Australian Parliament Calls for Credible Investigation

header-logo-printOn 26 March 2014, the Australian Senate approved a motion calling on the Lao Government to:

…undertake an immediate and credible investigation of Mr Somphone’s disappearance, and willingly cooperate with the international community, including the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance.

The motion was introduced by Senator Christine Milne from Tasmania and Leader of the parliamentary caucus of the Green Party, and passed with the full support of all parties.

The full motion can be seen on the Parliament of Australia website, or in PDF format.

Continue reading “Australian Parliament Calls for Credible Investigation”

Missing Lao activist's wife speaks out, appeals for information

Radio Australia: (07 March 2014)

The wife of abducted Lao rights advocate Sombath Somphone has called on Australia to help maintain the pressure on Laos to do more to resolve the case.

Since Mr Sombath disappeared 15 months ago, Ng Shui Meng has campaigned tirelessly to find out what happened.

Her husband’s disappearance from a police post in central Vientiane generated an international outcry by donor governments, rights groups and NGOs for his safe return.

The Lao government says it is continujng to pursue the case, but little progress has been reported.

Ng Shui Meng has also appealed for anyone in Laos with information to come forward.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Ng Shui Meng, wife of Sombath Somphone, retired academic and former UNICEF representative to East Timor

NG: The reason why I’ve accepted to speak on Sombath is that over the last 15 months, there were a lot of reports on Sombath, some of them were not very accurate in depicting the kind of person he is or the kind of work he has done. So I want to put right what Sombath’s work is and the kind of person he is basically to clarify things to the public out there. As to going back to Laos, I have not done anything wrong and assume the government would understand that my speaking about Sombath’s disappearance is basically about a fact. He has disappeared, the government has acknowledged that he has disappeared and the government has also promised to conduct an investigation around his disappearance and to try and find him. Continue reading “Missing Lao activist's wife speaks out, appeals for information”

Why a Missing Lao Activist Should Concern Us All

New Matilda: 11 September 2013

By Kearrin Sims and James Arvanitakis

S-somphoneIf Australia wants to show leadership within Asia, drawing attention to the disappearance of activist Sombath Somphone is a good place to start, write Kearrin Sims and James Arvanitakis

In February 2013, there was much fanfare when Laos became the 158th member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This was a big step for the  country, and the free trade model of economic development was again celebrated as providing a pathway to membership in the global community, improved living standards and a general decline in poverty. However, amidst these celebrations many both within and outside the country were pre-occupied with the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, an internationally recognised Laotian community rights activist. Just who Sombath was and why his disappearance is so important, both as an individual and as a representative of his country, goes to the core of the failings of neoliberalism as a model for development. It highlights that without a conscious effort to improve human rights and equality, economic development will make some very rich while leaving the majority of the population behind. This is not a model for long-term stability. Continue reading “Why a Missing Lao Activist Should Concern Us All”

Scholars voice support for missing Lao activist

ABC Radio Australia: 23 July 2013 (Please click link for audio version)

(Bahasa Indonesia)

More than 40 scholars from Australia’s leading universities have banded together to call on Canberra to take a tougher stand with authorities in Laos over the disappearance of the country’s best known community leader.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Keith Barney, Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy.

BARNEY: No there is no new information, the families and those closest to the case indicate that there’s no new details with the investigation. Sombath’s family have called the police investigation superficial, and the Lao government has refused international offers of technical assistance with the investigation, for example with examining the original camera footage. So there does not seem to be the political will within Laos to seriously investigate the abduction.

LAM: And Keith Barney you and of course with your colleagues, you’re all calling on the Australian government to do more. What exactly do you expect of Canberra?

BARNEY: Well in relation to our concerned scholars letter, we received a reply from Senator Carr on June 21st and Bob Carr responded to questions raised by Senator Lee Rhiannon in the June senate estimate hearing, and in his letter Carr explained that he had personally raised Sombath’s case with his Lao counterparts, particularly the Lao Prime Minister and the Foreign Affairs Minister. And he mentioned the human rights dialogues with Laos that Australia engages in the latest being in April 2012. However in response to our request for a more formal public statement by the Australian government, in his letter Carr referred back to the senate estimate transcripts and in the transcripts it was stated that the request to issue a formal statement at the highest level would be taken on notice. So it seems as though the department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is being a bit circular in their response to date to our letter. Continue reading “Scholars voice support for missing Lao activist”

Scholars call for Sombath probe

The Age: 22 July 2013   Marika Dobin

Footage of the scene of activist Sombath Somphone's abduction in December.
Footage of the scene of activist Sombath Somphone’s abduction in December.

He was considered Laos’ most famous community leader before his apparent abduction by the side of a busy Vientiane road was caught on film seven months ago.

Bootlegged CCTV footage appears to show sustainability activist Sombath Somphone being dragged away by several men when he stopped for what authorities claim was a routine traffic check.

Sombath, 61, has not been seen or heard of since but Amnesty International has claimed it may have been an ”enforced disappearance” by authorities.

Sombath Somphone.
Sombath Somphone.

Global leaders, including Hillary Clinton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and United States Secretary of State John Kerry, have called for Laos to either release Sombath or launch an official investigation.

Now a group of scholars from Australia’s leading universities are calling on the Rudd government to get tough with its Lao counterpart over the human rights issue. Forty-two academics from institutions such as ANU, the University of Sydney, Macquarie University and University of Queensland wrote to Foreign Minster Bob Carr last month asking him to take a stronger stance. Continue reading “Scholars call for Sombath probe”

Scholars Call on Australian Government

Australian-FlagOver 40 scholars and researchers have called on Bob Carr, the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs, to take stronger action. While acknowledging efforts to date, the letter states “As concerned citizens and engaged scholars…we have seen the limits of a quiet approach, and now appeal to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to take a more assertive stand on Sombath Somphone’s disappearance…”

Specifically, the signatories call on the Australian government to:

  1. Make a public statement about Sombath Somphone’s disappearance, calling on the Lao government to do everything in its power to account for his disappearance without further delay;
  2. Place the plight of Sombath Somphone at the front end of all Australian trade, investment, and donor discussions with the Lao PDR, until Mr. Somphone is located and released to his family;
  3. Request the Lao authorities to publicly reaffirm the legality and legitimacy of the work being done by Lao civil society in favour of sustainable development and social justice, in order to counter the serious intimidation which has been provoked by Sombath Somphone’s disappearance;
  4. Continue to impress upon the Lao authorities the need to meet their obligations under International Human Rights Law, and to uphold the rule of law within Laos as affirmed under the Constitution of the Lao PDR, amended in 2003.

The full appeal can be read here.

Pressure mounts on Laos over missing activist

The Diplomat/McClatchy-Tribune New Service:  22 February 2013

Laos is facing mounting international pressure over the disappearance of civil-rights worker Sombath Somphone last December. Some have called for Asean to intervene, with high-level diplomatic efforts underway by the United States and Australia.

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr raised the issue with his Lao counterpart and Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong during a visit last week, telling them that Sombath had many friends in Australia who admire his work and who are worried about his disappearance.

Carr chose his words carefully, saying he did not want to distress Sombath’s wife, Singaporean Ng Shui Meng, who has campaigned for her husband’s “release”. He said he had gained assurances from the Lao leader that the relevant departments would continue to pursue the issue, and added that Australia would also continue to take an active interest in the case.

Carr was speaking to reporters in Bangkok after his visit, following an appeal by Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary of state for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, to Laos for more information on the missing 62-year-old, who campaigned tirelessly for sustainable development.

Sombath-DiplomatLao officials maintain that Sombath may have been the victim of a personal dispute and say they have no knowledge of his whereabouts. Observers remain sceptical, given that he was last seen in police custody. Further, there is CCTV footage that shows him being taken from a police post by two unknown people after he was pulled over while driving home from work.

“It’s been incredibly frustrating to not have more visibility into the progress of the investigation,” Baer told Agence France-Presse by telephone 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.”

New York-based Human Rights Watch has also urged Asean to intervene, which is unlikely given the regional grouping’s insistence that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of member countries.

“The Lao government’s long silence about Sombath Somphone’s whereabouts increase our concerns for his safety,” said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch.

“The authorities seem more focused on deflecting international criticism than genuinely investigating Sombath’s disappearance,” Adams added in a letter to the Asean rights commission.

Adams is right. Laos is on a borrowing binge, with billions of dollars being invested in the country by Chinese, Thai and Malaysian investors for the construction of roads, dams and power stations. The government hopes these infrastructure projects will lift the dirt-poor communist country out of poverty.

However, the poor human rights record, fanatical grip on freedom of the press and entrenched corruption of the one-party state are images the country has long struggled to dispel. The disappearance of Sombath only adds to the negative perceptions.

Sombath’s disappearance came barely a month after Asean signed off on its rights declaration, after years of debate. While Asean leaders described the declaration as a landmark moment, critics said it was insufficient and actually gives countries the right to ignore rights rather than protect them. The ongoing situation in Laos unfortunately seems to support this view.

Australian Foreign Minister expresses concern

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.

Screen Shot 2013-02-19 at 12.02.09 PM


Australians call on Bob Carr to act

Senator, the Hon Bob Carr
Minister of Foreign Affairs

Level 10, Bligh House
4 – 6 Bligh Street, Sydney NSW 2000

Fax 02 9228 3655

Monday 4 February 2013

Dear Sir,

We are writing to express our profound concern about the disappearance of respected Lao development leader, Mr. Sombath Somphone.

Sombath is the founder and former director of the Participatory Development Training Centre, a winner of the Magsaysay award and a tireless worker for sustainable development and improving the livelihoods of people in rural Laos.

Sombath was last seen by his wife who was driving ahead of him, on the evening of December 15th in the Lao capital Vientiane, as the couple returned home in separate cars. CCTV footage released by the Lao police shows Sombath stopping at a police post and leaving his vehicle. The footage then shows his jeep being taken away by someone else. He was next seen getting into a pick up truck with two other men and being driven away.

His family has had no contact from him since.

The only official comment on the matter made by the Lao Government so far has been to deny Sombath is in police custody and any knowledge of his whereabouts, and to speculate he could have been the target of a kidnapping. Continue reading “Australians call on Bob Carr to act”