Ahead of the first anniversary of Lao NGO leader Sombath Somphone's disappearance on Dec. 15, 2012, his wife Ng Shui Meng, in an interview with RFA's Lao Service, looks back to the day he went missing and says that believing he will come home is what gives her the strength to go on:
Q: Can you share with us what progress has been made in the search for Sombath Somphone?
A: The police said the investigation is ongoing, but I have no knowledge of what they are doing to conduct the investigation. Nor have the police kept us informed. They just said to trust them.
Q: Could you walk us back to what happened on Dec. 15? Start at the very beginning. What do you remember about that day? What were you doing? Where were you when you parted company? What was the last thing you said to one another? When did you start to get worried? What did you do? Who did you call for help? How did they respond?
A: Dec. 15, 2012 was a Saturday. I had a meeting with a friend earlier in the day and I took the car. Sombath had no appointment and said he did not need to go anywhere, except for his usual ping-pong game which he plays regularly with his ping-pong teacher at the PADETC [Participatory Development Training Centre] office. He said not to worry, as he could take his old jeep to go to play ping-pong later in the afternoon.
This is what he did. He took the jeep to play ping-pong, and after that he came to the Saoban Shop where I had said I would be. Saoban Shop is a craft shop that sells handicrafts made by village women's groups trained by PADETC. He met me there, and we left the shop together with me driving my car in front and he following behind. We were going home to dinner together. I could see his jeep behind my car from the rear-view mirror all the way until after I passed the police post on Thadeua Road at KM 4. I did not think much about it when I did not see his jeep. I thought that another car had overtaken his jeep and that he would be still driving behind me.
I arrived home, but he did not return. I called his phone, and the phone message that came back was that his phone had been switched off. When he did not arrive for dinner, I thought he might have decided to stop off somewhere. But I had an uncomfortable feeling, because whenever he changed his mind he would always call to inform me. I thought that maybe his phone had ran out of battery power or money, and so I still did not worry too much.
About 11 p.m. I became more worried, and we went out looking for him, driving along Thadeua Road and thinking that he might have gotten into an accident. When we did not find anything, we visited the city hospitals, still thinking that he could have gotten into an accident. We found nothing, and as it was already very late, we went home.
Next day, Dec. 16, was a Sunday. We reported him as missing to the village and to the district police station. The district police officers took down the details, but said they could not do much on Sunday and asked us to take the papers to the municipality police station on Monday to report the case. On Sunday, we went again to the hospitals to look for him but could find no sign of him.
Q: How did you find out about the videotape? What did you think when you first saw it? What did the authorities say when you asked for the original? Why do you think they won’t release it?
A: On Sunday, when we were driving around looking for him, we noticed that there were police cameras all along Thadeua Road and near the police post where I had last seen his car. So on Monday, Dec. 17, when we went to report him missing to the municipality police station as advised by the district police, we asked the municipality police officers to let us see the tape recorded by the police camera near the place and around the time when I last saw his jeep. That was how we saw the sequence of events. When we saw the footage of the abduction, we were totally surprised, because that was the last thing we thought could have happened. Even the police showing us the tape were surprised. When we asked for a copy of the tape, we were told they could not give the tape to us. So we asked that they show the footage again so that we could record the sequence of events on our camera and cell phones. That was what we did, and that was the footage that is now uploaded on YouTube and on his website.
Q: What do you think can be done now to find Sombath that hasn’t already been done?
A: I do not know what else can be done. I only hope that whoever has taken him will show compassion and let him come home. If he has committed any crime, then charge him in court and allow him the right of due process according to law, and allow his family the right of visitation.
Q: Why do you think Sombath was taken? Was Sombath working on anything particularly sensitive late last year? What was so threatening about him or the work he was doing that someone would want to disappear him?
A: A lot has already been written in many articles about Sombath's work and about the possible reasons he could have been taken. His work—which is all about the education of farmers, young people, women, and children on issues of sustainable development, holistic education, and youth leadership training, and the inclusion of Dharma [Buddhist] teachings in the schools—has always been conducted with the approval of, and in cooperation with, all levels of government. So I am still confused as to what he could have done that would have been so sensitive and so disturbing to whoever could have ordered his abduction.
His last public role was to support the organizing of the Asia-Europe People's Forum (AEPF), which involves civil society participation from all over Asia and Europe, including Laos. He was co-chairing the National Organizing Committee with a government official. And every aspect of the meeting, including the agenda, the list of keynote speakers, the issues to be discussed, and the participants were all approved by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which hosted the event. So if this involvement was the cause of his disappearance, this is still very puzzling to me.
I keep thinking that there must have been some mistake, or that there was some confusion somewhere.
Q: How do you feel about all the people and international organizations that have been demanding his release and a more thorough investigation into what happened on Dec. 15? Has this been at all helpful?
A: Whatever expressions of support have been made by private individuals or international organizations requesting a more thorough and transparent investigation into what happened on Dec. 15 are certainly appreciated. The government has promised to investigate, and so there should be nothing wrong if concerned members of the public and development organizations and other governments also press to expedite the investigation. All that matters is that Sombath be found quickly and returned safely.
Q: Do you have any thoughts on what has happened to him? How hopeful are you, for yourself and for all of us, that he will come back one day?
A: As I have said many times, I can do nothing but hope. I need to hope and can only continue to hope that he will come back safely. I also cling to the hope that the Lao culture of Buddhist compassion will ensure that whoever holds him will not harm him or hurt him.
Q: Could you explain the goals or objectives for community development that Sombath has for Laos?
A: His objectives are simple. All people, especially the poor, have basic needs for a dignified and happy life—a life that has been expressed in Lao as "a place to live and make a living, adequate clothing, food, and medical care." Development should ensure that everyone has access to those minimum needs in a balanced and sustainable way. That has been the focus of his work in every community. Because of his Buddhist upbringing, he continues to stress that a person's or a society's well-being cannot be met just through the pursuit of wealth or endless consumerism, but should also be balanced with spiritual well-being—that is, respect for all living things, including living things in nature. Hence he always proposes a development model that balances economic progress with cultural, environmental, and spiritual development. Without this, he believes, human life will be unbalanced and human beings will not enjoy true happiness and well-being.
Q: People seem to be drawn to Sombath. Is there something unique in how he relates to people?
A: People are drawn to him because of his gentle nature and his genuine respect for the other person, regardless of the person's gender, status, or age. He is a good listener; he is never dogmatic or argumentative. He does not say much, but when he speaks, his sincerity, his honesty, and his wisdom come through. That is why people respect him, even if they may not agree with him.
Q: Would you tell us about his work and what he is trying to accomplish in Laos? How was he able to accomplish the things he did? What kind of problems did he run into? What is he most proud of? We understand that he has a small piece of land outside Vientiane and that he loved to spend time there with friends and especially with you, looking out at the rice field and organic vegetable garden. We know he has great hopes that he can turn these into something that farmers can learn and gain experience from. Could you tell us about that?
A: If you were to ask him what he has done or accomplished, he will say he has not done anything much. He is not an intellectual or a theorist; he is just putting into practice what he has always believed in doing. He is a farm boy at heart, and he knows and understands the struggles of poor farmers and families from real life. He just wants poor people to have a more secure, healthy, and happy life and be able to raise their children in a happy and healthy environment. He really believes in the importance of family and community solidarity and stability and the space to live in harmony and peace with each other and with nature. That is what he has worked for all his life.
I think the land you refer to is one of PADETC's learning and demonstration centers. It is a rice field that PADETC uses to demonstrate organic rice and vegetable farming. It is open for farmers in the villages nearby and for students to come and learn and also to grow their own rice and vegetables in an organic way. Nowadays, even students from schools visit or spend a day learning how to grow and harvest rice and plant vegetables.
He and I are both retired. We just want to live a peaceful and quiet life.
Q: Your husband has sometimes been referred to as a human rights campaigner. RFA even made that statement in some of our reports. But you told us that this is a mischaracterization of him and his work. Could you explain why it’s incorrect?
A: In the political context of Laos, the term human rights campaigner is often misunderstood or construed as someone who challenges and opposes the government's policies or way of doing things. This is why I object when he is depicted that way, because this will only cause more difficulties for him. Sombath has never challenged or opposed any of the government’s publicly stated policies or laws. Most of them are very reasonable and admirable if you read any of the public statements. What he does only tries to put the government's policies and laws into practice.
Q: What is the thing you miss about your husband most?
A: His companionship, his love, his kindness, and his humor. He has a quiet humor that many people do not see or know unless they spend time with him. For me his absence feels like half of me is missing.
Q: We all know that this is a harsh time for you and that you must be struggling with these feelings. How do you stay strong during these hard times? How are you getting through this?
A: Hoping and believing that he will come home is what gives me the strength to continue and go on.
Q: Could you share your love story with us: how you met, when you fell in love, and when you knew he was the one you were going spend the rest of your life with? What did you like about him? When and how did you decide to get married? And what did he tell you about his early life in Laos? What was it like for him growing up? What was the most difficult part for him? What encouraged him to get an education, and to go to school in the U.S.?
A: As I said, he is a farm boy. He grew up as the eldest child in a poor farming family. A lot of the responsibility of caring for the family fell on his shoulders, including cooking and taking care of his young siblings. He always says he hardly had time to play with other farm boys, as he was always having to carry a sibling in one arm while feeding another at his knee. He learned responsibility early and found joy in living surrounded by nature.
His father was strict and always made sure that he studied hard. He is intelligent and learned fast and so always did well in school. He left home early, having to go to school in another village, and then later went to Savannakhet for secondary school. Like many Lao kids going to school in another town, he had to live with other families and learned that he had to help out with the chores of the family he lived with. So doing work around the house, fetching water, cooking, and taking care of other kids is nothing new to him.
At 16 he obtained an American Field Service scholarship that took him to rural Wisconsin to study for one year in high school while living with an American family. After returning to Laos he got another scholarship, a USAID scholarship, to study at the University of Hawaii. That was where he was until 1975 when the American War ended and Laos became the People's Democratic Republic.
All the time he was in the U.S studying, he had only one thought—to go home after his studies to help his family and work for his country. And this is what he did. He came back to Laos in 1978 even though many people were fleeing the country as refugees. His friends cautioned him about going back to Laos while things were still so uncertain. He told his friends that he was not from a family of the urban elite; his family were all poor farmers. None of his family had even thought about leaving Laos as refugees, so why should he? They had nothing to fear, they were just happy that there was no more war and that life could go back to normal.
Q: Tell us about Sombath personally. What is his favorite music? What are his favorite books, movies, food? What does he like to do when he’s not working? How would you describe Sombath to someone who doesn’t know him? If you were to describe him in one word, what would it be?
A: As I said, he is a simple man with simple needs. He has never known high living, so he enjoys simple things. His hobby is playing ping-pong, which he sees as a form of exercise and never as a competitive sport. He never competes. He likes to challenge himself, but is never comfortable competing for the sake of winning.
Q: You certainly knew that Laos was a communist country. Did you have concerns about moving back there with Sombath?
A: At the time we came, our only thought was what we could do to contribute whatever we could to the post-war reconstruction of the communities in Laos. We are not involved in politics, and we have no political aspirations or motives. We never felt threatened or afraid. Life was difficult, and most things were scarce and everybody was poor. But that was OK. There was no outright political persecution, no repression. The communist regime in Laos was a gentle regime compared to the repression in some of the other communist countries around.
Q: What do you think the long-term consequences of Sombath’s disappearance will be for the people of Laos, for NGO’s, and for the Lao government?
A: That is for history to judge and for the people of Laos and the NGO community to think about.