Kerry Warns Laos Over Missing Civil Society Leader's Case

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A 2005 photo of Sombath Somphone in the Philippines.
A 2005 photo of Sombath Somphone in the Philippines.
AFP/Somphone family

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Laos Sunday that the unresolved case of a missing local civil society leader could undermine the authoritarian state's aspirations of becoming a responsible member of the international community.

Kerry, who is visiting Southeast Asia, said the United States "remains deeply concerned" over the fate of Sombath Somphone, one of the most respected civil society figures in Laos, on the one-year anniversary of his disappearance.

Sombath 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 surveillance video. No one has seen him since.

Lao officials say they are investigating the case but have offered little information on Sombath's whereabouts, prompting human rights groups to suspect that he may have been abducted by government-linked groups.

Six international rights groups said in a joint statement last week that Laos’s failure to conduct a “serious” investigation into the disappearance had “heightened concerns” about government involvement in the case.

Kerry said the international image of Laos could be harmed by Sombath's case.

"Laos has taken steps in recent years to become a responsible partner in the community of nations.  Sombath’s abduction threatens to undermine those efforts," Kerry said in a statement as he visited Vietnam at the weekend on a trip aimed at shoring up ties with Southeast Asia.

"We call on the [Lao] government to take all actions possible to ensure his safe return to his family," Kerry said.

"Our thoughts are with Sombath’s family, friends, and the countless others in the international community who have been inspired by Sombath’s exemplary leadership and devotion to his country."

International requests rebuffed

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 video footage.

Kerry said Washington welcomed a recent statement by Lao President Choummaly Sayasone that the Lao government is very concerned about Sombath’s disappearance and would continue its investigation and take all measures necessary to resolve the case.  

"We look forward to learning the results of a full, thorough, and transparent investigation," Kerry said.

"The United States values its partnership with Laos on a wide range of issues—including unexploded ordnance removal, health, education, combating trafficking in persons, environment, justice reform, counternarcotics, trade, and the search for our missing in action—and we wish to work constructively with Laos to protect human rights and promote the rule of law."

Sombath's wife Ng Shui Meng said that her husband, winner of the 2005 Magsaysay Award, had never campaigned against the Lao government and only worked to help the people.

"I only hope that whoever has taken him will show compassion and let him come home," she told RFA's Lao Service. "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."

Political, economic pressure

Sixty-two Asian nongovernmental organizations in a joint statement called on the international community, particularly the United States, the European Union and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), to raise Sombath's case with the Lao government in all bilateral and multilateral fora.

They should "exert political and economic pressure on the Lao government to ensure the promotion of reforms that guarantee respect for fundamental human rights in accordance with its international obligations," the groups said, adding that Sombath was a victim of "enforced disappearance."

Enforced disappearance—the detention of persons by the state, usually the military or police, followed by a refusal to reveal their fate or whereabouts—is a major human rights concern in Asia.

The 62 groups, which included the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) and Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), said Sombath’s case was not an isolated incident.

They said that the whereabouts of nine people—two women, Kingkeo and Somchit, as well as seven men, Soubinh, Souane, Sinpasong, Khamsone, Nou, Somkhit, and Sourigna—arbitrarily detained by Lao security forces in November 2009 in various locations across the country remain unknown.

"The nine had planned peaceful demonstrations calling for democracy and respect of human rights," they said.

Also unknown are the whereabouts of Somphone Khantisouk, the owner of an ecotourism guesthouse and an outspoken critic of Chinese-sponsored agricultural projects that were damaging the environment in the northern province of Luang Namtha, the groups said.

He disappeared after uniformed men abducted him in January 2007, according to the statement.

Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.

Comments (14)


The 2007 forced disappearance of my friend Somphone Khantisouk from the banks of the Namtha river by uniformed police in broad daylight and observed by various onlookers is a good case in point when discussing the intimidation that silences opposition to human rights and environmental violations in Laos.

(Som)Phone's wife and children have not seen or heard from him since. Sadly, it seems increasingly likely they never will.

Phone was a very rare diamond indeed in the current political context of Laos. He was passionate about the environment and human rights, and was brave enough to speak honestly and openly when he witnessed gross injustices and even attempted to change the outcomes through his network of influential Lao friends and NGO contacts. He has paid the ultimate price for being an inspirational environmental and human rights leader in Laos.

When the corrupt and inept provincial tourism minister of the time Mr Khamlien colluded with Chinese rubber plantation investors and other local politicians to forcefully evict minority peoples from their ancestral land and turn large sections of Luang Namtha's Nam Ha protected area into an immense rubber plantation, Phone spoke out and tried to apply pressure to limit these illegal activities through his network.

Unlike the villagers currently being evicted in the same area for Chinese hydropower projects, Phone was known and respected by many in the international community, particularly those involved with the UNESCO Nam Ha Eco-tourism project and the Wildlife Conservation Society and for co owning and operating the Lao P.D.R's first true eco-tourism lodge, the Boatlanding Guest House.

For these reasons Phone probably felt he had a limited form of protection against the direct use of violence by the corrupted authorities. Sadly, it was decided by the powers that be that eliminating Phone was worth while venture, despite the fact that some international pressure would probably come to bear as a result.

What disturbs me greatly until this day is the way that Phone's network of local friends and fellow environmental/human rights activists, were so effectively silenced by his forced disappearance. His reasonably broad support base was cowered into silence much more effectively than I would have expected. Few spoke out. It was like it never happened.

Everyone realised that no one is safe in Laos if they try to expose the truth and fight for justice. Fear of losing ones life or losing ones life's work are highly effective forms of suppression and I witnessed this first hand.

So, while the motive behind Phone's disappearance and the identity of some of those that sponsored it is common knowledge amongst those that knew him, simply making the accusation against provincial leaders for anyone residing in Laos would be an act of suicide.

Fear and intimidation from the Luang Namtha Authorities ensures the lucrative resource mafiosa spear headed by Chinese corporations and local political leaders continues to flourish and that grass roots environmentalism which, in Luang Namtha was effectively led by Phone and his network, has been eliminated before it ever fully got off the ground.

The bad guys are winning in Luang Namtha.., overwhelmingly. Phone fought and most likely was murdered trying to protect the Nam Ha protected area and the resource rights of vulnerable and impoverished subsistence people in the area. Sadly, most of the region he fought for has now been converted into an immense Chinese rubber plantation and his support network has been cowered by the increasingly powerful Chinese/Local politician resource exploitation mafia.

You can be quite sure that the same political network that orchestrated Phones disappearance are an integral part of promoting and profiting from the latest round of ongoing Chinese hydro dam forced evictions and resource exploitation in Luang Namtha province at the direct expense of local communities.

Its up to the international community and high level Lao Political leaders who wish to preserve some of their nation for future generations to apply more pressure to the Lao government and the Chinese corporations. Lets not let Phone's legacy as a true environmental and human rights hero of Laos go to waste.

Apr 24, 2016 03:09 AM


from U.S

Laos really need a revolution now and get rid all current corrupted governments. Lao people needs to kick Chinese and Viet out of the country as soon as possible because very soon Lao people will be minority.

Jan 12, 2014 10:47 PM

Smack U

from wonder land

You might be the next one will go missing Mr.THE US. Stop being smart ass. Just wondering if you're one those Vientkong's ass kissers or Choummarly's crooked colleague.

Dec 25, 2013 11:24 AM


I also like to warn Kerry that 500000 people gone missing every year in the U.S.A according to the NCIC. so can we find these missing people at home first before you go around telling other country..

Dec 18, 2013 09:59 PM

Ham Yai

from Never Land

Stop playing such a smart ass Mr. THE US. Maybe you are one of Mr. Choummarly's royalty, are you? How about if i smack you hard?

Dec 25, 2013 11:51 AM

Anonymous Reader

Kerry shoul go to Laos and help the internatioal team to remove all the non-exploded bombs the United States has dropped on Laos to kill your former ennemy new friend vietcongs.If you have any good news about the location where Sombat is hiding you can share them with your homologue Thongloun.

Dec 18, 2013 11:12 AM

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