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Break the silence on advocate’s disappearance

It has been nearly 11 months since Laos’ most famous advocate of the rights of the poor, Sombath Somphone, vanished, leaving a string of troubling questions and suspicions of a high-level cover-up.

It has been nearly 11 months since Laos’ most famous advocate of the rights of the poor, Sombath Somphone, vanished, leaving a string of troubling questions and suspicions of a high-level cover-up.

Ng Shui Meng, his Singaporean wife, last saw him as his car tailed hers through the streets of Vientiane on the evening of Dec 15, 2012. By the time she got home, Sombath was no longer following.

Two days later, CCTV footage emerged that showed him being stopped by police officials and then abducted in their presence. Shui Meng immediately contacted the police, visited hospitals, and informed embassies. Nobody could tell her anything meaningful about what may have happened to her husband.

A well-respected scholar and development practitioner, Sombath was awarded the Magsaysay Award in 2005 for his efforts to promote sustainable development in Laos, a country where more than a quarter of the population still live in extreme poverty.

His most recent work, which earned him international acclaim, focused on training and motivating young people to become the country’s next generation of leaders. He is a force for good and his country needs him -- so why is he a marked man?

The Lao government remains tight-lipped over his whereabouts. In a statement on Jan 4, officials said that “it may be possible that Mr. Sombath has been kidnapped perhaps because of a personal conflict or a conflict in business or some other reasons…”

Subsequent investigation reports by the Lao Government have been far from satisfactory and governments from ASEAN countries, as well as the United States and Europe have sought answers from Vientiane.

In January, three Members of Parliaments from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines publically rebuked the Lao administration for “lacking the political will to resolve the issue. In March, a European parliamentary delegation to Laos stressed that it was within the capacities of the Government of the Lao PDR to ensure Sombath’s safe return to his family. It is understood that Singapore has asked the Lao Government about Sombath’s whereabouts and urged it to provide information to his wife, a Singapore citizen.

The government’s response so far has been to deny any involvement.

For already fearful citizens and civil society organisations in this highly secretive one-party state, Sombath’s abduction has brought back memories of an earlier era when unexplained disappearances were common. Sombath was the country’s highest profile development worker, but he had never harshly criticised his government. If he can disappear without a trace, who is safe?

ASEAN governments could speak up and use their influence with the authorities in Vientiane. Philippines MP Walden Bello said in January: “Governments should be issuing statements at this point. Sombath is not only a Laotian but also a member of the ASEAN community ,,. the credibility of the Laotian government is now at stake, along with that of the ASEAN Human Rights Charter and the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights.”

The website of the Magsaysay Award describes Sombath’s status as “alive”. Hopefully, this is true. But the international community needs to get straight answers from the Lao government and break the deafening silence surrounding his disappearance.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Shalmali Guttal is from Focus on the Global South and Josie Cohen is from Global Witness.

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