More than six months after his disappearance, some foreign diplomats in Vientiane think it is very unlikely that respected Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone is still alive.
Sombath was driving on the outskirts of the Lao capital Vientiane on Dec. 15 last year when he was stopped in his vehicle by police and then transferred into another vehicle, as surveillance video from that day showed. No one has seen him since.
Based on private discussions with officials from the Lao government, the ruling Communist Party, and the military, as well as other well-connected sources in the country, several foreign diplomats told RFA's Lao Service that the 60-year-old community worker's chances of being alive are very slim.
Lao authorities have reported little or no progress in their investigations since Sombath's disappearance on the night of Dec. 15, 2012, when police-recorded surveillance video showed him being stopped at a police post.
Amid the impasse, many in the foreign diplomatic community in Laos think it is most unlikely that Sombath is still alive, one diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The diplomat indicated that Sombath may have been killed by government-linked groups, saying that one "highly placed source" told him bluntly that Sombath was "finished" and "planted," using jargon to exemplify that he may have been murdered and buried in an undisclosed location.
Lack of trust
Another diplomat quoted an unnamed member of the Lao Communist Party's central committee as saying that the party leadership did not trust Sombath, who has been campaigning to upgrade youth training, improve the rights of the poor rural population and to protect the environment.
His attempt to plant the seeds of “freedom” in Lao youth minds was perceived as a clear challenge to the Communist Party leadership, which has ruled Laos with an iron fist since 1975, the diplomat said, also speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Lao authorities have also been concerned over his role in organizing the Asia Europe People's Forum—where various "sensitive" issues such as corruption, land rights and environmental threats were discussed—ahead of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit that took place in Vientiane in November 2012, he said.
One particular concern of the authorities was that Sombath had allegedly written a letter to Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi inviting her to attend the forum, he said.
Aung San Suu Kyi did not attend the forum.
The Communist Party’s suspicion was further inflamed by Sombath’s close contact with Thai and international environmentalist groups fiercely opposed to the construction of dams on the Mekong River and which had organized demonstration against the Xayaburi dam project during the ASEM Summit, the second diplomat said.
The diplomat felt that the Lao government’s current strategy is to "drag its feet" over the Sombath's case, hoping that the issue will fade away like all past arbitrary arrests, imprisonments, and forced disappearances in the country.
International community's concerns
The United Nations, the United States, and the European Parliament have all raised concerns about Sombath's disappearance while human rights groups expressed fears he may have been abducted by security groups linked to the government.
London-based Amnesty International and U.S.-based Human Rights Watch had said that Sombath was a victim of "enforced disappearance"—defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts.
“Based on the evidence, the most plausible conclusion is that Sombath Somphone is a victim of an enforced disappearance, for which Lao officials are responsible,” Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Researcher on Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam said recently.
“The fact that Sombath was taken from a police post in the center of Laos’ capital city, and that the police there did nothing to resist, raises very serious concerns,” he said.
Human Rights Watch had said that the authorities in Laos have "failed to seriously investigate or credibly explain the enforced disappearance" of Sombath.
It said there was no indication that the Lao authorities had made any follow-up inquiries into the actions recorded on the police security video.
“After six months, the Lao government’s failure to explain the abduction of a prominent social activist at a police checkpoint or account for his whereabouts raises the gravest concerns for his safety,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Sombath was the former director of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC), a nongovernmental organization he founded in 1996 to promote education, training, and sustainable development.
He was the recipient of the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership for his work in the fields of education and development across Asia.
Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.