Updated at 9:30 a.m. EST on 2012-12-18
The director of a Lao civil society group and recipient of a prestigious international award has gone missing at the same time as a friend and business associate, sources said Monday.
Sombath Somphone, executive director of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Vientiane, has been missing since he left the group’s office in Vientiane on the evening of Dec. 15, according to a friend.
Somphone, 60, is the recipient of the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership for the group’s efforts to promote sustainable development through the training of young people.
The NGO head left the group’s office in Vientiane around 5:00 p.m. at the same time as his wife, Shui Meng Ng, but in a separate car, planning to meet her for dinner an hour later, according to the friend.
But the two were separated when she stopped at a gas station and he drove on ahead, according to the friend.
After he did not return home, Ng, who is a citizen of Singapore, searched for her husband in hospitals across the city and later reported his disappearance to the police, the friend said.
Another friend of Somphone’s, speaking on condition of anonymity from Vientiane, confirmed that the NGO head was missing and that his family was looking for him.
Somphone’s colleagues and fellow development workers have met with government officials to discuss the case and urge an immediate and thorough investigation, according to the first source.
They have also reported the case to the Singaporean and other embassies in Vientiane and to U.N. agency offices there, the source said.
Somphone, who had studied in the U.S. before returning to Laos to found PADETC’s precursor in 1980, in October represented local civil society groups as a member of Laos’s national committee at the Asia-Europe People’s Forum in Vientiane on the sidelines of an international summit.
PADETC, which receives funding from the Dutch-based Novib/Oxfam and the EU, among other agencies, works on poverty prevention and sustainability projects such as fuel-efficient stoves, fish farming promotion, recycling, media, school volunteers, and teacher training.
When asking acquaintances about Somphone’s whereabouts, friends and colleagues found that a friend of his visiting from the U.S. had also disappeared, according to the first source.
A representative at the U.S. State Department’s press office in Washington said Monday the office had no information about a U.S. citizen missing in Laos.
Somphone’s disappearance follows the expulsion from Laos earlier this month of a foreign NGO director who had spoken critically of the government.
Swiss development group Helvetas’s country director Anne-Sophie Gindroz was kicked out after receiving a 48-hour notice from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Dec. 7 saying she was no longer welcome in the country due to her “unconstructive attitude” toward the Lao government.
Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.
An earlier version of this story stated that Somphone went missing Dec. 16 instead of Dec. 15 and that the missing friend was staying at Somphone's relative's house.