LAOS: Somphone Disappearance — Test for Laos as World Watches 

The inaction of the Laotian Government with regard to the enforced disappearance of Mr. Sombath Somphone on December 15th is worrying. The Asian Human Rights Commission joins the request made by civil society groups and the diplomatic groups inside Laos, and echoed by numerous international groups and institutions, including the European Union and the United Nations, for immediate investigation in order to safeguard Mr. Sombath, whose whereabouts still remain unknown.

Mr. Sombath, 60, is a veteran community activist who, in 1996, founded Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC), a nongovernmental organization, where he has continued work, even after stepping down from the position of executive director earlier this year. A recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005, Mr. Sombath has been recognized for his pursuit of small-scale people-centered socio-economic upliftment, using a variety of avenues, more recently in the areas of youth training and handicraft, for the people of Laos.

According to information collated, on the evening of December 15, Mr. Sombath was driving his jeep in Laos-capital Vientiane, following the car driven by his Singaporean wife Ng Shui Meng to their home from office for dinner, when he was hailed down by two policemen on Thadeu Road. Recorded footage of a screening of what is purported to be the closed-circuit television capture of the incident, available on the internet, shows the arrival of an unidentified man on motorcycle, who hurries over to the police post where Mr. Sombath is being questioned, soon after Mr. Sombath steps out of his jeep. Later, the same motorcyclist appears to drive Mr. Sombath’s jeep away. The footage further shows the arrival of a white pick-up truck, with flashing hazard lights. In a recent interview, Ng Shui Meng has stated that the blurry footage that follows actually shows her husband being whisked away in the truck: “Now the footage showing the men escorting my husband into the truck was rather blurred because we took the footage off the monitor of the original CCTV footage at the Vientiane municipality police station, where we requested to view the CCTV footage.”

On Wednesday, the Laotian government has responded to the appeals and the footage of what appears to be an enforced disappearance by offering that it is “possible Mr. Sombath has been kidnapped perhaps because of a personal conflict or a conflict in business.” This statement by a Lao Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman, appearing on the website of state news agency KPL, is reported to also argue that the men in the video cannot be identified and that there is no sign of anyone being forced into a vehicle, while also maintaining that “authorities concerned are currently and seriously investigating.”

There is speculation that Mr. Sombath has been targeted by a jittery Laotian government, concerned about his role in the Asia People’s Forum 9 (AEPF9) held in Vientiane recently, in the sidelines to the ministerial-level Asia Europe Summit. For the international community, this perceived attack against nongovernmental organizations follows the expelling of Anne-Sophie Gindroz, head of major Swiss-Aid agency from Laos, and has deepened a climate of fear.

Mr. Sombath, eldest son of a poor farmer, became a refugee in Thailand as a young boy, escaping the violence in Indo-China during a time when American aggression made Laos the most cluster bombed-place on the planet. Scholarship and USAID assistance saw Mr. Sombath complete his education in the United States, and following the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, return home in 1979 to begin work on sustainable agriculture and rural development.

The Asian Human Rights Commission joins voices that have raised concern for the safety and well-being of Mr. Sombath, a man recognized for having dedicated his life for the welfare of fellow Laotians. AHRC requests the government to allay the suspicions of the international community by conducting a swift and impartial investigation into the disappearance of Mr. Sombath, so he may return to his family safely.