Interview: Remembering the Disappearance of Sombath Somphone
Keynote Speech by Shui Meng Ng at the 10th Asia-Europe People’s Forum
Milan, Italy, 10-12 October 2014
“Towards a Just and Inclusive Asia and Europe-Building States of Citizens for Citizens”
Two years ago, at the 9th AEPF, my husband, Sombath Somphone, as the Co-Chair of the National Organizing Committee, gave the keynote speech at the opening session of the Forum in Vientiane, Laos. He was at the time both happy and excited that after months of intensive preparation, the AEPF9 was officially declared open by no less than Laos’ Deputy Prime Minister. More than 1,000 people representing civil society groups and organizations from across Asia and Europe participated. As a Lao, Sombath was proud that his country could play host to such a major civil society forum.
Over the next few days between October 16-19, the forum participants passionately discussed, debated, shared, and exchanged lessons on common challenges and issues of poverty, social polarization, inequalities, indebtedness, and unemployment faced by ordinary folks in the countries of Asia and Europe. The energy level was high, and the panel discussions were animated, inclusive, and constructive. The participants eagerly presented their ideas and experiences, and worked hard to present the “People’s Vision” of shared hopes and aspirations which became incorporated as the final statement from the AEPF9 to the leaders of the ASEM countries for their deliberation and consideration for action in the follow-up ASEM Meeting.
By all estimation, and publicly acknowledged by the International Organizing Committee, the AEPF9 was considered one of the most successful People’s Forum ever. Then on 15 December 2012, two months after the close of AEPF9, Sombath Somphone was disappeared. He was last seen stopped at a police post in Vientiane and taken away by a white truck. The entire sequence of Sombath’s abduction was recorded by the state-installed traffic-control camera, and the footages of the abduction have since been shared on You-tube.
Sombath’s disappearance shocked the whole development community in Asia and beyond, and his abduction was widely reported by most major news media both in print and on television.
Sombath Somphone is Laos’ most respected civil society leader and community development worker, whose work over 30 plus years was known throughout Laos and the Asian region. His dedication and leadership in community and youth development had even won him the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, in 2005.
After his abduction, numerous government leaders across Asia and Europe, as well as representatives from international development and human rights organizations have expressed concern and appealed to the Lao government authorities to conduct full and transparent investigation, find Sombath, and return him safely to me and the family. My family and I have also made numerous appeals to the leaders of the land to use the power and resources available to the state to resolve the case. Laos has signed the UN Convention Against Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, and hence treaty-bound to address Sombath’s disappearance expeditiously, responsibly, and justly.
Now, after nearly two years, I have received no news of Sombath’s whereabouts. The Lao Government has promised to investigate, but so far, the authorities have repeatedly said they have still found no trace of Sombath or who was behind the act. To this day I am still in shock and in grief, and I continue to urge the Lao authorities to continue to investigate and find Sombath.
Two years on, I am also still trying to make sense to what had happened; what and who could have caused Sombath’s disappearance. Over the past two years, I repeatedly asked myself whether it was Sombath’s active and high profile involvement in the planning and organizing of the AEPF, and the discussions of people’s rights at the Forum that had triggered his abduction? Could he have crossed some unknown political line by his active championing for expansion of space for civil society engagement that had annoyed some powerful people? However, from what I understand, the AEPF was supposed to be a safe space for open dialogue and meaningful discussion for change, and that the host government was duty-bound to guarantee such safety to all involved. So why would Sombath’s engagement with the AEPF caused his abduction? I still have no answers to all these questions.
In recalling the events leading up to the AEPF9 and the subsequent disappearance of Sombath, I remembered alerting Sombath to possible risks to his personal safety by his active engagement in the AEPF preparation and planning. In particular I was concerned about his proposed open dialogue and consultations with the Lao communities across the country, knowing full well that such dialogue could open up politically sensitive issues of land and natural resource use, as well as trade and investment consequences on the livelihoods of the local communities. But Sombath always brushed aside my concerns. He insisted that the AEPF provided the Lao people with some real opportunities to give voice to both the positive and negative impact of development policies on their communities. He insisted that these local consultations were never meant to be critical of the Lao government or its political system. In fact, Sombath sincerely believed that the Lao leaders and policy makers would welcome such constructive engagement of the people, and would appreciate their practical suggestions for improvements. He reassured me that the organizers, including himself, had consulted widely with government representatives assigned to manage the AEPF, and all proposed activities were approved before they were carried out. Hence he was confident that he was not doing anything that could be interpreted as politically incorrect. In fact, Sombath and many of the partners, were so appreciative of the Lao consultative process and its outcomes that it was referred extensively in Sombath’s speech, and summarized as the Lao people’s aspirations for better governance, improved economic and social justice in order to build a more “happy” Laos for all. Sombath was optimistic that many of the challenges and crises in Laos, as well as in Asia and Europe, could be tackled through open and frank dialogue and concrete actions between ordinary citizens in partnership with civil society groups and the government.
So, was Sombath’s trust and optimism misplaced? Could he still have been with me and the family were he not to be involved in the AEPF9? I may never be able to get any definitive answers to these questions. But what I do know is that Sombath will never regret his life-long work on people-centered sustainable development and his commitment to education and youth development. He will never regret his vision of balanced development built upon the foundation of good governance and holistic education, and supported by the four equally robust pillars of sustainable economic growth, social justice, cultural integrity, and mindful spirituality. He will also never lose faith in the wisdom of ordinary people, rich or poor, schooled or unschooled, for their capacity to chart their own destiny and build a better world for themselves and their children. He also has trust in the sincerity of most Lao government leaders and their desire to build a strong and prosperous Laos. All that was needed, Sombath insisted, is the ability and the capacity of those in power to recognize the potential of the people, trust them, listen to them, and include them. Sombath believes that together – governments, business corporations, and the people – can pull us back from the brink of the multiple crises we face today, and build a better world for the future.
This vision of Sombath is, I believe, also the spirit that drives the AEPF since its inception 20 years ago. The AEPF’s goal in engaging civil society, academic institutions, and non-governmental organizations and listening to the voices of the people must continue. The leaders in Asia and Europe must sincerely take note of the people’s hopes and aspirations and support the “People’s Vision” to address the world’s development, peace and security challenges. That would keep Sombath’s vision alive, and that would make Sombath’s personal sacrifice worthwhile.
Thank you and I wish you all fruitful discussions and a successful AEPF10.
HRW: Lao government’s investigation into Sombath case ‘is a sham’
Deutsche Welle: 15 December 2014
Two years ago, prominent activist Sombath Somphone vanished from the streets of the Lao capital Vientiane. Although the authorities could give answers, they have remained silent to this day, says HRW’s Phil Robertson.On the evening of December 15, 2012, civil society leader Sombath disappeared without a trace. He was on his way home from the office when he was pulled over at a police checkpoint. The rights activist was later taken to another vehicle and driven away. His whereabouts still remain unknown.
Right from the beginning, it is widely believed to be a case of enforced disappearance, with many suspecting the Southeast Asian nation’s Communist one-party government to be behind the abduction. The government, however, has so far firmly denied any responsibility for the incident. The Sombath case stirred an international outcry, with prominent figures like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Desmond Tutu calling for his safe return and urging the authorities not to block a thorough investigation.
Sombath had for decades campaigned for the rights of the land-locked nation’s poor rural population and the protection of environment. In 2005, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Prize, considered Asia’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize. In a DW interview, Phil Robertson, Asia expert at Human Rights Watch, strongly criticizes the Lao government for their hard stance. DW: It has been two years since Sombath went missing. Are there any news concerning his whereabouts and his fate?
Phil Robertson: No, there’s been very little additional news about his whereabouts or what has happened to him. What we know is that Sombath was taken away as seen in the CCTV video of December 15, 2012, and there are reliable sources that said he was still in the custody of the authorities in Vientiane later that night, but then little more is known after that.
The Lao police’s investigation has been a complete joke so far. The authorities know far more than they are letting on, and it’s really become quite clear that the government’s investigation is a sham, designed to draw out the time and frustrate those demanding answers – presumably with the aim of getting them to finally give up and forget.
But two years on, we’re not going to forget, and we’re going to remain committed to supporting his wife, Shui-Meng Ng, and family, in their demands for answers. I’ve lost count of the number of offers of technical assistance by European and North American police forces to the Lao police for their investigation, but all of those offers have been refused.
As a recent report from the International Commission of Jurists shows, there are many lines of investigative inquiry to be pursued if the Lao government were interested in doing the sort of thorough investigation required by international human rights law – but instead, they are engaged in a cover-up, and a campaign of enforced silence in Vientiane to prevent anyone from saying more about Sombath.
The many governments providing development assistance to Laos should make a big issue of this and demand a real search for the truth of what has happened to Sombath.
From the very beginning, the Lao government has denied that it had anything to do with Sombath’s disappearance. Is there any chance that someone other the government is responsible for this?
The Lao government has been lying from the top on down when it comes to the Sombath case. At the start of their inquiries, they freely admitted that the person pictured in the CCTV footage was Sombath – but now they are claiming that maybe it was not him. So if anything, the investigation is not making any progress. It’s rather going backwards.
Lately, Lao diplomats have been trying to peddle a new theory that Sombath’s work brought him into conflict with Thai mafia elements involved in Laos and that it was the Thais that did something to him. Of course, there is no evidence of that. This is yet another part of the officials’ ongoing effort to confuse and misinform, and desperately try to transfer blame to somewhere else other than the Lao government.
For the second anniversary of his disappearance, a group of legislators, civil society leaders and activists launched the so-called Sombath Initiative. What does this Initiative stand for?
What the Sombath Initiative stands for is an ongoing campaign for answers about what happened to Sombath. The initiative calls for justice for him and his family, and reminds his vision and work in participatory rural development. It will counter the effort by the Lao government to “buy time” with their bogus investigation and press people to forget. The Initiative will ensure that no one forgets the case.
Furthermore, it will also defend Sombath’s reputation and his work from the kind of scurrilous rumors that the Lao government is trying to spread to somehow discredit him.
Do you reckon that the new initiative could actually achieve something in order to solve the case and compel the government to start a thorough investigation?
The Initiative will bring together all of Sombath’s friends, allies, and admirers from home and abroad to press the Lao government to change its views and start a real investigation into the enforced disappearance of Sombath.
The challenge in disappearance cases is always to sustain the interest and momentum of those who care against the efforts to cover up the truth. And often, these battles take years. We hope that it will not take that long to find out what has happened to Sombath, and ideally see him returned to his family, but the Sombath Intiative is built to sustain a campaign indefinitely until we get the answers we seek.
What effect did the disappearance of Sombath have on others? What has changed since then?
An unprecedented chill has come over grass-roots villages and communities in Laos of the sort not seen since the early years after the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party took over in 1975 and started sending perceived opponents to brutal “re-education camps”.
The difference between then and now is the existence of various civil society groups and non-profit associations, led by many who received training and encouragement from Sombath and the Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC) that he founded.
Among these groups, there is now great fear and self-censorship because they see that if such a prominent civil society leader as Sombath can be taken, then no one is safe. So a wall of silence has descended in Vientiane. On the government side, only a few persons are authorized to give the standard government line and everyone else says nothing. On the civil society side, people are looking over their shoulders and are afraid of talking about Sombath.
Sombath has been missing for two years now. In your opinion, what are the chances that he is still alive?
I really don’t know, but we’re all hoping for the best. It’s hard to imagine that a man who has so selflessly contributed to his nation’s development and the well being of ordinary people should be considered an enemy to anyone.
Phil Robertson is deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.