address the initial accusations made by non-government organisations that the Charter is “not worthy of its name”.

Officials may worry that any statement that an ASEAN government makes in regard to human rights, will inevitably bring to the fore its own record. This is yet another reflection of the blurring lines between the international and the domestic. For example should a country articulate a more assertive foreign policy of human rights – under the aegis of the AHRC – it may have to take on parallel positions related to civil society and liberties within the state. At times, it may even find itself having to justify its domestic policies to the other ASEAN neighbours, as Myanmar did in recent years.

A more interventionist ASEAN?

That said, Sombath’s disappearance is as much a human rights issue as one of the rule of law and due process. In recent years Singapore and Laos have ramped up bilateral economic and political relations. The air route between Singapore and Laos has re-opened, expanding tourism exponentially. Successive trade delegations have brought Singapore’s government-linked companies and private enterprises into Laos. Laos is a popular destination for Singapore volunteers engaged in community development projects. Last year, the animal rights group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society set up a research and education centre in Laos to combat the problem of Lao bear bile products being sold in Singapore. This reflects the growing endeavour of Singaporeans to undertake community projects in developing countries. All these point to the expanding presence of Singaporeans in Laos, and invariably, violations of the rule of law and due processes “over there” will, in one way or another begin to concern Singapore. At the regional level, pressures on ASEAN to take a more interventionist stance on violations of human rights will also increase with the adoption of the ASEAN Human Rights Charter.

Tan Kwoh Jack is an Associate Research Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

Lao Govt response to ASEAN delegation

Lao authorities continue to investigate Mr Sombath Somphone’s disappearance

Vientiane Times, 17 January 2013

Parliamentarians from the three Asean nations of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia visited Laos recently to meet with the relevant sectors on the issue relating to the disappearance of Mr Sombath Somphone last month.

The delegation of parliamentarians was led by Chairperson of the Philippine Parliamentary Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs Mr Walden Bello. They met with Minister and Head of the Presidential Office Mr Phongsavath Boupha, who is also chairman of the National Steering Committee on Human Rights in Vientiane on Monday.

The main aim of the visit was to meet with the relevant sectors on the issue regarding the disappearance of Mr Sombath Somphone, with the delegation calling for the Lao government to speed up the investigation process to ensure safety and justice for him and his family.

200px-Coat_of_arms_of_Laos.svgMr Phongsavath expressed his appreciation of the concerns of the delegation, but said that the Lao government was even more concerned about the issue because Mr So mbath is a Lao citizen, according to a press release issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

He said Mr Sombath used to study in America but decided to return to Laos in 1980s and played an important role in agricultural development in rural areas of Laos, contributing to the socio-economic development of the country.

Mr Phongsavath further clarified the concerns of the delegation, confirming that the Lao government was not involved in the disappearance of Mr Sombath. Continue reading “Lao Govt response to ASEAN delegation”

UK Financial Times: Laos under pressure

Laos under pressure to step up probe

Financial Times: 16 January 2013

The Lao government is coming under increased international pressure to step up its promised investigation into the disappearance of a prominent local civic leader, as concerns increase about state involvement in the case.

MPs from other Asean member countries said on Wednesday that Laos’s ruling communist party “clearly had no desire and no political will” to resolve the mystery and urged the government to extend its investigation to the top levels of Laos’s military.

This follows public expressions of concern from the US and other western governments and UN agencies over the case.

The MPs spoke ahead of an expected statement by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton urging Laos to take more action on the case. The three MPs, from the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, visited Vientiane, the Lao capital, where Sombath Somphone went missing on December 15 while driving home one evening from his office. Continue reading “UK Financial Times: Laos under pressure”

Statement of ASEAN delegation

Statement of Rep. Walden Bello on the Preliminary findings of ASEAN Parliamentary Delegation to the Lao PDR on the disappearance of Sombath Somphone

We are members of a delegation of ASEAN parliamentarians that visited the Lao Peoples’ Democratic Republic to investigate the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, the prominent Lao leader of civil society from January 13 to 15.  We went at the request of the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF)

The delegation was assembled in 10 days’ time owing to the urgency of the matter.  Despite the short notice, high officials of the Lao PDR met with us, and we are very grateful for this.  We had a very frank exchange of views in a cordial atmosphere.

We told the officials we met with that the disappearance of Sombath is an ASEAN concern because Sombath is an ASEAN figure whose work has touched the lives of many people in Lao and other countries in ASEAN.  His work on rural development was a model emulated throughout the region.  Moreover, at a time when ASEAN is coming together as a real community in the eyes of the world, his disappearance reflects badly not only on Laos but on the whole ASEAN community.

The officials we met acknowledged that the disappearance of Sombath is a blow to the reputation of the Lao PDR and that it could not have come at a worse time, coming on the heels of the country’s joining the World Trade Organization and hosting the Asia-Europe Leaders Meeting (ASEM).  They also all acknowledged that Sombat was an important civil society leader who has contributed much to Laos’ development working alongside government, with many of them saying they knew him personally.  They also noted the special responsibility of the government to solve Mr. Sombath’s disappearance since the Lao PDR has just signed the Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, being the fourth country in Asia to do so.

One of the Lao leaders we met, Mr. Phoungsavath Boupha, President of the National Committee for Human Rights in the Office of the President, acknowledged that Sombath’s disappearance is not the first case of disappearance in Laos.  He cited the case of the sister of the wife of the former ambassador of the Lao PDR to Indonesia who vanished five years ago and has not yet been found.  We stressed to the officials we met that this case shows the importance of acting swiftly to find the disappeared, for the longer he or she is not located, the greater the chances that he will no longer surface.  Continue reading “Statement of ASEAN delegation”