Leaving No Stone Unturned: The Continuing Search for Truth and Justice for Sombath Somphone

AFAD: 17 December 2017

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a staunch Lao civil society leader and community development activist who advocated for rural community-based development, especially among the youth. On the fateful evening of December 15, 2012, Sombath was abducted by policemen in Vientiane. Evidence obtained of Sombath’s abduction was caught on CCTV, where it showed that he was stopped and taken away on a pickup truck in front of the police station. Laotian authorities immediately denied any involvement in his abduction, which speaks volumes of the palpable culture of impunity in the country that is felt significantly to this day.

Since Sombath’s disappearance, there has been massive support all over the world for the campaign to resurface him safely. The movement “The Sombath Initiative,” led and represented by his wife Shui Meng Ng, has struggled indefatigably to find truth and justice not only in the case of Sombath, but also in the myriad human rights violations committed by other repressive states. Continue reading “Leaving No Stone Unturned: The Continuing Search for Truth and Justice for Sombath Somphone”

Activists Pressure Lao Government on Missing Civil Society Leader

Voice of America: 15 December 2017

Five years ago, Shui-Meng Ng and her husband, Sombath Somphone, were driving their car through Vientiane. It was on that day that he disappeared.

Security camera footage at a checkpoint showed police officers stopping his Jeep. Sombath, a well-known civil society leader, is shown getting out of his vehicle. Moments later, a lone motorcyclist arrives, parks his bike, and drives away in the Jeep. Then an unmarked white pickup pulls up and Sombath gets in the truck, which drives away.

Activists say the police closed-circuit television shows Sombath being arrested at the police checkpoint. Shui-Meng has not heard from her husband since.

“Today, Sombath is still missing,” she told VOA’s Lao Service. “I have no choice, I cannot remain silent. I cannot let the … work of Sombath and his dreams and hope for building a better society in Laos” be forgotten. Continue reading “Activists Pressure Lao Government on Missing Civil Society Leader”

Students, NGOs Hold Remembrance Service For Disappeared Lao Activist

Radio Free Asia: 15 December 2017

Students, NGO officials, and diplomats held a remembrance service in Vientiane on Friday to commemorate a prominent civil society leader who vanished five years ago at a police checkpoint outside the Lao capital, while rights groups worldwide demanded to know his whereabouts.

The group gathered at the Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC) to mark the fifth anniversary of the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, who founded the nonprofit center devoted to sustainable social, economic, and environmental development.

Sombath’s widow, Ng Shui Meng, who has repeatedly called on the Lao government to answer questions surrounding the fate of her husband, thanked the center for continuing to believe in Sombath’s vision and ideas.

Sombath went missing on Dec. 15, 2012, when police stopped him in his vehicle at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Vientiane. He was then transferred to another vehicle, according to police surveillance video, and has not been heard from again. Continue reading “Students, NGOs Hold Remembrance Service For Disappeared Lao Activist”

Lacking the grit to take up Sombath case

Bangkok Post: 14 December 2017

The year-end period is supposed to be the time for celebrations with loved ones. But for Ng Shui Meng, wife of the missing rural community developer in Laos, Sombath Somphone, this time of year is traumatic.

On the evening of Dec 15, 2012, her husband disappeared mysteriously. He was last seen in CCTV footage. Grainy video footage showed Sombath’s Jeep being stopped at a police checkpoint that evening.

His disappearance received wide attention that goes beyond the landlocked country or even the region. There are reports that global personalities such as Desmond Tutu and US senator Hillary Clinton asked the Lao government to launch an investigation. Known for his non-violent nature, Sombath was a high-profile social worker and a recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the equivalent of Asia’s Nobel Prize.

Before his suspected abduction, Sombath had challenged land deals negotiated by the Lao government that would have resulted in the mass relocation of villagers. At first, the Lao police pledged to look into the case. Yet the investigation went nowhere and the authorities claimed they could not verify the identity of the man shown in the video and refused offers of outside expert to help analyse the footage. Continue reading “Lacking the grit to take up Sombath case”

ครบรอบ 5 ปี การหายตัวไปของ ‘สมบัด สมพอน’

ประชาไท: 09 ธันวาคม 2017

5 ปีผ่านไปหลังจากคดีลักพาตัวอื้อฉาว ที่เจ้าหน้าที่ทางการลาวเป็นผู้ก่อเหตุลักพาสมบัด สมพอน นักกิจกรรมพัฒนาของลาวผู้มีชื่อเสียงระดับนานาชาติ ผู้เชี่ยวชาญกล่าวว่ารัฐบาลลาวแทบไม่มีปฏิบัติการค้นหาความจริง ขณะเดียวกันการบังคับให้สาบสูญในกรณีนี้ยังทำให้เกิดการอภิปรายถกเถียงกันเกี่ยวกับเรื่องความทะเยอทะยานของรัฐบาลลาวในการส่งเสริมเศรษฐกิจผ่านโครงการพัฒนาขณะที่กดขี่สิทธิพลเมืองในวันที่ 15 ธ.ค. 2560 จะเป็นวันครบรอบ 5 ปี นับตั้งแต่มีคนพบเจอสมบัดเป็นครั้งสุดท้ายกับครอบครัว ในวันที่ 15 ธ.ค. 2555 กล้องวงจรปิดของสถานีตำรวจที่กรุงเวียงจันทน์มีการบันทึกภาพเจ้าหน้าที่รัฐลักพาตัวสมบัดจากบนถนน มีการหยุดรถจี๊ปของเขาก่อนที่จะพาตัวเขาส่งขึ้นรถบรรทุก ซุยเม็งเอ็ง ภรรยาชาวสิงคโปร์ของสมบัดเปิดเผยว่ามีพยานพบเห็นสมบัดและรถจี๊ปของเขาในที่กักขังของตำรวจ Continue reading “ครบรอบ 5 ปี การหายตัวไปของ ‘สมบัด สมพอน’”

Sombath Somphone’s Wife Calls Again on Laos to Explain His Disappearance

RFA: 08 December 2017

The wife of disappeared Lao rural development activist Sombath Somphone called on the government of Laos on Thursday to answer questions surrounding the fate of her husband, who vanished five years ago at a police checkpoint outside the Lao capital Vientiane.

Joined by a Malaysian parliamentarian and by rights group members at a press conference held in Bangkok, Ng Shui Meng said that repeated promises made by Lao authorities to investigate Sombath’s disappearance have led nowhere.

“I am asking the Lao government again to tell the truth,” Ng, a resident of Singapore, said a week before the fifth anniversary of Sombath’s forced disappearance, apparently at the hands of state-linked figures.

“I need to know whether he is alive or dead,” Ng said.

“It has been five years now since Sombath disappeared. I need answers, and I will keep asking these same questions until I get them,” she said.

Video footage shows Sombath’s Jeep being stopped at a police checkpoint on the evening of Dec. 15, 2012. In the video, Sombath is shown being forced into a white truck and taken away a short time after a man dressed in white arrives and drives off in his Jeep. Continue reading “Sombath Somphone’s Wife Calls Again on Laos to Explain His Disappearance”

5th anniversary of Sombath Somphone disappearance

Prachathai: 07 December 2017

Five years after the abduction of the prominent, internationally acclaimed Lao development worker Sombath Somphone by Lao state agents, the Lao government has done very little to find the truth, experts said. Meanwhile, the enforced disappearance of Sombath has raised debates about the Lao government’s ambition to boost its economy through development projects, while it continues to suppress civil rights.

15 December 2017 marks five years since Sombath was last seen by his family. On 15 December 2012, CCTV at a police checkpoint in Vientiane recorded footage that shows that state agents abducted Sombath from the street. His jeep was stopped and then he was escorted into a truck. According to Shui Meng Ng, Sombath’s Singaporean wife, a witness later saw Sombath and his jeep in a police holding centre.

“Although five years have passed, every day I’m still haunted by the images of what happened to him,” said Shui Meng at a conference ‘Sombath Somphone 5 Years On’ held in Bangkok on 7 December 2017.

Shui Meng, who was the Deputy Representative for UNICEF in Laos between 2000 to 2004, said the Lao authorities have always denied responsibility and refused to give her any information. “For me, it’s almost like the response is one of denial, denial, denial until people are tired of the case. Then the case will be literally disappeared, and Sombath will be forever disappeared. But I keep saying I don’t care how long it will take. I will continue to ask, to struggle and to campaign for the return of Sombath. I see this as the need to have truth and justice. I cannot not have the truth.”

She added that the Lao police have summoned her through the Singaporean embassy several times.

“This signal is very clear; if somebody like Sombath can be disappeared, anyone can be disappeared,” said Sombath’s spouse. She said the enforced disappearance of Sombath created a climate of fear among civil society workers when even a non-violent, non-confrontational high-profile civil society worker like Sombath, who never intended to enter politics, can be disappeared, adding that the climate of fear among Lao civil society is still strong even after five years have passed.

Charles Santiago, a Malaysian MP and Chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), said the enforced disappearance of Sombath is clearly a state-sanctioned action. As an APHR member, Santiago has made multiple visits to Laos since 2012 to inquire about Sombath’s disappearance, as well as the broader situation for civil society, but has never received a satisfactory answer from the Lao authorities.

Santiago said Sombath is one of the leaders of ASEAN — a leading civil society worker of ASEAN. However, ASEAN failed to speak out for Sombath and has always avoided the issue, claiming its non-interference principle. “In this way, our dictators get away with murders with no accountability.”

In 2005, Sombath was awarded the Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership because of “his hopeful efforts to promote sustainable development in Laos by training and motivating its young people to become a generation of leaders”.

Son of a poor farmer family, Sombath received a scholarship to study at the University of Hawaii where he received a bachelor’s degree in Education and a master’s degree in Agriculture.

Sombath returned to Lao after the establishment of the one-party socialist regime and the end of the Vietnam War. Sombath’s work is mainly in the field of sustainable agriculture and development and education.

A lower-middle income economy, Laos is one of the fastest growing economies in Asia Pacific, with GDP growth averaging 7.8 percent over the last decade, through the exploitation of the country’s natural resources, mostly water, minerals and forests, according to the World Bank. In 2011, Laos announced its ambition to be the battery of a power-hungry Southeast Asia. Currently, the landlocked country has 16 hydroelectric dams. The construction of dams has led to environmental problems and forced resettlement which has affected the livelihood of local people. Without an independent media and freedom of expression, campaigns and discussions related to developmental problems are highly restricted. But Sombath challenged the government narrative of development.

“It strikes me that indeed Sombath was putting forward a different narrative. He was putting forward the people’s narratives–an alternative narrative, a narrative of hope, a narrative of empowerment, a narrative of sustainability and challenging Laotians, especially the young people, that it’s their country and it’s their land and they have to take control of their lands and environment,” said the Malaysian MP.

Anne-Sophie Gindroz, former Lao Country Director of Helvetas and author of “Laos, the Silent Repression” said she decided to author the book after the disappearance of Sombath to tell the dark side of the country to the world, especially to donor countries and aid agencies.

“I believe the aid agencies can do more than engaging in developmental projects. They have to also promote changes in democracy. It’s also important that Lao civil society is also empowered,” said Gindroz, “I think there is a fine line between cooperation and complicity.

Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (13)

Dear Sombath,

For many countries in Asia and Latin American, this week marks the International Week of the Disappeared (IWD).  For this reason, I have been thinking about you even more these days.

Last night I found it difficult to fall asleep thinking about you, and this morning I woke up feeling terribly depressed. I tried to calm myself with meditation, but it was difficult to get into a state of calm when I was so agitated.  My mood went from sadness, to anger, and despair!  I asked myself what did you do to deserve such injustice when all you ever did was to be a good person and use your knowledge and skills to improve the lives of ordinary Lao people and Lao communities.

After my meditation session, my mind calmed down and I felt a little better. I started to reflect on what you have always told me when you were around.  You told me that you have never tried to change the world or change the government system because that is obviously beyond your ability. You said your life goal is only to do your little bit to give back in some little way to the family and the community that have raised you, nourished you, and taught you to become the person you are.  And indeed that’s all you have always done – give back wholeheartedly with humility, with humour, and with generosity.

I saw the way you worked – whether you are with ordinary farmers, teachers, students, development partners and colleagues, government officials, or even high-ranking people – you always treated each and everyone with respect and courtesy; you also always chose to listen first and seldom spoke a lot. That has always been your way of dealing with people – open-minded, open-hearted, and never opinionated.  I guess that is why you have such a large following among people in the development community, and among so many young people from inside and outside the country.

During this week, the International Week of the Disappeared, as we remember you and all those people who have been forcedly disappeared, I choose to put aside my despair and sadness. I choose to remember all the good that you have done. I believe that you were disappeared because you tried to live up to your principles and your integrity. And it is your “goodness”, and your ideas of “people-centered development” that were deemed so threatening that some people chose to silence you by disappearing you.

Sombath, while I will continue to feel the pain of your absence, I know that your work and what you stand for will continue to inspire people, Lao and non-Lao.  I will continue to demand for truth and justice for you, even if all I get is a wall of silence.

Sombath, my love, stay strong, and I too will stay strong for you and for all those who have been forcedly disappeared.

Love you so much, Shui Meng

Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (11)

My dearest Sombath,

Today is the last day of 2017.  For four years now I have been waiting desperately for news of your whereabouts and your safe return.  This time of the year should be a time for family gatherings to send off the old year and welcome the new.  But for you and I, there is only longing and waiting.

For you, wherever you are, I hope and pray that you are well and in good health physically, emotionally and spiritually.  I can only hope that your innate kindness, sincerity, and good humour can win you friends wherever you are and whoever you are with.  I hope they will treat you well and will be won over by your humility, your wisdom, and your deep spirituality.  I hope they will find your wide-ranging knowledge and skills useful to them and that they can benefit from your advice and service.  I hope and hope that they will somehow find it in their hearts to see the kind of person you are, and they will one day set you free to come back to us. Continue reading “Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng (11)”

Missing activists’ wives call for justice

Bangkok Post: 20 December 2016

Human rights activists whose husbands are still missing years after they mysteriously vanished have urged the government to pass a law on preventing enforced disappearances, to address human rights violations.

Prominent human rights campaigner Angkhana Neelapaijit urged Thai authorities to enact the Torture and Enforced Disappearance Prevention and Suppression bill as quickly as possible, regardless of the fact that no missing persons case has been resolved.

Continue reading “Missing activists’ wives call for justice”