By Nirmal Ghosh, Indochina Bureau Chief In Bangkok
It has been a year, but Ms Ng Shui Meng still momentarily tenses whenever the phone rings. Twelve months have passed, yet there is still no trace of or information on her husband Sombath Somphone, who disappeared in Laos on Dec 15 last year. The incident was recorded on a CCTV camera but to date remains unsolved.
Given that Mr Sombath, internationally recognised for his work with farming communities, was pulled over by police that evening, Laos is under pressure from foreign governments to give an explanation. On the first anniversary of the disappearance last Sunday, the civil society organisation Mr Sombath founded held its annual fair in Vientiane. If the practice continues, it will be an annual reminder of that fateful evening.
Hours later, a US State Department statement said Washington remained “deeply concerned over the fate of Sombath Somphone, one of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic’s most respected civil society figures, on the one-year anniversary of his abduction”.
Scrutiny from human rights groups and charges from the ICC likely if officials don’t come clean.
Just over a year ago, community development worker Sombath Somphone was plucked from the streets of Vientiane by police. He has not been heard of since, despite overwhelming evidence linking his disappearance to the government and its dictatorial internal security apparatus.
But even the Laos government has its friends. One spin doctor went so far as to describe Sombath’s disappearance as a “piffling affair,” which somehow seemed like not so much of a big deal when compared with the extraordinary renditions of the United States.
And in rebuffing Human Rights Watch (HRW) the scribe of sorts described the Sombath issue as “like those poor Guantanamo-bound wretches.”
Sombath Somphone was probably the most effective and best-known NGO representative in Laos. One year and one day ago, on his way home for dinner, Mr Sombath was pulled from his car by several unknown men just outside Vientiane. He was bundled into a police vehicle and driven away. He has not been seen since, and his government has not just ignored the case, it has actively worked to cover it up.
A substantial number of concerned Lao and foreign citizens held a vigil at the Laos embassy on Pracha-Uthit Road yesterday. There was no surprise that diplomats showed no interest. That has been the response from all Vientiane ministries and departments since the evening that Mr Sombath failed to show up for dinner with his wife. The grainy closed-circuit TV video showing the actual abduction has roused no concern of any kind from authorities, even though it was a government CCTV camera.
One of the most puzzling facts about the Sombath case is that the victim posed no known threat to the government, the ruling Marxist party or any official. He was 60 when he was taken. He did not take part in, let alone lead, any political group. Continue reading “Editorial: Sombath case needs pressure”
Police are monitoring traffic from a small wooden gatehouse in eastern Vientiane, on the outskirts of the Laotian capital. It was here nearly one year ago, opposite the Indian embassy, that 62-year-old Sombath Somphone mysteriously disappeared. The rural development promoter and farmers’ rights activist hasn’t been heard from since.
On Dec. 15, 2012, Somphone was driving behind his wife’s car in his Jeep. He was stopped by a traffic officer for an identity check. The policeman spoke with him through the car door. Somphone then stepped out and walked towards the gatehouse. Soon after, a man got off his motorcycle and climbed into Somphone’s Jeep and drove off.
A white pickup then parked on the side of the road, warning lights flashing, before two men — one of whom was Somphone — climbed in. That was the last sign of the popular activist.
CCTV footage — available on the website Sombath.org — has allowed his family to reconstruct the scenario. Since Somphone vanished, the police investigation that Laotian authorities claim to have conducted has been fruitless. What is clear is that his disappearance has all the markings of an abduction committed right before police eyes at rush hour.
The European Union has put the case of the prominent development worker Sombath Somphone back on the international agenda, threatening to review foreign aid to Laos after officials there failed to offer a credible explanation for his disappearance 11 months ago.
Speaking on Australian radio, Werner Langen, delegation leader and Chairman of the ASEAN delegation in the European Parliament, also said Laos could become isolated in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) if the human rights situation in the country fails to improve.
Vientiane: The wife of prominent social activist Sombath Somphone has made a desperate plea to Lao authorities, declaring he will leave the country and retire quietly with her if returned safely after being abducted in the Lao capital 10 months ago.
Ng Shui Meng, who has been married to the award-winning Sombath for 30 years, says she does not want to see any more damage done to Laos’ image and credibility over the abduction which human rights groups describe as a state-sponsored forced disappearance.
Every day since Sombath disappeared has been “an eternity of waiting, wavering between hope and despair.”
“All I want is only the safe return of Sombath,” Ms Shui Meng, a Singaporean, told Fairfax Media.
This October marks the 4th anniversary of the founding of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission of Human Rights (AICHR). Since AICHR was formed ASEAN has had a mixed track record with human rights. Although there have been some impressive political reforms across the region, particularly in Burma, some states appear to have grown increasingly confident in their ability to commit human rights abuses against their citizens. Nowhere has this been more so than in Laos.
Often presented as an idyllic Buddhist nation, the poor track record of human rights abuses in Laos has largely slipped under the radar of the international media. All this suddenly changed, however, following the enforced disappearance of Mr. Sombath Somphone in late 2012. A recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership – one of the most prestigious awards for human development in Asia, and the founder of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Laos, Sombath Somphone (61) amongst the most widely respected development workers in East Asia. In October 2012 Sombath play a key role in coordinating the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (APF), the largest civil society event ever held in Laos. Continue reading “The Case of Sombath Somphone”
In those days…most Laotians left the country, if they could. But Sombath decided to return to his country, and I think he is a wonderful person, very brave. He want to serve his country, and he had been doing so ever since. Bravely, skillfully, humbly, and I have known him all through this years, with much admiration…
…we respect the Lao government and we hope the Lao government will do everything they can to make sure that Sombath is a free person soon, because that will give Lao great credit, since we are now all very serious about ASEAN, but people think of ASEAN in terms of money and economics, but the essence of ASEAN is human dignity, human rights, and deep down, Lao has that…
…and I think Lao would have much reputation sharing with their neighbors that they care for human rights…
…It would be a great pity if he disappeared. It would be too much damage to the Lao government.
The kidnapping of 61 year-old Sombath Somphone, a prominent activist and the winner of the 2005 Magsaysay Award, has put the Lao government in an inextricable position.
A closed-circuit police video clip shows Sombath being stopped by traffic police in front of the Lao-German Technical College on Thadeua Road in Vientiane’s Sisattanak district at around 6:00 p.m. on Dec. 15, 2012, while he was driving home. The video clip shows Sombath come out of the car and walk to the police post.
A little while later, a man wearing a black windbreaker arrives in a motorcycle, runs into the post, and re-emerges soon after to drive away in Sombath’s car, apparently indicating that the man went into the post to get Sombath’s car keys. Not long after, a silver-bronze pickup truck stops in front of the police post with emergency lights on while two men escort Sombath onto the truck and leave.
Sombath has not been seen or heard from since.
Pictures on the video clip show clearly that Sombath was kidnapped from a police post with police officers in the post witnessing the act.
The police officers are suspected to have been involved in the kidnapping, though neither they nor the men who escorted Sombath to the pickup truck can be identified. Nor can the license plate of the truck be read, as the only video now available was taken by Sombath’s coworkers with their cell phone as they viewed the original video clip in the headquarters of the Vientiane traffic police on the morning of Dec. 17, 2012. Continue reading “Laos Has Made Its Bed and Now Has to Lie in It”