Two years have passed since the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a celebrated civil rights worker in Laos. Sombath was last seen being driven away in an unknown vehicle in Vientiane on Dec. 15, 2012. He has not been heard from since. Sombath’s family, friends, and colleagues continue to demand answers about his whereabouts and accountability from a government notorious for strong-arming activists and others seen as “troublemakers”.
CCTV footage shows Sombath was last seen when he was stopped at a police post in Vientiane after leaving dinner with his wife. The video shows him at the post and then being driven away in another vehicle. No one knows his whereabouts since then and the Laos government denies having knowledge about where he is, why he was detained, or what has happened to him.
“The important issue is that there’s a lack of political commitment from high levels of Laos government to have a serious investigation of this case,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. “That points to a cover-up. That raises the question, ‘Why is the government involved in the cover-up?'”
Last week, a group including Sombath’s wife, Ng Shui-Meng, announced the launch of The Sombath Initiative. The organization will focus on the ongoing case of Sombath’s disappearance and continue to pressure the government to take up the case or reveal what it knows.
The group is comprised of “mostly friends from around the region and around the world [who want] to ensure that there is a continued campaign to learn what happened to [Sombath], that he be found, that he be returned to his family, and that his mission is propagated and preserved,” Robertson said. “What we’re talking about here is a coalition of people who care about Sombath, who believe that he and his family deserve answers, and are committed to that.”
The Laos government has done little in the way of mounting a serious investigation into Sombath’s case, and Robertson said he believes the authorities thought they could “stonewall for a period of time” and the international community would eventually move on. The Sombath Initiative has said it “will not permit this to happen.”
In a statement released at an event at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok last week, the Initiative asserted that:
While the exact reasons for the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone are not known, it is clear those responsible want the issue of his abduction to also disappear, along with his vision and voice for a more equitable, inclusive and sustainable future for his country.
Ng Shui-Meng said at the FCCT that she “will not give up asking, looking for and requesting the Lao government, officials and police to please give our family sympathy and give us answers soon, because after Sombath’s disappearance, we felt pain and our lives became difficult,” according to Radio Free Asia.
She has implored the government to help find her husband, and issued an open letter to Sombath’s supporters in 2013, asking that those who wish him well not mischaracterize his work.
Ng Shui-Meng said that although Sombath “has sometimes been billed as a human rights defender or a social/ civil society activist,” his “work has never been confrontational or antagonistic to government policy.”
“Every project and every activity that Sombath has carried out, has been with the approval of the relevant government sector, and in cooperation with the local officials,” she wrote.
She characterized her husband as working “openly to support the government’s policy of enhancing food security and improved livelihoods in the rural areas, promoting appropriate technologies in water and sanitation, improving teaching and learning in schools, and supporting human resource capacities, especially of young people, through training in leadership skills and community service.”
Ng Shui-Meng also said that in the years before his disappearance, Sombath was helping train monks “to support the government’s drug reduction/rehabilitation programs and care and support for HIV infected/affected people.”
Many international groups have demanded action and answers from the Laos government, including the International Commission of Jurists. That organization released a report with recommendations on how to proceed with the long-stalled investigation.
In a statement on the ICJ website, regional director for Asia and the Pacific Sam Zarifi said, “It is not enough for the Laotian government simply to assert it is investigating this case. International law obliges Lao PDR authorities to conduct an investigation that is credible and effective, along the lines suggested in ICJ’s report.”
Robertson noted that although the government initially acknowledged that it was Sombath who was seen in the CCTV footage from the police post, authorities are now trying to walk back on that admission, suggesting that it was someone else in the video.
“I tend to be an optimist. I think they made a major mistake by taking on someone who was as widely admired as Sombath. The Laos government has the capacity to hold people incommunicado for long periods of time in reeducation camps. He may still be stashed away somewhere by Laos authorities but we don’t have any evidence to confirm that. ”
The Sombath Initiative’s statement also referenced the Laos government’s campaign of fear against those who speak out against it or push Sombath’s case:
While voices of individuals, organisations and governments from around the world have swelled in concern, those living in the Lao PDR have fallen silent in fear, as the message has been informally passed down from the authorities to not raise Sombath’s case.
“Fear of intimidation in Laos is very, very real,” Robertson said. “It’s clear that there is a degree of intimidation and a great deal of fear in Laos civil society. They don’t even want to mention [Sombath’s] name. [Activists] feel they’re not in a position to do very much because of the pressure from the govt to bury this case.”
That culture of fear extends to other civil and human rights issues as well. As this author reported earlier this year, Human Rights Watch issued a report condemning the extensive and ongoing rights violations occurring in Laos.
Among activists’ major concerns are environmental crises caused by logging, deforestation, and development. There have been some victories, as with the controversial Don Sahong dam, but local activists are often powerless in the face of government contracts and agreements with corporations and neighboring countries, according to Robertson.
Robertson described the Laos government as “very restrictive,” and as “among the most unreformed, rights-abusing govts in Southeast Asia.”
“If you cross them, if you go against them … they will throw you into some of the worst prisons in Southeast Asia,” Robertson said. “And they make no bones about it. To anyone they consider an enemy, they can be as bad as the old Burmese government during the SLORC days. Don’t let the smiles and the tourist pamphlets deceive you otherwise.”