U.S. Still Concerned Over Disappearance of Lao Rural Development Expert

Sombath Somphone’s wife hopes warming relations between the two countries will lead to a break in the case.

Ng Shui Meng at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok, Dec. 11, 2013.

While the U.S. appears to have taken no overt steps to prod the Lao government over the disappearance of U.S.-educated rural development expert Sombath Somphone during President Barack Obama’s visit to the country, his wife received assurances that his abduction still has Washington’s attention.

Sombath’s wife Ng Shui Meng met with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes on Thursday to discuss his 2012 disappearance, she told RFA’s Lao Service.

“He reassured me that the U.S. continues to be concerned and will find an opportunity to get the Lao government to resolve the case,” she said. “But he admitted they have gotten nothing new.”

Sombath’s Jeep was stopped at a police checkpoint on Dec 15, 2012, and videos of the abduction show Sombath being forced into a white truck and taken away. Lao authorities have arrested no one in the case, and there is little indication a serious investigation ever took place.

Shui Meng said Rhodes told her that the attention placed on Laos by the Obama visit, the first by a sitting U.S. president, could help dislodge more information about the case.

“Ben Rhodes said Obama's visit went very well, and he thinks the U.S.-Laos relations as a result were taken up a notch,” she “He hopes the warming of relations will build better trust and will be help to resolve Sombath's case.”

She added: “I really get the sense that there is genuine sincerity from the U.S. side.”

Shui Meng also pressed her case with U.N. Assistant General Miroslav Jenca, writing in a Facebook post that “he sympathizes over what happened to Sombath Somphone.”

According to the post, Jenca told Shui Meng that “the U.N. will continue to remind the Lao government of its accountabilities under international law. He also said the U.N. will continue to urge for opening of Civil Society space.”

Obama was in Laos for the Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s annual summit. Laos is this year’s chair and the annual meeting was held in the capital Vientiane.

As president, Obama has pushed to reframe American foreign policy toward Asia as part of a “pivot” intended to focus more on emerging trading partners in that region. The president’s trip, which also included stops in China, Hawaii, and Midway marked Obama’s last big effort to make that policy a reality.

“The bottom line is this,” Obama said on Sept 3. “Today, the United States is more deeply engaged across the Asia Pacific than we have been in decades. Our position is stronger. We’ve sent a clear message that, as a Pacific nation, we are here to stay.”

Reported and translated by RFA's Lao Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.