Despite the fact that he disappeared more than two years ago, efforts to discover what happened to Sombath Somphone, an internationally respected Laotian human rights activist and civil society leader, have not ceased.
In fact, 145 organizations from six continents have continued to put pressure on the Laotian government, taking their case to 40 United Nations missions via a petition that asserts that Sombath’s disappearance signals a deteriorating human rights situation throughout the country.
Sombath’s disappearance on Dec. 15, 2012 from a busy street in Vientiane, is a mystery because it was seemingly so uneexpected. He appears not to have known he was in any danger. He had had lunch with his wife, Ng Shui-meng, a Singaporean activist, and the two were driving home in separate cars when his jeep disappeared from her rear view mirror. He apparently had been stopped at a police kiosk and was almost certainly kidnapped and murdered.
Shui-meng has led a worldwide effort to find out what happened to Sombath, to no avail. “Despite her remarkable persistence, there’s no news,” said a friend.
‘I was driving ahead of him in a separate vehicle, and he was behind mine, so I passed a police post, and when I looked back I didn’t see his car,” Shui-Meng said in a previous interview with Asia Sentinel. “I didn’t think too much about it, but when I got home, he didn’t come. I called his phone, but it was switched off. I thought maybe he had been in an accident.”
After a day of looking for him, she and friends went to the police post where “we noticed there were cameras installed,” she said. “And so we decided to ask the police if they would play the tape and they said ‘sure.’”
Allowing the group to see the tapes was a fatal mistake for the Laotian authorities. They contained evidence that Somphone’s vehicle was stopped, that he was escorted into the police post, that someone else drove his vehicle away, and that a white truck arrived and apparently took him away. He was never seen again, nor was his jeep.
The petition spearheaded by the Sombath Initiative that Shui-meng began, calls on governments and the UN Human Rights Council to put Sombath’s disappearance at the center of the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review for Laos. The affair has grown into a deeply embarrassing issue for the Laotian government.
The abduction and the lack of progress in investigating the crime has triggered widespread international concern. Charles Santiago, a Malaysian member of parliament and president of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, accused the Laotian authorities of having “erected a brick wall of silence on this investigation, so much so that the only intelligent conclusion is that there is in fact no investigation taking place at all.”
More recently, Walden Bello, a member of the Philippine House of Representatives and another Advisory Board member, urged Lao authorities “to listen to international opinion and produce and release Sombath Somphone.”
The inadequate investigations, the fact that Sombath had last been seen and filmed at the police post, that the police did nothing to prevent him from being taken away, “suggest some level of involvement by the Lao authorities,” according to Amnesty International.
Somphone doesn’t appear to have been particularly radical. He founded the Participatory Development Training Center to promote education, leadership skills and sustainable development, which became Laos’s best-known civil society organization and was working in cooperation with authorities for poverty reduction and sustainable development.
However, his attempts to organize a meeting to deal with land rights may have earned the anger of the government. “The situation in Laos is very serious,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of New York-based Human Rights Watch, told the US government-funded Radio Free Asia.
“The Lao government uses its power as a one-party state to effectively control political expression in the country in a way that clearly violates various international human rights treaties,” Robertson told the news service. ““It is still a very dictatorial, rights-repressing government.”
Lao citizens are now “very scared” following Sombath’s disappearance, Robertson said. “People we speak to in Laos feel intimidated. They feel that with the disappearance of such a prominent member of Lao civil society, that means the government could take anyone. They could act against anyone.”
The government has been criticized internationally for its failure to address Sombath’s disappearance, which has been described as an obvious warning to those seeking to challenge an increasingly repressive regime which is selling off not only land but rivers, which are being dammed to ship the water to other countries.
As an example of the government’s giveaways of land, Global Witness, the international environmental NGO, in a recent report called The Rubber Barons charged that vast amounts of land in Cambodia and Laos have been acquired for rubber plantations by two of Vietnam’s largest companies. The two have gained rights to more than 200,000 hectares of concession lands through what the organization called “secret deals” with the Laotian and Cambodian governments.