News / Asia

    Rights Groups Push for ASEAN Action on Missing Lao Activist

    Lao missing activist Sombath Somphone (2005 file photo) Lao missing activist Sombath Somphone (2005 file photo)
    x
    Lao missing activist Sombath Somphone (2005 file photo)
    Lao missing activist Sombath Somphone (2005 file photo)
    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.

    You May Like

    Vietnam Urges US to Lift Lethal Weapons Ban Amid S. China Sea Tensions

    US president’s upcoming visit to Vietnam underscores strength of relationship, and lifting embargo would reflect that trust, ambassador says

    Are US Schools Turning a Blind Eye to Radical Qatari Preachers?

    Parade of radical Islamist clerics using mosque at Qatar’s Education City draws mounting criticism for American universities that maintain satellite branches there

    Why Islamic State Is Down But Not Out

    Despite loss of territory, group’s ferocious attacks over past three months seen as testimony to its continued durability and resourcefulness

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroadi
    X
    May 02, 2016 1:36 PM
    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Ethiopia’s Drought Takes Toll on Children

    Ethiopia is dealing with its worst drought in decades, thanks to El Nino weather patterns. An estimated 10 million people urgently need food aid. Six million of them are children, whose development may be compromised without sufficient help, Marthe van der Wolf reports for VOA from the Metahara district.
    Video

    Video Little Havana - a Slice of Cuban Culture in Florida

    Hispanic culture permeates everything in Miami’s Little Havana area: elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, cigar rollers deep at work, or Cuban exiles talking with presidential candidates at a Cuban coffee window. With the recent rapprochement between Cuba and United States, one can only expect stronger ties between South Florida and Cuba.
    Video

    Video California Republicans Weigh Presidential Choices Amid Protests

    Republican presidential candidates have been wooing local party leaders in California, a state that could be decisive in selecting the party's nominee for U.S. president. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports delegates to the California party convention have been evaluating choices, while front-runner Donald Trump drew hundreds of raucous protesters Friday.
    Video

    Video Kurdish Football Team Helps War-Torn City Cope

    With the conflict still raging across much of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, between the rebel PKK and the Turkish state, many Kurds are trying to escape the turmoil by focusing on the success of their football team Amedspor in Diyarbakir. The club is increasingly becoming a symbol for Kurds, not only in Diyarbakir but beyond. Dorian Jones reports from southeast Turkey.
    Video

    Video ‘The Lights of Africa’ - Through the Eyes of 54 Artists

    An exhibition bringing together the work of 54 African artists, one from each country, is touring the continent after debuting at COP21 in Paris. Called "Lumières d'Afrique," the show centers on access to electricity and, more figuratively, ideas that enlighten. Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, the exhibition's first stop.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora