Supporters Mark Third Anniversary of Lao Activist's Disappearance

Rights groups call for renewed attention to Sombath Somphone's case as Laos prepares to host top-level ASEAN meetings next year.

A 2005 photo of Sombath Somphone in the Philippines.

Friends and supporters of missing Lao civil society activist Sombath Somphone marked the third anniversary of his disappearance on Tuesday with celebrations of his life and work and renewed calls for an investigation into his fate.

Sombath’s Dec. 15, 2012 abduction at a police checkpoint in the capital Vientiane is widely believed to have been carried out by police or some other government-linked group, though authorities in the one-party communist state have consistently denied playing  a role in his disappearance.

On Dec. 11, a Vientiane-based civil society group founded by Sombath, PADETC (the Participatory Development Education Training Center), marked the anniversary with an event remembering his achievements.

The event was attended by over 100 people and included colleagues and friends, foreign diplomats, and representatives from other development agencies, sources said.

Speaking to RFA’s Lao Service on the day before the event, a PADETC official said that Sombath “worked only for the betterment of society, and never for himself.”

“I am happy that I once had the opportunity to work with him and to witness his dedication to development,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.  “Even though he is not here with us now, PADETC will definitely continue his work for [Lao] society.”

'Inadequate, dismissive' response

Claims by Lao authorities that they are conducting an investigation into Sombath’s disappearance are “barely credible,” rights group Amnesty International (AI) said in a Dec. 10 letter signed by the directors of almost 50 AI national offices and addressed to Lao prime minister Thongsing Thammavong.

“Responsible government ministries have revealed no information that transparently and concretely demonstrates that an in-depth and thorough police investigation is taking place,” AI said.

Government officials have instead given “inadequate and dismissive” responses to requests for information, and have sought to silence expressions of concern voiced by civil society groups in Laos and across the region, the rights group said.

Noting that Laos will host meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) next year as chair of the regional grouping, AI vowed to press for renewed international attention to Sombath’s case.

Laos should now shift to “a different narrative,” Anne-Sophie Gindroz, a Swiss development worker expelled from Laos three years ago, noted with evident irony.

“Even for its most fervent supporters, it is embarrassing to admit that three years of ‘investigation’ have brought nothing,” she said, adding that Laos should now accept offers of international assistance to help solve the case.

“Unless they have good reason not to do so,” she said.

'I still hope'

In a Dec. 15 entry on a supporter's blog, Sombath's wife Shui Meng adressed her missing husband directly.

"The past three years have been one long struggle for the search for truth as to what happened to you ... But I still hold on to the hope that you are still alive and will come back to me one day."

Sombath in his work had wanted only “to change things for the better for the [country’s] rural poor,” Shui Meng told RFA separately in an interview.

“Over the years, he worked hard and made many sacrifices,” Shui Meng said.

“Maybe his disappearance is the price he has paid for his belief in building a more socially and economically just world for Laos.”

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Richard Finney.