Southeast Asian lawmakers who went to Laos to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a prominent local social activist have been given conflicting accounts of his movements by officials, the lawmakers said Wednesday, questioning the government's political will in resolving the case.
The members of parliament from the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia had made a hastily arranged visit to Vientiane this week to seek more information on activist Sombath Somphone, who rights groups say disappeared on Dec. 15 in the Lao capital after being stopped by police at a checkpoint while driving home from his office.
Also on Wednesday, the United States stepped up its pressure on the Lao government over the case, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asking it to do everything possible for the "safe return" of Sombath, 62, who has been honored for his work reducing poverty in Laos.
Reports have said that closed circuit TV footage showed Sombath in a jeep being stopped by police and then abducted by unidentified people in a pickup truck.
"We noted discrepancies in our hosts’ accounts of the circumstances of the abduction," Philippines Congressman Walden Bello said in a statement on behalf of the visiting lawmakers after three days of meetings with Lao government officials and legislators.
"Most of the officials we met said that there was no evidence that Sombath got into the pickup truck that appeared in the CCTV footage after his jeep was stopped. Yet Mr. Sakayane Sisouvong, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Sombath voluntarily boarded that vehicle," the statement said.
"In short, our visit raised more questions than answers," Bello said in a statement on the "preliminary findings" of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) parliamentary delegation following the Lao trip.
He said it was possible that the Lao officials they met, high though they were in the government and parliament, did not know what happened to Sombath.
"Thus, it is all the more important that the highest state authorities direct the police, security, and intelligence agencies to focus their investigation on all possibilities, including the possibility that Mr. Sombath may have been abducted by elements, possibly rogue elements, within the government itself," Bello said.
The possibility was "a line of investigation that we strongly suggested and which was accepted as a good suggestion" by the Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Sakayane Sisouvong, Bello added.
Police links denied
The Lao government officials also told the lawmakers that after a month of investigation, the only thing that had been established was that the police had nothing to do with the disappearance.
"We told them that this was not credible and that if we accepted this as fact as to the progress of the case, we would ourselves lose credibility," Bello said.
Charles Santiago, the Malaysian member of parliament who was in the delegation of parliamentarians from Southeast Asia to Vientiane, charged that the Lao government "has no political will to resolve the problem," Agence France-Presse reported.
"The government simply cannot say after one month that they still can't trace him. This stone-walling is not acceptable," he told reporters in Bangkok, noting that Sombath vanished "in a police environment."
The Lao officials also told the visiting lawmakers that Sombath was kidnapped.
But the lawmakers replied that if this was done by criminal elements, the family would by now have received a demand for ransom. No such note specifying an amount has been received.
"We received no satisfactory answer to this," Bello said.
The Lao officials, he said, were mostly mun when the lawmakers raised the possibility that some section of the government or rogue elements within the government might have carried out an abduction that the rest of the government did not know about.
"This query did not elicit an answer from the officials we spoke to, except from Permanent Secretary Sisouvong, who said it was a good suggestion. We expressed our hope to him that the authorities would indeed look into this angle," Bello said.
"We especially appreciate the fact that our visit was not taken as an intrusion into the sovereignty of the Lao PDR but as a legitimate expression of fraternal ASEAN concern, and that our suggestion that the objects of investigation include possible sections or rogue elements in the government was accepted as a viable course of action."
A month after Sombath's disappearance, foreign governments have been pressuring the Lao authorities for swift action to unravel the case.
Secretary of State Clinton in a statement Wednesday called on 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."
"We are deeply concerned about the well-being" of Sombath, who has "worked tirelessly to promote sustainable development in Laos and he inspired a new generation of young leaders," she said.
She said his disappearance has generated a tremendous amount of concern from his family, friends, and colleagues around the world.
Sombath founded the Participatory Development Training Center, which trains Lao youth and local government leaders in community development and poverty reduction.
In an online statement, his wife Ng Shui Meng appealed to the Lao government to expedite the investigation, find Sombath, and ensure his safety and quick return to his family.
She said Sombath has a medical condition that requires daily medication and that "once returned to me, I would take Sombath to seek medical attention abroad until his full recuperation."
Reported by RFA's Lao service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.