Ng Shui Meng speaks of her husband Sombath Somphone in the present tense, with a firm matter-of-fact tone about his disappearance, a way, I presume, for her to maintain control in a situation where she has none and knows nothing but heartbreak. Yet I hear the deep sentiment behind the words. To her, Sombath is much more than the internationally acclaimed, award-winning development worker who vanished one night years ago. He is her partner, companion and mentor, a man with a quiet presence whom she relies on even in his absence. Although short and thin, he stood out in a crowd partly because of his shock of silver white hair. Most older Lao men dye their hair, she explains. Government officials all have black hair but Sombath has this head of white hair, and he always wears a cotton peasant jacket and yet there is something about him that makes everyone feel deferential toward him. That may have been a contributing factor to his disappearance, Shui Meng muses, this deference, the tranquil influence he has. He would never call himself an activist. He is not confrontational. Sombath believes in cooperation and works with Lao officials. In private he can be critical of the government but never in public. He’s a pragmatist and strategic about what he does. Although he is not political, he inspires people. Perhaps that is what led to his undoing.
On December 15, 2012, Somphone was stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, and was never seen or heard from again. Lao officials denied any involvement. Officials with human rights organizations believe Somphone was the victim of a forced disappearance by the government. Then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded answers and the European Parliament expressed its concern but to no avail. The Lao government insisted it knew nothing. Almost nine years later, his fate and his whereabouts remain a mystery. His friends can only speculate on why he was taken. Continue reading “The Forced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone”
The wife of missing Lao development expert Sombath Somphone on Tuesday marked eight years since his disappearance with no information on the case from the communist government in Vientiane whose agents are believed to have taken him away.
“December 15th is the eighth anniversary of my husband Sombath’s disappearance, and throughout these eight years I have still missed him and want him to return to his family,” Sombath’s wife Ng Shui Meng said, speaking to RFA’s Lao Service on Dec. 9.
“So far, I have received no updates from Lao officials on their investigation into Sombath’s disappearance, and I still don’t know where he is,” she said.
Sombath Somphone disappeared on the evening of Dec. 15, 2012, after his jeep was stopped outside a police checkpoint outside the capital Vientiane, with video footage showing him later being forced into a white truck and taken away.
Though police promised at first to investigate, Lao authorities soon backtracked, saying they could not confirm the identity of a man shown in the video driving off in Sombath’s jeep, and refusing offers of outside help to analyze the footage.
Before his abduction, Sombath had challenged massive land deals negotiated by the government that had left thousands of rural Lao villagers homeless with little paid in compensation. The deals had sparked rare popular protests in Laos, where political speech is tightly controlled.
Sombath’s decades of work on behalf of farmers and sustainable agricultural practices helped in him the U.N.’s Human Resource Development Award for empowering the rural poor in Laos, and later the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.
“To date, Lao officials have given me no updates or answers about Sombath. They don’t meet with me, and they just say that they don’t have any information,” Ng Shui Meng, who lives in Singapore, told RFA. “And we have continued to suffer through all these years.”
Philip Alston, Former UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, told RFA last week that the Lao government’s “persistent refusal to undertake any meaningful investigation is a disgrace.”
He said “overwhelming” evidence of direct government responsibility for the disappearance of Sombath makes official denials “entirely unconvincing and disingenuous.”
Laos “has used the strategy of disappearing its opponents in order to instill deep fear and to deter any criticism,” said Alston.
Rights groups press for answers
Rights groups continue to press the Lao government for answers and information in the case.
“We will never forget Sombath even after eight years, and we’ll keep fighting and asking the Lao government [to explain] what happened to him,” Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said on Dec. 14.
“We have never received an answer to this question, so we continue to raise this matter with the governments of other countries and with the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva. No one should forget what the Lao government did to Sombath,” Robertson said.
“I’m calling on the Lao government to do the right thing—to search for answers about Sombath Somphone for the sake of his family,” added Siriporn Saipetr, a member of the Sombath Somphone & Beyond Project., based in Thailand. “From the closed-circuit TV footage, the government must know what happened to him.”
Vanida Thepsouvanh, president of the Paris-based Lao Movement for Human Rights, said that for the last eight years, the Lao government “has never told the truth about Sombath Somphone.”
“Furthermore, the Lao [People’s Democratic Republic]] doesn’t seem to have any intention of ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance,” she said.
“I think the Lao government is not willing to reveal the truth about Sombath Somphone’s disappearance,” added Bounthone Chantalavong-Wiese, president of the Germany-based Alliance for Democracy in Laos. “They just say they don’t know anything and haven’t seen anything, and that’s concerning.”
“The Lao government should tell his family the truth,” he said.
On Dec. 13, relatives of Sombath Somphone conducted a Buddhist ceremony at the Nakhoun Noi Forest Temple outside Vientiane to mark the anniversary of his disappearance, one family member told RFA.
Today is again 15 December 2020. Every year as this date approaches, my heart aches even more than normally. Today, eight years ago, you were abruptly and so cruelly taken away from me. The images of how you were taken away flashed across my mind just as vividly now as eight years ago when I first saw the footages of your abduction from the police CCTV camera.
Eight years is a long time to wait for some news of what happened to you and your whereabouts. Are you well? Are you healthy? Are your living conditions okay? And invariably the question that comes to my head everyday, which I inevitably tries to push away as soon as it arises is “Are you still alive?” Continue reading “Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (22)”
Today I write to tell you that PADETC, the organization you started since 1996, is officially deregistered. It has been a difficult decision for me to request to deregister PADETC, an organization you had worked so hard to establish and lead for so many years.
However, over the past 7 years since you disappeared, the authorities have denied renewal of PADETC’s license of operation. In fact some people in government do not even want to hear the name of PADETC mentioned. For this reason, most of the PADETC staff have left the organization.
Even though the passing of PADETC is sad, I am sure you would support my decision to deregister the organization. I remember you telling me back in 2008, that you had to prepare for PADETC to evolve to meet the changing times.
In 2008, you had already started to pave the way for PADETC to devolve from being just a development/training organization dependent on external donor funds to become self-sustaining independent entities. To prepare for this process, you had started mentoring and coaching your staff, based on their capacities and interests, to branch out and develop their own operation units that would be initially affiliated with PADETC, but over time these would become their own independent organizations or enterprises. PADETC itself would downsize and be transformed into a small mentoring and coaching center, and would eventually be dissolved.
So between 2009 to 2012, some of your more enterprising staff were already running their own affiliated units, providing consultancy services in the following areas: media training and audio/visual production; community forestry management; community services; organic farming training and operations; finance and management operations; and small business enterprises.
Your enforced disappearance in December 2012, fast-forwarded your plans of pushing his staff out to the real world and establish their own organizations.
Over time most of your staff have left PADETC, some for fear of being associated with you, but a number went off to establish their own organizations, with many continuing to use your development concepts of sustainable development and guiding principles in their own work.
So, my dearest Sombath, despite your disappearance, and despite you not being here to guide and mentor many of the young people and younger staff you have trained, your vision and mission have continued and your concepts on sustainable development have spread far and wide.
As you so often said to me, “everything changes, the only unchangeable thing is change itself”. Once more your foresight has proven correct.
I am sure, wherever you are, you will also be relieved and pleased to know that despite the fact that PADETC is no more, your ideas and your vision of PADETC have lived on in many different forms. Like a strong steady tree, its seeds have spread far and wide.
I don’t know whether you know that the whole world is now facing a serious pandemic caused by a coronavirus named COVID-19. It’s a Sars-like virus, but appears to be much more contagious, and has so far infected more than a million people world-wide and caused more than 50,000 deaths.
So to slow the spread to the virus, many countries across the globe have declared a lockdown, meaning that people should stay at home and not go anywhere unless really necessary.
In Laos, the Prime Minister announced a lockdown from 01 -19 April. All schools, offices and businesses are closed with people asked to work from home. Pimai celebrations, parties, and gatherings involving large numbers of people are also forbidden.
So, over the last few days, I, like most residents in Vientiane, have stayed at home. Just 3 days into the lockdown, I begin to feel uneasy, with a sense that the house is like a prison. Yes, I can walk around in the garden, read, listen to music, watch TV, do everything I can normally do in the house, except go out.
Today, my thoughts suddenly wondered to you – thinking to myself, what it would have been for you these last eight years living a locked down (or more likely locked-up) existence somewhere. I asked myself, what is your situation – are you kept in isolation in a small room, or are you allowed some freedom of movement. How are you keeping yourself physically and mentally busy? Are you able to keep healthy; what kinds of food do you have; do you have access to reading and writing material; and how are you keeping mentally alert?
In the past I have also often thought about such things, and even though I know it would be very difficult for you, I could never quite understand how bad or terrible it could be. But now when my own freedom of movement has been somewhat restricted, the full force of what your deprivation of freedom actually meant, and the toll it would take on your physical and mental wellbeing came to me more vividly than ever. It hit me in the gut like nothing has ever hit me before, leaving me gasping for air.
My love, I can only hope that you, who I know is strong of mind and of spirit, would be able to draw on your inner strength to sustain you. I can also only hope and pray that the injustice you were made to suffer will quickly be righted, your freedom restored, and you will come home to us soon.
My dearest, I also hope that wherever you are, you will not be expose to the COVID-19 virus. I can only hope and pray for the best for you and for those people you are with. May you be well, may you be healthy. and may you be happy.
Today is Valentine’s Day. Lots of people are showing their love by sending red roses and candies to their loved ones.
I recalled one Valentine Day many years ago, I asked you why I did not get any roses from you. You smiled and said “Why would I just give you roses on one day to show my love for you. Don’t you see, I have planted ‘Star Flowers” for you and when it blooms you will see a constellation of stars like my love for you”.
Today, the Star Flowers you planted are again blooming, and it made me reflect once more on your wisdom and on what really counts. For you whatever you do, you do with intention which is never shallow or just to please. Very often in the past, I had wished your were not so bloody pragmatic and practical, but now that you are not here with me, I understand that all you did for me, for our family, and for others, you did them with thoughtful intention and loving kindness. Continue reading “Dear Sombath….from Shui Meng (19)”
The wife of a missing Lao activist told a gathering to mark seven years since his disappearance that she has not heard any information from Lao authorities about his case in more than two years and believes they “stopped searching long ago.”
Sombath Somphone, who disappeared on Dec. 15, 2012—exactly seven years ago Sunday—when police stopped him in his vehicle at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the capital Vientiane.
Today is 15 December 2019. It’s already 7 years today that you were so ruthlessly taken away from me, your family, and friends. Who could have imaged that 7 years have gone by and there is still a wall of silence surrounding what happened to you. However, with each passing day, the silence from those who took you speaks louder than words, and shows clearly their guilt and lack of ability to admit the truth of the injustice done to you.
Never the less, my dearest Sombath, the passing of time does not mean that you are forgotten. In the days leading up to your 7th anniversary, I have received so many messages from friends, colleagues, and even people who have never met you, to express their solidarity, love and blessing for you, wishing you strength, good health and your safe return to us.
To mark your 7th anniversary, we held a prayer and blessing ceremony for you at Wat Na Khoun Noi Forest temple – the temple that you have had such a long and close affiliation with, and have helped initiate the Buddhist Development Program to train monks, nuns and novices to use the Buddhist teachings as the basis for development of the self, and their families and communities. Continue reading “Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (18)”