Sombath’s Story: The Significance of One Marginal Life

Global Asia  March, 2024

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

Silencing of a Laotian Son: The Life, Work and Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone
By Ng Shui Meng
Spirit in Education Movement and International Network of Engaged Buddhists, 2022, 268 pages, $10 (Paperback)

For over 11 years, a Singaporean wife has been haunted by two questions about her Laotian husband: Where is he? What happened to him? She is Ng Shui Meng, who last saw Sombath Somphone driving his rundown jeep on a Saturday evening in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. She was in her car, ahead of Sombath’s, as they headed home for dinner. But he never made it. He was plucked off the streets after being stopped at a police post, bundled into a truck and has never been seen since.

Shui Meng’s ability to trace this chilling display of enforced disappearance serves as an apt opening to her book, which explores the unanswered questions that have haunted her, and the paths in Sombath’s life that led to this nightmare. But what helped her describe the shocking events on that fateful day — Dec. 15, 2012 — also says as much about the oppressive and opaque world of Laos, a communist-ruled, one-party state wedged between China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. Continue reading “Sombath’s Story: The Significance of One Marginal Life”

Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (29)

Meditation training for school children.

My dearest Sombath,

Today is Father’s Day. Many people are sending messages of love and appreciation to their Fathers and Grandfathers. So, I too want to wish you a very happy Father’s Day.

Sombath, you have been such a well-respected and beloved father/uncle figure to so many young people in Laos. Many of them who have been associated with the youth development programs you initiated in PADETC remember you so well. You have made such a great contribution to their growing-up years. Continue reading “Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (29)”

Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (28)

My dearest Sombath,

Yesterday, 17 February, was your birthday. Every time when your birthday comes along, I always miss you even more. I started to write this letter to you, but I could not finish it because it was too painful. It’s been 10 years that you have not been able to spend your birthday with me and your family, and we still don’t know where you are and how you have been this past 10 years.

Even when you were with us, you yourself never remember your birthday, but I will always remember it. Each year on your birthday, I would cook something for you for dinner. In the early days of our marriage, I would try to cook something special, like a roast beef or a good steak. While you were always appreciative and happy with whatever was served up to you, I later realized that what you really liked was something more simple. So later on, I would always try to make what you really liked for your birthday meal, like grilled Mekong fish, wild mushroom soup, and some local vegetables. You told me that simple Lao dishes always reminded you of the food you grew up with, and whenever you had something like a local fish, fresh herbs and wild vegetables, it would always warm your heart and remind you of home.

Sombath, you are truly a man deeply rooted in the land of your birth, and it was much later that I began to truly understand that it was this deep love for the land of your birth that motivated you to devote your time and energy to ensure that your development and education work was always centered around promoting and protecting the best that Laos has to offer – its bio-diversity, and its cultural and spiritual heritage and values.

You told me that many development specialists including the government planners, in the rush to develop the country, often overlooked the special endowments found in the country, and only focused on the drawbacks as factors of under-development. Indeed, you recognized that there were many real challenges that should be addressed to improve the lives and situation of poor Lao people, such as improvement of access and quality of the health and education systems and production processes. However, you also often lamented many of the development solutions proposed by outside specialists were based on imported ideas and strategies, rather than tested local solutions. You, on the other hand believed that Laos, the country and its people, have so much potential, and these potentials were often overlooked because of lack of analytical understanding of the local conditions and practices. That was why you always based your development approaches on the local communities’ own experience and aspirations, rather than on some top-down plans drawn up by external specialists.

A close friend who worked with you in many development areas and appreciated your approaches wrote this about your work to mark the 10th anniversary of your enforced disappearance, which I find really pays tribute to your work. And this is what she wrote:

Sombath, more than ever right

Every day of the last ten years has proved Sombath right. The world witnesses ecological, social and economic crisis. Climate change causes unprecedented disasters, and ecosystem destruction opens the door to pandemic. Younger generations are increasingly worried about their future.

Sombath has been leading the way by practicing sustainable living, calling for radical changes in production and consumption models, exploring alternative development for his country, and investing in young people.

In Laos, the few too coward to engage in a debate, too weak to question themselves, too greedy to curb their enrichment, too scared to face a growing movement, and those few with too much power disappeared Sombath. But they cannot prevent planted seeds to grow.

Sombath continues to live in each of us who had the privilege to know him, each of us he shared his wisdom with, each of us who crossed path with him on his farm, or in a conference room. And Sombath will continue to shine far beyond, as time increasingly proves him right.

I am blessed I met Sombath, I am happy we became friends, I am grateful for all I learnt from him. On our family farm in Indonesia, by following his footsteps toward a sustainable living, we pay tribute to Sombath, to his humanity, to his kindness and to his humility.

Anne-Sophie, a friend

My dearest Sombath, on this your birthday, I want you to be happy and to know that you are still so well remembered by your friends and all those whose lives you have touched. For me, I wish you, wherever you are, another year of good health, happiness and peace.

Love you always, Shui Meng

Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (27)

At Wat Pa Nakhounnoi with friends to remember
the 10th anniversary of the Disappearance of Sombath

My dearest Sombath,

December 15 2022 marks the 10th anniversary of your abduction by the police in front of a police post on Thadeau Road. Every day for 10 long years, when I drive by that fateful police post each time I go home, I cannot but re-live how you have been stopped by the police and how you have been taken away never to be seen again. I also relive how I have begged and appealed to the Lao authorities to give me information as to what happened, why you have been taken, where have you been taken, and to investigate the case and return you safely to me and the family.

But Sombath, after 10 long years, I still have no answers as to what happened to you. All I have are the grainy footages caught on the police CCTV camera of how you were abducted – each frame showing clear evidence as to what happened to you on that fateful evening. That incriminating evidence remains in the public consciousness. Continue reading “Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (27)”

Decade After Lao Advocate’s Suspected Abduction at Police Post, Still No Answers

Voice of America: 15 December 2022

A pamphlet about Sombath Somphone sits on display at an event in Bangkok, Thailand, Dec. 15, 2022, marking the 10-year anniversary of his enforced disappearance in Laos.

Bangkok — In the fading evening light of December 15, 2012, on a busy road in the Lao capital of Vientiane, Sombath Somphone, a tireless and renowned advocate for his country’s impoverished farmers, vanished without a trace.

In CCTV footage captured by a roadside camera, Sombath is seen being pulled over at a police post, stepping out of his jeep, and getting into a pickup truck that drives him away.

His wife, Shui Meng Ng, who was driving home to have dinner with Sombath just ahead of him in another car, has not seen or heard from him since. Ten years on, she is still demanding answers about the suspected abduction from Lao authorities, who deny any knowledge of his fate, and drawing attention to the hundreds of other cases of enforced disappearance across Southeast Asia. Continue reading “Decade After Lao Advocate’s Suspected Abduction at Police Post, Still No Answers”

Sombath Somphone: The activist who disappeared at a police checkpoint

BBC News: 15 December 2022

Sombath Somphone has not been since he was stopped at a police checkpoint

By Oliver Slow

Sombath Somphone, a prominent development worker in Laos, was on his way home from work when he disappeared at a police checkpoint on 15 December 2012. His wife, who’s still working to find out what happened to him, believes it was a warning to others.

“It’s been 10 years now and it’s still very fresh in my mind,” Shui Meng Ng tells the BBC.

The drive home that day was supposed to be routine. Her husband met her at the handicraft shop she owned in the capital Vientiane and as usual the couple drove home together in convoy – she was ahead, and he followed behind.

Ms Ng could see her husband behind her for most of the way, but lost him before she reached home. Continue reading “Sombath Somphone: The activist who disappeared at a police checkpoint”

Decade on, wife of missing Laos activist says no closer to finding answers

The Online Citizen:   13 December 2022

In this file photo taken on December 12, 2018, Shui-Meng Ng holds a picture of her missing Laos husband Sombath Somphone, an award-winning environmental campaigner following a press conference in Bangkok (AFP)

BANGKOK, THAILAND — The wife of a missing Laos activist said Tuesday that a decade on she was still no closer to finding answers over his disappearance as more than 60 human rights groups condemned Vientiane’s inaction.

Sombath Somphone, an award-winning campaigner for sustainable development, vanished on 15 December 2012 after police pulled over his vehicle at a checkpoint in the capital.

The case shone a spotlight on the reclusive communist nation’s poor human rights record, but campaigners condemned on Tuesday the lack of significant progress on the case. Continue reading “Decade on, wife of missing Laos activist says no closer to finding answers”

Book Review: Silencing of a Laotian Son

By Kearrin Sims    Asian Studies Review: 21 March 2022

Silencing of a Laotian son: the life, work, and enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone, by Ng Shui Meng, Spirit in Education Movement & International Network of Engaged Buddhists, 2022, US$10.00 (paperback), US$5.00 (eBook)

On 15 December 2012, Sombath Somphone was abducted at a police checkpoint in the Lao capital of Vientiane. The victim of an enforced disappearance, his whereabouts remains unknown.

In Silencing of a Laotian Son, Ng Shui Meng provides a moving memoir of Sombath’s life, work and disappearance. Beginning by detailing the circumstances of his abduction, the book then shifts back to Sombath’s childhood to provide a chronological biography that charts his life experiences across Laos, the United States and Singapore. Later chapters discuss many of the efforts that have been made to locate Sombath since 2012, as well as the unrelenting stonewalling of these efforts by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP). Continue reading “Book Review: Silencing of a Laotian Son”

Political Dissident From Laos Finds Refuge as Ethnic Hmong Indigenous People Remain at Risk

Civicus: 18 March 2022

Civic space remains ‘closed’ in Laos in ratings published by the CIVICUS Monitor in December 2021. The rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly remained severely restricted, and the state exercised strict control over media and civil society.

In recent months the government has continued to repress its people, both inside the country and outside its borders. An exiled Lao dissident has sought refuge in Canada after he was arrested in Thailand and threatened with deportation. The Hmong community continued to face state-sponsored discrimination, amidst an increased push for foreign investments in the Xaysomboun region. December 2021 marked nine years since human rights defender Sombath Somphone was forcibly disappeared. Continue reading “Political Dissident From Laos Finds Refuge as Ethnic Hmong Indigenous People Remain at Risk”

Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (26)

My dearest Sombath, today is 17 February, your birthday. This year is also the Year of the Tiger.  Since you are also born in the Year of the Tiger, it means that you have reached your 6th cycle according to the Lunar calendar, therefore marking your 72nd year on earth.

Reaching the 6th cycle of your life is an especially auspicious occasion. If you are with us today, we would be celebrating this day with all your friends and family. Unfortunately you are not with us.

I know that you do not care much about celebrating birthdays or any other day in the calendar.  But today is special. So I know you will allow us to fuss over you a bit. Unfortunately, you are not with us and we still don’t know where you are. However, regardless of where you are, I together with everyone in the family would be sending you our special wishes and prayers on this auspicious day. We are all praying and wishing that you will remain strong and healthy physically and emotionally, and wherever you are, you will be surrounded by people who would take good care of you. Continue reading “Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (26)”