Remembering enforced disappearance victims in Asia

Tibetans, Uyghurs and Burmese are among the many victims of enforced disappearances in Asia.
By RFA Staff
Animated gif by RFA

What do a prize-winning rural development expert from Laos, two Tibetan sisters, a Uyghur anthropologist and a Burmese monk have in common? They are all victims of enforced disappearance, taken against their will with their whereabouts unknown.

The United Nations and civic groups are marking the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances Wednesday with calls for an end to impunity for governments and non-state actors who have made hundreds of thousands of people in 85 countries disappear in conflicts and crackdowns.

“Enforced disappearance is a serious human rights violation that has frequently been used to spread terror,”  the UN said in a statement. The Aug. 30 annual day marks the adoption in the 2006 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

“The feeling of insecurity generated by this practice is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared, but also affects their communities and society as a whole,” it added. 

Of particular concern in the fight against enforced disappearances in 2023 are harassment of rights defenders, relatives of victims, witnesses and legal counsel;  the use of counter-terrorist activities as an excuse for violations; and “widespread impunity” for perpetrators, the UN said.

The harassment, questionable terrorism accusations and impunity cited by the UN are recurring issues in Radio Free Asia reports on enforced disappearances in China, including Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as in Southeast Asia. 

China, notably, has been condemned internationally for a mass internment program in which as many as 1.8 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other mostly Muslim people were sent involuntarily to re-education camps. Subequent research by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights found the inmates face torture, forced medication, and other abuses. 

Tibetans say that in the last five years some 60 Tibetan political prisoners are said to have disappeared – many cut off from their families while enduring secret trials and sentencing hearings.

Following are profiles of victims of enforced disappearance.

Zumkar and Youdon

Zumkar and Youdon. Credit: Tibet Times
Zumkar and Youdon. Credit: Tibet Times

Tibetan Zumkar and her younger sister Youdon were arrested this summer as Chinese authorities ramped up an annual crackdown on Tibetans in the days surrounding the Dalai Lama’s birthday on July 6.

Zumkar was arrested on June 23, after police said they found a photo of the Dalai Lama on an altar in the sisters’ home. Her whereabouts are unknown.

Youdon was arrested on July 11 in her hometown in Amdo County in Tibet’s Nagchu region. Police accused Youdon of colluding with her older sister in displaying  the Dalai Lama photo. She is thought to be under detention in the regional capital Llahas, but no details are known.

Sombath Somphone

Sombath Somphone. Credit: Chareunsouk/RFA
Sombath Somphone. Credit: Chareunsouk/RFA

Lao rural development expert and activist Sombath Somphone was stopped in his jeep at a police checkpoint outside the capital of Vientiane on Dec. 15, 2012, forced into a white truck and driven away. 

He has never been seen or heard from since.

Though police promised to investigate the disappearance that was captured on closed circuit video, authorities have never undertaken any credible technical examination of the footage. They have also refused outside help to analyze it.

The Lao government has remained silent about the fate of the then 60-year-old Sombath, who had challenged massive land deals negotiated by the state that had left thousands of rural Lao villagers homeless with little compensation. 

The Venerable Thawbita  (Alinka Kyal)

The Venerable Thawbita  (Alinka Kyal). Credit: RFA
The Venerable Thawbita (Alinka Kyal). Credit: RFA

The Buddhist monk Thawbita was one of the prominent figures arrested on February 1, 2021, the day of Myanmar’s military coup.

Thawbita, who wrote under the name Alinka Kyal, was known for advocating for the rights of the people, the rule of law in Myanmar, and had openly criticized the country’s powerful military since before the coup.

He was sentenced to four years in jail, including two years for a 2018 charge of defaming commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing, the coup leader. Although he was due for release from Obo Prison on June 20, neither his family nor his monastery has heard from him. A local media report quoted a prison source as saying that military personnel had taken him from the prison to an infamous interrogation center in Mandalay.

Rahile Dawut

Rahile Dawut. Credit: Akida Polat/
Rahile Dawut. Credit: Akida Polat/

Rahile Dawut is a distinguished scholar of Uyghur folklore and the geography of Uyghur Sufi shrines. She has written dozens of articles in international journals and a number of books, including studies on Islamic sacred sites in Central Asia, and presented her work at conferences around the world.

She disappeared in December 2017, and at the time was believed to have been arrested and detained in one of the many internment camps in Xinjiang. More than three years after her disappearance, former co-workers at Xinjiang University, where Rahile created and directed the university's Minorities Folklore Research Center, confirmed that she was detained along with other members of the Uyghur intellectual and cultural elite, sentenced, and jailed. 

Lhundrup Dragpa

Lhundrup Dragpa. Credit: Provided photo
Lhundrup Dragpa. Credit: Provided photo

Singer Lhundrup Dragpa was detained by police in May 2019 in the town of Nagchu in Driru county – reportedly over a song he released two months earlier that was  critical of Chinese government policies in his region.

Dragpa was deprived of legal counsel while detained, and in June 2020, he was sentenced to six years in prison on unspecified charges. His whereabouts are unknown. 

Go Sherab Gyatso 

Go Sherab Gyatso. Credit: RFA
Go Sherab Gyatso. Credit: RFA

Go Sherab Gyatso, a 46-year-old Buddhist monk at Kirti monastery in Ngaba Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in China’s Sichuan province, was taken into custody on unknown charges by State Security agents on Oct. 26, 2020 in Sichuan’s capital Chengdu. The Tibetan writer and educator known for expressing loyalty to the Dalai Lama received a 10-year sentence but his present situation is unknown. 

Qurban Mamut

Qurban Mamut. Credit: RFA
Qurban Mamut. Credit: RFA

Qurban Mamut, the former editor-in-chief of the popular Uyghur journal Xinjiang Civilization, disappeared in 2017, several months after he and his wife returned home after visiting their son in the U.S. state of Virginia.

Chinese authorities had kept Mamut’s imprisonment and sentence a secret, causing great anguish to his family, for almost five years until one of his daughters confirmed he was alive and serving 15 years in prison.

Radio Free Asia Uyghur reporters were able to confirm with police in Mamut's hometown in Aksu prefecture in April 2022 that he had received "15 years in prison for political crimes” but authorities would not say where he was jailed and his family remains uncertain of his whereabouts.


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