Somchai, Jonas, Sombath: Southeast Asia’s Missing Human Rights Warriors

The Diplomat: April 16, 2013

By Mong Palatino

Sombath-DiplomatThai human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit went missing on March 12, 2004. Filipino activist Jonas Burgos was last seen on April 28, 2007. Lao development economist and educator Sombath Somphone disappeared on December 15, 2012.

The search for these missing activists has become a campaign for human rights promotion, not only in their respective countries but across Southeast Asia. Their names have become synonymous with the fight against enforced disappearances, kidnapping, torture, and other human rights atrocities, often carried out with apparent impunity.

At the time of his disappearance, then 53-year-old Somchai was handling cases in southern Thailand, a region ravaged by infighting between government troops and Muslim separatist rebels. Somchai was pursuing a case against police officers accused of torture when he mysteriously disappeared in Bangkok.

Jonas, the son of Philippine press freedom fighter Joe Burgos, was connected with a left-leaning peasant group when he was abducted by suspected state agents in a Quezon City shopping mall. There were witnesses who testified in the court that Jonas shouted ‘Aktibista ako!’ (I’m an activist!) while he was being dragged out of the mall.

Sombath is a popular NGO leader whose work with the Participatory Development Training Centre in Laos earned him the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award, known as Asia’s Nobel Prize, for community leadership. Sombath’s disappearance was captured on CCTV footage, which shows Sombath being stopped by police and then abducted by unidentified men. Sombath’s abduction is believed to be related to his advocacy for the protection of land rights for ordinary villagers. Continue reading “Somchai, Jonas, Sombath: Southeast Asia’s Missing Human Rights Warriors”