The Abduction of Civil Society Leader Sombath Somphone: Six Months Later Statement from the U.S. Embassy – Vientiane, Laos June 15, 2013
Sombath Somphone, one of the Lao PDR’s most respected civil society figures, was abducted on December 15, 2012, in front of a Lao police box on a main street in Vientiane. June 15 marks 6 months since his unexplained disappearance. The U.S. Embassy in Vientiane joins with countless others in the international community in reiterating our serious concerns about Mr. Sombath’s safety and well-being.
Through years of work with non-governmental organizations, the international community, and the Lao government, Mr. Sombath is widely admired for his peaceful and constructive focus on improving his country and the lives of his fellow Lao citizens. Regrettably, despite repeated inquiries from international organizations and governments around the world, the Lao government has not released concrete information, including during its most recent statement on June 7, regarding official investigations that may have taken place. Lao authorities have not offered members of Mr. Sombath’s family or representatives from international organizations an opportunity to review the government’s surveillance camera footage that reportedly shows his abduction.
Mr. Sombath’s disappearance resurrects memories of an earlier era when unexplained disappearances were common. Continued inaction on this case by the Lao authorities could erode progress made over the past years and damage the country’s international reputation, potentially raising additional questions about the Lao Government’s commitment to uphold the rule of law and engage responsibly with the world. We urge our partners in the Lao Government to pursue all leads in this case, and do everything in their power to ensure Mr. Sombath’s immediate and safe return to his family.
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.
VIENTIANE, Laos — On the 100th day since the disappearance of a prominent American-educated Laotian agriculture specialist, Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday urged the government here to make public the results of an investigation into what had happened to him, and to return him to his family.
The statement by Mr. Kerry is the second by the United States since the man, Sombath Somphone, 60, was last seen being stopped in his jeep by the police on a main road of the capital, Vientiane, on Dec. 15. It was issued by the State Department in Washington on Sunday as Mr. Kerry visited Iraq.
The refusal by the Laotian government to acknowledge any responsibility for Mr. Sombath’s whereabouts has increased fears for his safety and drawn unusually strong criticism from the United States, European countries and Singapore. (His wife is a citizen of Singapore.)
A poor country of six million people on the Mekong River, Laos is ruled by a Communist leadership composed of veterans of the Pathet Lao insurgency that defeated an American-backed government in 1975.
The government has become increasingly close to China, a northern neighbor. Beijing has financed major infrastructure projects and contributed to the public security system, including the closed-circuit surveillance cameras that captured Mr. Sombath’s last moments before he disappeared.
Two days after Mr. Sombath failed to arrive home on that Saturday in December, his wife, Ng Shui Mong, accompanied by several friends, went to the municipal police station and viewed the video from the surveillance camera near the police checkpoint where her husband was stopped.
As the video played, Ms. Ng and her friends made copies with their cellphones. Those images have been posted on You Tube and on a Web site, sombath.org, as part of an international campaign to get to the bottom of Mr. Sombath’s disappearance.
The video, at times to hard decipher, shows Mr. Sombath being stopped, getting out of his jeep and walking in the direction of the police checkpoint. A motorcyclist then drives up and stops, and then gets in Mr. Sombath’s jeep and drives away. A few minutes later, a white pickup truck arrives at the scene, two men get out and Mr. Sombath then gets into the truck with them. It drives away.
The United States Embassy in Vientiane offered technical assistance to the Laotian government to enhance the quality of the surveillance video so that the license plates on the motorcycle and the truck could become clear, American officials said. The government declined the offer, the officials said.
Much of the American aid to Laos is devoted to public health services and to clearing unexploded ordnance left over from the bombing campaign the United States conducted in an effort to prevent North Vietnam from using Laos as a supply and troop corridor during the Vietnam War.
Neither the United States nor European countries have threatened to cut off aid to Laos over the Sombath case, but instead have tried to emphasize the damage it could cause to the reputation of the Laotian government, diplomats said.
In many respects, Mr. Sombath has special meaning for the United States. He first visited America as a high school exchange student on the American Field Service program in 1969. When he arrived in Wisconsin to stay with a family for a year, he spoke only basic English he had learned from an American Fulbright scholar in Laos.
Later he studied at the University of Hawaii, earning a master’s degree in agriculture, a field that became the focus of his career as promoter of sustainable farming. He founded the Participatory Development Training Center in Vientiane to teach young Laotians the skills needed for community development projects, and he was embraced in Asia and Africa for his pioneering work.
Mr. Sombath gave the keynote address at the Asia-Europe People’s Forum in October 2012 in Vientiane, a gathering of Laotian community leaders and foreign aid workers. The confiscation of land by government authorities was a major topic at the forum, and some of Mr. Sombath’s supporters believe that he was abducted as a warning to silence government critics on that subject.
Mr. Sombath’s wife, Ms. Ng, a former senior official with Unicef, has helped organize a campaign to encourage the government to tell what it knows about Mr. Sombath. A month after Mr. Sombath’s disappearance, Mr. Kerry’s predecessor as secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, appealed to the Laotian government to come forward with information.
“The Lao government has done this before,” Ms. Ng, said, referring to other unexplained disappearances of Laotian citizens. “But they have never faced this international interest.”
The United States has also expressed concern about the refusal of the Laotian government to help in the investigation of two missing American citizens and a resident, all of Laotian origin, who disappeared this year.
This month, Laotian officials in Savannakhet, a southern province, prevented a team of American investigators from reaching the site where the three men — Souli Kongmalavong, Bounthie Insixiengmai and Bounma Phannhotha — were last seen in January, officials at the American Embassy said.
A US rights envoy on Monday appealed to Laos for more information on a prominent activist missing for two months, saying the case was having a “chilling effect” on civil society groups.
Sombath Somphone, the 62-year-old founder of a non-governmental organisation campaigning for sustainable development, disappeared in Vientiane while driving home on December 15.
CCTV images showed him being taken away from a police post by two unidentified individuals.
“It’s been incredibly frustrating to not have more visibility into the progress of the investigation,” Daniel Baer, deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, told AFP by telephone from Vientiane after talks with the Lao vice foreign minister.
“I was assured that they are investigating — that’s what the vice minister told me — but I made sure that he understood that not having more information is not helpful,” Baer said, expressing disappointment that he was unable to meet any officials from the ministry of public security.
The Lao authorities have previously suggested Sombath might have been abducted over a personal dispute but said they had no information about his whereabouts.
The campaigner won the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership for his work in poverty reduction and sustainable development in a country that remains one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations.
The secretive one-party communist state — which exerts total control over the media and does not tolerate criticism — has in recent years gradually given local civil society groups more room to operate.
But Sombath’s disappearance has sent jitters through the activist network.
“There’s no question that it’s had a chilling effect,” Baer said.
“For as long as the case remains unresolved and Sombath doesn’t come home to his wife, the international community as well as many people here who know and love him will continue to ask questions,” he added.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has urged Laos to investigate the disappearance of a well-known social activist who went missing last month.
Security camera footage shows Sombath Somphone being taken away by unidentified men after he was stopped by police in the capital Vientiane.
Rights groups fear that he was abducted by elements associated with the Communist authorities.
But the government in Laos says it knows nothing of his whereabouts.
Although he is not a political figure, Mr Sombath was a prominent campaigner who promoted fair land rights for small farmers, which is a sensitive issue in Laos, the BBC’s Nga Pham reports from Bangkok.
“We call upon the Lao government to pursue a transparent investigation of this incident and to do everything in its power to bring about an immediate and safe return home to his family,” Hillary Clinton urged in a statement.
Laos is one of the world’s few Communist countries where all land belongs to the state – and there have been complaints about land grabs and abuses by local government, our correspondent reports.
Last week three lawmakers from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines visited Vientiane and concluded that they were not satisfied with explanations they had received about the disappearance from officials.
Press Statement: Disappearance of Lao Civil Society Leader Sombath Somphone
Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of State
January 16, 2013
We are deeply concerned about the well-being of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who disappeared one month ago. Reports indicate that Mr. Sombath went missing on December 15, 2012 after being stopped at a police checkpoint in the capital city of Vientiane. We call upon the Lao government to pursue a transparent investigation of this incident and to do everything in its power to bring about an immediate and safe return home to his family.
Since receiving his education in the United States, Mr. Sombath has worked tirelessly to promote sustainable development in Laos and he inspired a new generation of young leaders. He founded the Participatory Development Training Center, which trains Lao youth and local government leaders in community development and poverty reduction. His disappearance has generated a tremendous amount of concern from his family, friends and colleagues around the world. We urge his immediate return home and send our thoughts and prayers to his family and loved ones.