The Mystery of Sombath Somphone Still Resonates in Laos

After four years the government is no closer to solving the land-development expert’s kidnapping.

A 2005 photo of Sombath Somphone in the Philippines.

The disappearance of Sombath Somphone remains one of the most enduring and heartbreaking mysteries of modern Laos as the abduction of the world-recognized rural development activist at a police checkpoint four years ago remains unsolved.

“As the fourth anniversary of Sombath’s disappearance approaches, my heart becomes heavier by the day,” his wife Shui Meng Ng told RFA’s Lao Service on Tuesday. “I never expected that I would still have no news of Sombath after so long.”

Video footage show’s Sombath’s Jeep being stopped at a police checkpoint on the evening of Dec. 15, 2012. In the video Sombath is herded into a white truck and taken away, and a man dressed in white returns and drives off in his Jeep.

Soon after he was kidnapped, police promised to investigate, but Lao authorities soon backtracked, saying they could no longer confirm whether the man in the video footage was actually Sombath.

Despite repeated promises of an investigation, the Lao government remains stubbornly clueless about his disappearance.

No trace of the man or his vehicle has ever been found, but Shui Meng Ng and other supporters know that someone, somewhere in Laos knows what happened on that busy road in downtown Vientiane on that night four years ago.

‘Someone must know where he is!’

“The Lao Government has promised an investigation, but there are still no answers,” she said. “Someone must know where he is!”

Shui Ming and other supporters say the Lao government doesn’t want to solve the mystery.

“Laos is too small not to be able to find Sombath, if the police investigators really do their work,” Shui Ming Ng said.

Sombath is well known figure in Laos and around the world for his decades of work on behalf of farmers and sustainable agricultural practices. He was the

recipient of the U.N.’s Human Resource Development Award for empowering the rural poor in Laos and the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.

He pioneered the use of participatory rural appraisal (PRA) techniques in Laos. PRA aims to incorporate the knowledge and opinions of rural people in the planning and management of development projects. It is a methodology that requires policy-makers to learn about rural life and the environment from the people who live in project areas.

Sombath was generally apolitical, but PRA works from the bottom up, instead of from the top down. Pushing the PRA likely put Sombath on a collision course with Lao’s communist government, whose hallmark is central planning.

Just before his abduction Sombath challenged the massive land deals the government negotiated that left thousands of rural Laos homeless with little compensation. The deals sparked rare popular protests in Laos, where political speech is tightly controlled.

The seizure of land for development—often without due process or fair compensation for displaced residents— is a major cause of protests in authoritarian Asian countries like Laos.

Fear and cover-up

The lack of progress, or of evidence that there is any kind of actual investigation into the abduction indicates that the Lao government is covering up his disappearance, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia division.

“The government of Laos is responsible,” Robertson said. “So far this has all been a cover-up. We believe they know the answers, and we believe we just have to figure out how to persuade them to reveal them.”

Sombath’s disappearance and the reasons behind it remain a mystery, but it has had a chilling effect on development workers inside the country.

“A human-rights violation occurring in one place is threatening everywhere,” said a civil society organization (CSO) official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“Since he was abducted, development workers in Laos feel afraid and are restricted in working on development projects,” the official added.

Lao officials declined to talk to RFA about the abduction, but the government issued a statement to state media outlets on International Human Rights Day saying “the political, economic, social, cultural and family rights of the people have been assured and enshrined in the constitution, laws and regulations of Laos.”

While the statement didn’t mention Sombath, it at least paid lip service to some of his underlying goals.

“The government is also striving to make Laos a state ruled by law by 2020 to create conditions for the Lao multiethnic people to enjoy their basic rights in line with the constitution and laws, along with pursuing regional and international obligations on human rights that Laos has committed to,” the statement reads.

International pressure and hope

While the abduction has incubated fear and caused pain, Sombath supporters and family still hold out hope.

About 70 people marked the anniversary of Sombath’s disappearance is help at Participatory Development Education Training Center (PADETC) on Thursday.

“The event includes a religious rite, and the participants listened to his biography and background to understand why uncle Sombath did development work, and there is an exhibition highlighting his achievements,” a family member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told RFA.

Representatives from the embassies of the U.S., the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Australia, the EU, Singapore, and development agency staff, including the Mekong Youth from Thailand and the AFAD participated, family members said.

His wife and others hold out hope that international pressure can help dislodge information about Sombath’s disappearance.

“Every time the Lao government goes overseas, every time it meets with other governments, it needs to hear the words Sombath Somphone, until we ultimately get answers to what has happened to him,” Robertson explained.

Shui Meng Ng clings to that hope.

“The silence around his disappearance is frightening and also heart-breaking, but I will never give up” she said. “I will keep looking for answers and I believe the answers will come one of these days, and I just hope that the international community will continue to support my efforts and press the Lao Government to resolve the case quickly and let Sombath come home.”

Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.