Sombath Case a ‘Blow’ to ASEAN

Rights groups say the disappearance of a Lao activist highlights Southeast Asia’s worsening rights record.

Sombath Somphone in an undated photo from PADETC's website.
Photo courtesy of PADETC

The “forced disappearance” of Lao activist Sombath Somphone is a blow to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), rights groups said Tuesday, as members of parliament across Asia and Europe urged the Laotian Prime minister to order an “urgent” investigation into his case.

The unresolved case of Sombath, who has been missing since leaving the office of his antipoverty training center on Dec. 15, represents a “threat to human rights” in the region, the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) said.

“From the perspective of human rights, it can be construed that Sombath Somphone is a defender of human rights, of resources—he protects people in his locality,” Pratabjit Neelapaijit, a representative of the Philippines-based rights group, told RFA’s Lao Service.

“Therefore the involuntary disappearance of Sombath Somphone amounts to a forced disappearance—an attack against human rights workers,” Neelapaijit said during a seminar by rights groups and nongovernmental organizations to discuss the missing activist’s case at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand on Tuesday.

Sombath, 60, is one of Laos’s most prominent civil society figures and his case has prompted international concern that his disappearance could be tied to his human rights work.

Saksinee Emasiri, a coordinator for the Human Rights and Peaceful Studies Institute at Thailand’s Mahidol University who was also present at Tuesday’s seminar, told RFA that Sombath’s disappearance was a sign that the state of human rights in the ASEAN bloc of nations—which includes Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—is regressing.

“We feel as if the ASEAN community is stepping backwards,” she said.

“While the world is moving forward, suddenly Sombath Somphone was kidnapped in full public view on a busy street. How can such an incident happen?”

Police have shared CCTV footage from the night Sombath went missing that shows him pulling over his jeep at an intersection in Vientiane and getting out to speak with traffic police. He has not been seen since the video.

But police have not explained whether the vehicles and individuals in the footage have been identified, whether Sombath’s car has been found, and what police manning the traffic post that night had seen.

Participants at Tuesday’s seminar praised Sombath for his work in community development in Laos and said the activist provided a worthy example for ASEAN youngsters to follow.

Emasiri said that besides affecting the ASEAN community, his disappearance had also sent a chilling message to members of civil society groups in Laos.

MP letter

The seminar in Thailand was held as scores of parliamentarians from across Asia and Europe on Tuesday wrote a letter to Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, requesting an “urgent investigation” into the case of Sombath, who it called “one of the most respected and influential voices for sustainable people-centered and just economic and social development in Laos as well as in Asia.”

The open letter also urged the Lao government to “undertake all actions necessary to ensure [Sombath’s] immediate safe return to his family,” saying the members of parliament were “concerned about his safety, his state of health and his well-being.”

The request was signed by members of parliament from Austria, Australia, Belgium, Cambodia, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, The Netherlands, The Philippines, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, and the European Parliament.

Sombath’s wife Ng Shui Meng, who is a Singapore national, recently expressed regret over the lack of vital information from police on her husband’s case, stressing that the activist was in need of daily medication and urging authorities to allow her to see him if he was in official custody.

But a police report from Jan. 11 republished in the official Vientiane Times newspaper on Monday said Sombath was not in official custody and that his disappearance could have been due to personal or business conflicts.

An official of the Ministry of Public Security, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFA on Monday that there was no new information on the case but that the investigation was ongoing.

Sombath, executive director of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Vientiane, is the recipient of the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership for the group’s efforts to promote sustainable development through the training of young people.

The activist had studied in the U.S. before returning to Laos to found PADETC’s precursor in 1980 and in October last year represented local civil society groups as a member of Laos’s national committee at the Asia-Europe People’s Forum in Vientiane on the sidelines of an international summit.

PADETC, which receives funding from the Dutch-based Novib/Oxfam and the EU, among other agencies, works on poverty prevention and sustainability projects such as fuel-efficient stoves, fish farming promotion, recycling, media, school volunteers, and teacher training.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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