Sombath Somphone, a Lao activist who has been missing for seven years amid stonewalling by his country’s communist government, was commemorated in Bangkok on Friday, the International Day for the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.
Sombath Somphone disappeared on Dec. 15, 2012, when police stopped him in his vehicle at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Vientiane. He was then transferred to another vehicle, according to a police surveillance video, and has not been heard from since.
Before his abduction, Sombath had challenged massive land deals negotiated by the government that had left thousands of rural Lao villagers homeless with little paid in compensation. The deals sparked rare popular protests in Laos, where political speech is tightly controlled.
During the event Friday in Bangkok, Ng Shui Meng, Sombath’s wife, told RFA’s Lao Service, “I am so sad and disappointed that after almost seven years since [his] disappearance, the investigation [into the disappearance] has not progressed.”
RFA published a report in May in which Ng said that the search for her husband was now at a dead end.
“The [Lao] authorities no longer pay attention to investigating his whereabouts,” she said Friday, adding, “I think they must have updated evidence, but I’ve not [heard] anything new.”
Despite the authorities’ apparent lack of interest in solving the case, Ng said she would never give up her search.
“No matter how many years might pass, I will keep asking the Lao government until I get an answer, because that is the only thing I can do. I would [also] like to appeal to the international community to never forget Sombath. His disappearance was definitely enforced,” she said Friday.
Though Lao authorities have denied any responsibility, Sombath’s abduction is widely acknowledged to be an enforced disappearance—the arrest or detention of an individual by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the person or a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty.
Rights organizations weigh-in
Andrea Giorgetta, head of the Asia desk for the Paris-based International Federation for Human rights, told RFA on the same day that not only has the Lao government failed to adequately investigate the case, “but also, over the years, the Lao government which has been issuing personal attacks against Sombath Somphone and his family.”
“This is highly regrettable, considering that we will soon mark the really unfortunate occurrence of seven years of the disappearance of Sombath Somphone,” said Giorgetta.
Angkhana Neelaphaijit, a Thai human rights activist and the wife of disappeared human rights lawyer Somchai Neelaphaijit, said that she hoped countries all over the region would make more of an effort to prevent enforced disappearances.
“I would like to request that ASEAN ratify the UN convention on enforced disappearance so that the law can prevent officers from making their citizens disappear, and fully cooperate with their families,” she said.
Sombath had been a prominent activist in Laos prior to disappearing.
His decades of work on behalf of farmers and sustainable agricultural practices helped him win the U.N.’s Human Resource Development Award for empowering the rural poor in Laos, and later the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.
Reported and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA's Lao Service. Written in English by Eugene Whong.