The family and friends of well-respected Lao activist Sombath Somphone, who has gone missing for two months, held special prayers for his safety at the weekend, according to sources.
The prayers on Sunday, which were also to mark his 61st birthday, came as the United States piled pressure on Lao authorities for "more visibility into the progress of the investigation" into his case.
Australia also expressed concern over Sombath's prolonged disappearance as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) again came under pressure to intervene in the case with the Lao authorities, who have denied detaining Sombath, and who have not reported his fate or location.
He was last seen stopping at a police checkpoint, prompting international concern that his disappearance could be tied to his human rights work. CCTV images showed him being taken away from the police post by two unidentified individuals.
Members of Somphone’s family, as well as volunteers and former volunteers from the Vientiane-based Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC), which he had founded, attended the prayer ceremony at Pa temple in Naxaythong district.
"We came to bless Uncle Sombath. February 17th was the birthday of Uncle Sombath, therefore we came to join the prayers for his safe return home," a volunteer told RFA's Lao Service, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The ceremony was led by his Singaporean wife Ng Shui Meng, who recently expressed regret over the lack of vital information from police on her husband’s case, stressing that the activist was in need of daily medication and urging authorities to allow her to see him if he was in official custody.
But a police report from Jan. 11 republished in the official Vientiane Times newspaper this month said Sombath was not in official custody and that his disappearance could have been due to personal or business conflicts, suggesting he may have been kidnapped.
'A U.S. rights envoy on Monday appealed to Laos for more information on Sombath, saying the case was having a "chilling effect" on civil society groups.
"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 Agence France-Presse 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.
"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.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr, who held talks with Deputy Lao Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith on Tuesday, confirmed via Twitter that he had expressed concern about Sombath's case during the meeting.
European Union officials also raised Sombath’s case with Lao officials earlier this month during the 4th Laos-EU Working Group on Human Rights and Governance.
Sombath 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.
ASEAN told to act
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, in a statement Tuesday, called on the ASEAN grouping to intervene in the case with the Lao authorities, saying it is a "major test" for the 10-member ASEAN and its human rights commission.
“ASEAN’s silence in Sombath’s case reflects a deeply rooted lack of credibility in protecting the basic rights of people in Southeast Asia,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“The Lao government’s long silence about Sombath Somphone’s whereabouts increase our concerns for his safety,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW. “The authorities seem more focused on deflecting international criticism than genuinely investigating Sombath’s disappearance.”
HRW said there is "strong evidence" that Sombath was forcibly disappeared by Laotian authorities.
“Lao authorities have not answered the simplest questions about this case, such as why, if Sombath was kidnapped, did the police at the scene do nothing to protect him,” Adams said. “The absence of any real investigation points to the government’s responsibility."
Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.