Sombath Somphone’s shadow continues to hang over Laos, with the rural development expert’s disappearance in 2012 still haunting the country as it prepares to host the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Sombath’s abduction remains unsolved even though there is video footage of Sombath’s Jeep being stopped at a police checkpoint that also shows Sombath being herded into a white truck and taken away. In the video, a man dressed in white returns and drives off in his Jeep.
Though police promised to investigate, Lao authorities soon backtracked saying they could no longer confirm whether the man in the video footage was actually Sombath.
And that’s the way the case has remained despite international calls to solve it.
Sombath is well known in Laos for his decades of work on behalf of farmers and sustainable agricultural practices. He also pioneered the use of participatory rural appraisal techniques in Laos.The approach aims to incorporate the knowledge and opinions of rural people in the planning and management of development projects.
While Sombath was generally apolitical, just before his abduction he challenged the massive land deals the government negotiated that left thousands of rural Laotians homeless with little compensation. The deals sparked rare popular protests in Laos where political speech is tightly controlled.
Human rights record
Sombath’s case highlights the country’s poor human rights record at a particularly delicate time as it prepares to host the ASEAN meeting later this year.
While the ASEAN meeting is set for Vientiane, the Lao government has refused to host a meeting of civil society organizations that has traditionally occurred at the same time and in the same city as the association’s annual meeting.
In October, Lao authorities decided against hosting the ASEAN People’s Forum over fears of criticism by the participants and concerns that authorities cannot guarantee the safety of Lao participants. For the first time the forum will be held in another country.
While the government claims that it fears for their safety, Lao civil society activists say that they fear the government as the authorities have made it more difficult for them to do their work since Sombath’s disappearance.
“The government keeps close eyes on the campaigns of the civil societies, and it is hard to work on development activities with people in the target areas,” a civil society official told RFA’s Lao Service.
The official told RFA that even though the ASEAN people’s forum will be held in Timor Leste, also called East Timor, the Lao government is exercising an unprecedented amount of control by having veto power over the representatives and censoring their remarks.
“Five representatives of Lao civil societies will be selected to join the forum, but they must be followed and monitored by officials of ministries of foreign affairs and home affairs,” the official said.
“Everything they share at the forum must be censored by the officials, but they are not allowed to talk about human rights issues at the forum, especially Sombath Somphone’s case.”
Fear of being forgotten
In a speech before the Asia-Europe Peoples’ Forum this month, Sombath's wife Shui Meng said she still has hope that her husband is alive, but fears that hope is not enough.
“I get up every day in the hope that Sombath will come home; I draw each breath in the hope that Sombath will come back! I must have hope, for what is there left for me if that hope is taken away?” she said.
“But I do have a major fear. My greatest fear is that with the passing of time, his disappearance will be forgotten.”
International NGOs and foreign ambassadors have been calling for answers since Sombath disappeared. More than 80 NGOs in 2014 condemned the "the Lao government's ongoing refusal to provide any information regarding Sombath's fate or whereabouts."
To Shui Meng, Laos’ constitution and its acceptance of international human rights treaties including the U.N. Convention for the Protection of All Persons Against Enforced Disappearances makes it even more imperative to solve the case.
“For these reasons, it is all the more important that the Lao government act with integrity and honesty and resolve Sombath’s case with immediate urgency,” she said.
Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.