Five hundred days after Laos civil society leader Sombath Somphone went missing at a police checkpoint, his wife called on the United States Tuesday to press the authorities in the Southeast Asian state for answers over his disappearance.
Ng Shui Meng, Sombath’s Singapore-born wife who is in Washington to highlight her husband’s case, said she hopes in meetings with congressional and White House staffers to “ask for whatever support they can give” to get to the bottom of the issue.
“I believe that Laos wants good relations with the U.S.,” Ng told reporters at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, calling on U.S. leaders to raise Sombath's case at regional summits.
“A statement from [U.S. President Barack] Obama or from [Secretary of State] John Kerry when they attend critical meetings, ASEAN meetings … would be very good,” Ng said, referring to future gatherings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to which Laos belongs.
“I’m not sure what more can be done,” Ng said.
Sombath, 63, has been missing since Dec. 15, 2012, when he was stopped in his vehicle at a police checkpoint in the Lao capital Vientiane. He was then transferred into another vehicle, according to police surveillance video, and has not been heard from since.
Five hundred days after Sombath’s disappearance, “I am completely in the dark,” Ng said.
Lao officials say only that they are investigating the case and have denied involvement in the well-respected community development worker’s disappearance, suggesting he may have been kidnapped by “criminal elements,” Ng said.
‘My only desire is to see my husband return’
“For me, I’m not interested in who has taken Sombath, I’m only interested in getting Sombath back,” she said. “My only desire is to see my husband return.”
“Sombath is a Lao citizen, he was last seen at a police kiosk in Vientiane, and so I am appealing to the government to use all their resources to [find] the kidnappers,” she said.
Ng noted that Laos has growing economic and political links to other countries in Southeast Asia and outside the region and seeks membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council. It is also set to chair a meeting of ASEAN in two years’ time.
“[But] Sombath’s case has already drawn some negative impact on the image of Laos,” Ng said.
“I believe that it’s good to continue to engage the Lao government and persuade them that if something like this can be resolved quickly, it will be in the best interest of the country.”
Sombath was the recipient of the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership—Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize—for his work in the fields of education and development.
Laos has turned down international requests to provide assistance in the investigations into Sombath's disappearance, including a U.S. offer to provide technical help to enhance the quality of some blurry images of the surveillance video footage.
Lao media silent
Meanwhile, Sombath’s case has gone unreported in Lao media, “despite the hundreds of articles that have been published on the case” elsewhere, Ng said.
“There seems to be a wall of silence that’s fallen inside the country,” she said, adding that people fear discussing Sombath’s case and that the space for civil society work in Laos has now “narrowed.”
Civil society groups now need more government approvals to pursue their projects, Ng said.
“They have to make sure all their papers are in order before they continue their work. Some civil society groups have scaled back,” she said.
“Others have continued, but with caution.”