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January 10, 2013

Rights Groups Push for ASEAN Action on Missing Lao Activist

by Gabrielle Paluch

The mysterious disappearance of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone last month is continuing to draw concern from rights groups, who call it a stain on the region’s human rights record.  There are concerns that Sombath’s disappearance could be linked to his opposition of large infrastructure projects such as the Xayaburi Dam.

The 60-year-old activist is an internationally known director of the Participatory Development Training Center, a civil society group in Laos. He won the Ramon Magsaysay Award, known as Asia’s Nobel Prize, for social development work, in 2005.  

Sombath disappeared December 15 at a police checkpoint and has not been heard from since. CCTV footage from the checkpoint showed him being taken away by two men in plainclothes.

The Laos government says it has no idea what happened to him.

But human rights groups have insisted the Laos government do more to find him and are calling upon ASEAN (Association of SouthEast Asian Nations) governments to abandon their usual policy of non-interference and uphold the new southeast Asian declaration of human rights.

At a panel in Bangkok this week, former Thai senator Jon Ungpakorn - a member of the Thai national human rights commission - says the case is vital to bringing credibility to an ASEAN human rights mechanism and is calling upon the Thai government to provide a Thai lawyer for Somphone.

"Unfortunately most countries in ASEAN believe in non-interference. I feel that answers are needed," said Ungpakorn. "The government has the responsibility to answer questions as to what has happened to him. The government of the Lao PDR [People's Democratic Republic] is not really taking up this responsibility."

Somphone is well-known for building up civil society independent of the government and opposing the government's views on how development should occur, especially with regards to large infrastructure projects like the Xayaburi dam.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement indicating the disappearance could have been the result of a private dispute.

His wife, Ng Shui Meng, was traveling in a separate vehicle that night he disappeared at the police checkpoint.

"I continue to be very anxious," she said. "I have not received any information about Sombath's whereabouts. I continue to hope that Sombath will be safe. I just want to express my thanks and gratitude to all the individuals and organizations who have been very concerned about Sombath's disappearance and have urged the authorities here to find Sombath as soon as possible.”

She says nearly a month after he disappeared, she still has no idea what happened to him.

Rights groups are deeply skeptical of the Laos government’s inability to provide any information on his disappearance.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch says the Lao government has a very poor human rights track record and has a history of using politically motivated or trumped up charges to go after people they view as opponents of the government - for example, the former king of Laos, whose whereabouts are still unknown.

"We think that the government of Laos knows where he is, so we're quite concerned that continued stonewalling indicates that something might have happened to him," said Robertson. "He's someone who for a number of reasons might have troubles with the Laos authorities. But according to the many people that have spoken about him and about his work they indicate that this person was no in conflict with the Lao government. It's a bit of a mystery why the Lao government would want to detain him."

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern in a letter to the Laos government that Somphone had been arrested because his work. The Laos Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined VOA requests to comment.