Six months after the abduction of activist Sombath Somphone, the nation appears to be falling behind its neighbours and stuck in the grip of a self-serving regime ruling on fear
Six months after the disappearance in Vientiane of Sombath Somphone, the founder of an NGO set up to help rural youth, the Lao government is looking increasingly like the black sheep among its Asean.
As Myanmar progressively distances itself from its dictatorial past by liberalising the press and opening political space for the opposition, the Lao regime is sinking into an obscurantist authoritarianism which seems out of touch with the regional context.
The last sign of this anachronism came at the end of May when Lao authorities sent back to North Korea nine youths who had fled their Stalinist mother country and, with the help of South Korean Christian, had crossed from China into Laos.
”I would characterise the Laotian regime as a plutocracy that is auctioning the natural resources of the country for the benefit of a small group under the guise of communism,” said a Western observer in Vientiane.
After six months, the Lao government’s failure to explain the abduction of a prominent social activist at a police checkpoint or account for his whereabouts raises the gravest concerns for his safety. The Lao authorities should realize their cover story is fooling no one, and start telling the truth. Brad Adams, Asia director
(Bangkok) – Authorities in Laos have failed to seriously investigate or credibly explain the enforced disappearance six months ago of a leading social activist, Sombath Somphone, Human Rights Watch said today.
Sombath, 60, the 2005 recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, was last seen by his wife on December 15, 2012, as they were driving separately from his office in the capital, Vientiane, to their home for dinner. A police security video shows him being stopped at a police checkpoint and taken into custody. He never arrived home.
“After six months, the Lao government’s failure to explain the abduction of a prominent social activist at a police checkpoint or account for his whereabouts raises the gravest concerns for his safety,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Lao authorities should realize their cover story is fooling no one, and start telling the truth.”
Security camera footage from the Municipality Police Station, obtained by Sombath’s wife, Ng Shui Meng, shows police stopping Sombath’s jeep at the Thadeua police post at 6:03 p.m. on December 15. Unidentified men then took Sombath into the police post. A motorcyclist stopped at the police post and drove off with Sombath’s jeep, leaving his own motorcycle by the roadside. A truck with flashing lights then stopped at the police post. Two people got out of the truck, took Sombath into the vehicle, and then drove off. Continue reading “Laos: End Cover-Up in Activist’s ‘Disappearance’”
On behalf of Archbishop Tutu’s office we confirm that Archbishop Tutu addressed a letter, dated 25 February 2013, to H.E. Mr Thongsing Thammavong, Prime Minister of Laos, and H.E. Mr. Choummaly Sayasone, Secretary General of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and President of the Lao PDR. The Archbishop’s office has received no acknowledgement of receipt of the letter.
The letter regarded the “disappearance” of human rights campaigner Mr Sombath Somphone, in Laos.
The Archbishop wrote that Mr Somphone’s commitment to poverty alleviation and sustainable development at home and in the region had been nothing short of inspirational. He had worked extensively with Buddhist monks and elders to set up youth meditation camps and this care for the spiritual core of the Laotian people had touched many in the region and beyond.
The Archbishop wrote that Mr Somphone’s participation and ability to speak freely at the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) in Vientiane, last November, marked an enriching moment for free speech in Laos and allowed an inclusive conversation to take place between all levels of Laotian society.
When they gathered for the second annual session of the National Assembly last December, Laotian lawmakers may have had a reason to feel buoyant. The communist-ruled country appeared on the verge of gaining international respectability. The preceding months had seen this impoverished nation shed some of its image as a diplomatic backwater in the region.
The remake came in stages. In July, Hillary Clinton flew into Vientiane, becoming the first US Secretary of State to visit the landlocked country in 57 years.
Then, in October, the World Trade Organisation approved Laos’ application to join the WTO, signalling that this agrarian nation had joined the world of international commerce. And finally, in November, Laos hosted its most important international gathering, the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem), which drew world leaders from Asia and Europe.
But by the time the 12-day session of the country’s parliament drew to a close in December, the assembly had traded open buoyancy for secrecy, raising questions about the prospect of a liberal political culture taking root. Nothing was more deafening to some community leaders than the assembly’s decision to silence one of the rare new avenues of openness – a hotline for the public to call the 132-member parliament.
This rollback in a country where political dissent has traditionally not been tolerated was hard to ignore. After all, the first annual session of the parliament, held in July, seemed to indicate that the nod given to greater openness in recent years by the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) might be genuine. There were close to 300 calls that citizens made using the hotline, a number that was widely publicised in the local media. Continue reading “Carving up LAOS: Land disputes rattle the government”
The arcane disappearance of a Laotian citizen, award-winning activist, Sombath Somphone has baffled the world. The Laos government is facing criticism from their neighbouring countries, and especially from the US, due to their inability to probe into the case after more than hundred days of Mr. Sombath’s disappearance. Interestingly, this is not the first case of disappearance in Laos. Authorities in Laos have obstructed the US’ investigations into the whereabouts of two US citizens and an American permanent resident that have been missing from Laos for a long time. The government has taken no major initiative to investigate these cases. These incidents hamper the image of the Communist Laos government, whose newly liberalised economy propels them to be dependent on their neighbour and the US for both investment and funding. Moreover, the changes which liberalisation has brought into Laos are being questioned under such circumstances.
Changes brought about due to Liberalisation
For the world outside, Laos is a beautiful landlocked country. That is the image portrayed by the Laos government, which is quite evident from their slogan “simply beautiful”. Laos has a long history of struggle and bloodshed. The Communist government, which followed the Chinese and USSR model of governance, faced a lot of criticism due to their mistreatment of the ethnic tribes, especially the Laotians of Hmong ethnicity. Voices against the government were also brutally crushed. The system of governance was very opaque. The disappearances of people who were critical of the government were not unusual. The situation seems to have changed only after liberalisation. But the question arises that has the scenario changed for the better or for worse? Continue reading “Laos: Rhetoric Vs. Reality? – Analysis”
A 2005 photo of Sombath Somphone in the Philippines. AFP/Somphone family
Are the authorities in Laos trying to cover up a carefully planned abduction of Sombath Somphone, the country’s most respected civil society leader?
It may seem so — going by the conduct of the one-party Communist government since he went missing on Dec. 15 last year.
As his disappearance reached its 100th day on Monday, the Lao government has yet to come up with a satisfactory report on the circumstances under which the 60-year-old highly respected community worker vanished after being stopped at a police checkpoint in the capital, Vientiane.
“Observers can’t help but think its continuing refusal to release its findings is a cover-up for something,” said Murray Hiebert, deputy director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
“The Lao government needs to quickly make public the findings of its investigation into what happened to Sombath,” he said.
The activist’s disappearance “sends a chill through civil society and nongovernmental organizations operating in Laos,” said Heibert, who had worked on development issues in Laos in the 1970s when he first met Sombath, a U.S.-educated agronomist.
Not only has the Lao government failed to acknowledge any responsibility for Sombath’s disappearance, it has also turned down international requests to provide any assistance in the investigations.
This has raised concerns that the case represents the beginning of a state crackdown on dissenting voices.
“One hundred days have passed since Sombath’s abduction and two things remain constant—there is no sign of Sombath, and the Lao government’s assertions and claims regarding his disappearance still totally lack credibility,” said Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division.
Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
March 24, 2013 2013/0338
STATEMENT BY SECRETARY KERRY
100 Days since the Disappearance of Lao Civil Society Leader Sombath Somphone
Today marks the 100th day since the disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, a respected individual known for his work with non-governmental organizations, the government, and the international community. Video footage suggests that Mr. Sombath may have been abducted from a police checkpoint in the capital city of Vientiane. The United States shares the international community’s serious concerns about Mr. Sombath’s safety and well-being. We call on the Lao government to do everything in its power to account for his disappearance without further delay. We are concerned at the lack of significant information we have received from the Lao government about Mr. Sombath’s case, despite our offers to assist with the investigation and numerous expressions of concern about Mr. Sombath’s welfare.
Mr. Sombath’s disappearance resurrects memories of an earlier era when unexplained disappearances were common. We note that Laos has taken steps in recent years to become a responsible partner in the community of nations, including its accession to the World Trade Organization and its hosting of the Asia-Europe Summit Meeting last November. Regrettably, the continuing, unexplained disappearance of Mr. Sombath, a widely respected and inspiring Lao citizen who has worked for the greater benefit of all of his countrymen, raises questions about the Lao government’s commitment to the rule of law and to engage responsibly with the world.
We join with countless organizations, governments, journalists and concerned citizens around the world in demanding answers to Mr. Sombath’s disappearance and urging his immediate return home.