By Sarah Caroline Bell
The sun had set on a warm Saturday evening in Vientiane. For most, December 15 2012 was just another weekend, but for Sombath Somphone, it marked the last time he was seen.
Shortly after 6pm, security camera footage captured the police stopping his vehicle a short distance away from the Australian Embassy Recreation Club. It is hard to see, but the footage shows Sombath being escorted into the Thadeua Police Post. His jeep is taken away by a motorcyclist, a truck appears outside the police post and Sombath is taken away. That was his last reported sighting.
In 2015, fresh new evidence was unearthed by the family which shows Sombath’s jeep being driven south. The government of Laos has stalled at every possible opportunity to investigate the disappearance and deny any knowledge of it. How can that be possible when his last contact was with multiple members of authority; the police?
The local force says it has no information. And if this is true it raises questions about the Laos policing system itself. Does this confirm they are in fact withholding information? Is this confirmation of corruption, as online commentators have long alleged?
Who is Sombath Somphone?
Sombath Somphone is well known for his work in community and agricultural development in Laos. He’s an intelligent man; the winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005 and a graduate of the University of Hawaii where he gained both a BA in Education and an MA in Agriculture.
Born into a poor family, he has made significant contributions to his country through innovations in low-cost farm production and food security, such as the Rice-Based Integrated Farming System. A forward-thinking leader and visionary, he established the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC), to provide training for youth and government officials in community-based developments. This centre is notable for its eco-friendly technologies and micro-enterprises, such as organic fertilizers, recycling methods, and fuel-efficient stoves.
Shortly before his disappearance in 2012, Sombath retired from his position as the Director of PADETC. Contrary to most reports about him, he was not active in politics, and in fact did everything by the law and with the approval of government officials.
What has ASEAN done?
A lot has been done on the case of Sombath Somphone internationally, but not a lot has been done by ASEAN as a single entity. Speaking to The Diplomat in December of 2015, Sombath Somphone’s wife Ng Shui Meng stated that, “ASEAN as a whole did nothing. When Sombath disappeared, none of the ASEAN countries made any statement.”
“I tried to meet with different human rights representatives from each country and urge them to take up the issue. Singapore did try and get some answers. The human rights representative from Laos basically said, from what I heard, that the issue should not be raised because of the non-interference principle of ASEAN.”
“My embassy did try to help me. Singapore asked the Lao government to try and resolve the case quickly because it had affected me personally. The other ASEAN countries officially have done nothing. I have tried to appeal to them to use the ASEAN Human Rights Charter. I have been told that the human rights representatives’ role in ASEAN is to raise awareness and its protective role is very weak.”
Laos has an exceptionally poor track record when it comes to human rights, and it reflects poorly on all of ASEAN. On the subject of Laos, Human Rights Watch has stated that, “many have said over the years that ASEAN is a club of dictators and rights abusers and Laos is positive proof of just how true that is.”
“There is now a wall of silence that’s fallen over Vientiane about Sombath’s case. People who knew things have stopped talking, officials who knew things have been transferred or disappeared, international NGOs working in Laos say they are sympathetic but can’t talk about it.”
Is this reputation what we want for ASEAN? All members of the bloc contribute to our international reputation. What we do not denounce, we silently permit to continue. Laos, the current chair of ASEAN, is due to not only host the 2016 ASEAN Summit on 21 – 26 July, but also the AICHR ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights Special Meeting, on July 23. One question must be on the agenda; where is Sombath?
If Laos authorities are genuinely uninvolved, then the government must ask itself why the police officers present at the Thadeua Police Post on December 15 2012 are silent on the matter. What is motivating them to say nothing? That motivation needs to be found; it could be the missing piece of the puzzle.