Lao activists are crying foul at a stealthy, failed attempt by their government to delete the disappearance of the country’s most prominent civil society leader from the list of regional human rights issues to be discussed on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Malaysia next month.
The activists say a retired Lao government official served as a proxy for the authoritarian government in Vientiane and lobbied the ASEAN People’s Forum to erase the name of Sombath Somphone, a prominent civil rights leader who has been missing for more than two years, from a list of human rights and governance problems in Southeast Asia.
Sombath went missing on Dec. 15, 2012, when police stopped him in his vehicle at a checkpoint in the capital Vientiane. He was then transferred to another vehicle, according to police surveillance video, and has not been heard from since.
Rights groups suspect that Lao officials were involved in or aware of the abduction of Sombath, who received 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.
Lao officials have yet to state a reason for his disappearance or make any progress in the case, which has become a major headache for the Vientiane government, drawing criticism from European and U.S. development partners and aid donors and attention from the United Nations.
The statement by civil society organizations from the 10 ASEAN countries for the April 21-24 ASEAN People’s Forum (APF) in Malaysia cited Sombath’s case as an example of how “states and non-state actors continue to commit violations with impunity, including police brutality, torture and enforced disappearances, against civil society activists.”
Lao civil society activist say that during the drafting of the statement, a retired Lao official named Maydom Chanthanasinh pressed the Lao delegation of civic groups to strike Sombath’s name from the statement.
“Maydom received an order from the government to do that because the Lao government does not want any civil society organizations to mention Sombath’s name,” a source in Laos who attended discussions on the statement told RFA’s Lao service.
Nothing to hide?
Notes during the drafting of the statement made available to RFA showed that Maydom dismissed the international prize-winning Sombath, saying “for Lao people he is a simple development worker, but not prominent as pretended in the footnote.”
Sombath, 62 at the time of his disappearance, had not set up any registered NGO and had not been elected a leader of any Lao civil society organization, the note said.
“The facts are there but why (does) the world give him so much importance?” read another comment arguing for deleting Sombath’s name.
The effort failed and, in a vote of Lao civil society representatives, more than three-quarters of the members supported keeping Sombath’s case in the statement. The statement was included in the seven-page APF statement that was handed over to 2015 ASEAN host Malaysia in February. Leaders of the ASEAN countries will hold their annual summit in Kuala Lumpur and Langkawi in late April and the APF will convene a gathering of Southeast Asian civil society figures at the same time.
Maydom, the representative for Lao civil society organizations at ASEAN, had served as national chairman of ASEAN Committee on Science and Technology in the Lao Prime Minister’ Office before retiring to set up a non-profit group.
Repeated attempts by RFA to reach Maydom by telephone for comment were not successful.
Sombath’s wife, Ng Shui-meng, who has tirelessly campaigned for answers from the government about her husband, told RFA’s Lao Service she was puzzled by Maydom’s efforts.
“All government official statements which reported on Sombath's disappearance acknowledged that Sombath is a Lao citizen and he did disappear in front of the police post. So why does Dr. Maydong want to remove his name from the APF forum? What is Dr. Maydong afraid of? What is the Lao Government afraid of?,” she said.
“If Dr Maydong has nothing to hide about Sombath, then he should not be afraid that people inside or outside the country show concern about Sombath's disappearance,” added Ng.
Laos offered no new information about Sombath when his case was brought up in January during a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) in Geneva, Switzerland.
Reported and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert