“In Southeast Asia, the enforced disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone in 2012 continues to be an emblematic case.”
Since June 2019, over a million people have taken to the streets of Hong Kong on a weekly basis to demonstrate. Protesters have faced attacks and injuries as police used tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray to quell protests.
The original target of the protests was a proposed change to Hong Kong’s extradition law. Hong Kongers’ fear of the bill is justifiable. Amendments to the Fugitives Offenders Ordinance Bill would allow individuals, including human rights defenders, journalists, and civil society activists, to be sent to mainland China to face trial, even if the person was outside the mainland when the crime was committed. China’s justice system is notorious for its lack of independence from the government, and the Chinese Communist Party has a record of arbitrary detention, torture, and fabricating legal cases against activists and journalists. Continue reading “Asia’s Disappearing Activists”
Sombath Somphone, a Lao activist who has been missing for seven years amid stonewalling by his country’s communist government, was commemorated in Bangkok on Friday, the International Day for the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.
Sombath Somphone disappeared on Dec. 15, 2012, when police stopped him in his vehicle at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Vientiane. He was then transferred to another vehicle, according to a police surveillance video, and has not been heard from since.
We may not be familiar with enforced disappearances in Singapore but in recent years, several disappearances of people in ASEAN countries has brought this subject to our attention.
Seven years ago, in December 2012 Sombath Somphone, disappeared in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. His Singaporean wife, Ng Shui Meng is still struggling to cope with his disappearance.
WHAT IS ENFORCED DISAPPEARANCE?
The crime of enforced disappearance dates back to Nazi Germany when Adolf Hitler issued the Nacht und Nebel Erlass Decree (Night and Fog Decree) on 7 December 1941. Its aim was and still is to spread terror and insecurity in society. Victims were spirited away by State agents or groups/individuals who act on behalf of the State. They literally disappeared into “the night and fog”. Continue reading “Enforced Disappearance – Into the Night and Fog”
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.
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”
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.
(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.
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