Rights groups have asked Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to raise concerns about disappeared Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone at an upcoming regional summit, saying Tokyo and other international donors should push for an independent probe if Laos continues to drag its feet on the case.
Abe should urge his Lao counterpart Thongsing Thammavong, who will visit Tokyo this weekend for the Japan-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, to ensure the government fully investigates the case and provides information about Sombath’s fate, the six international rights groups said in a joint letter Wednesday.
The summit falls on the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of Sombath, a prominent anti-poverty campaigner who was last seen being stopped at a police checkpoint in the Lao capital Vientiane on Dec. 15, 2012.
Since then, rights groups have expressed dissatisfaction with the Lao government’s explanation of how he vanished, saying it has failed to fully investigate the case and could be covering up government links to his possible abduction.
The letter by the six groups—Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International Japan, Mekong Watch, Empowerment For All Japan, and two organizations that requested not to be named publicly—asked Abe to “remind” Thongsing that Laos is obligated under international human rights law to prevent and remedy any enforced disappearance.
“It is imperative that the Lao government immediately provide full information on Sombath’s whereabouts or fate,” they said.
“We believe that if you raise this case publicly, and make clear that it is a matter of serious concern for Japan and other international donors to Laos, it will send a strong message to the Lao leadership that urgent action on this case needs to be taken.”
The rights groups asked Japan and other aid donors to Laos to “call for an independent commission, ideally with international involvement or support” if Thongsing fails to provide any immediate positive response to concerns about Sombath’s case.
Laos’s failure to conduct a “serious” investigation into the disappearance had “heightened concerns” about government involvement in the case, they said.
Lao officials say they have no knowledge of the whereabouts of Sombath, a winner of the Magsaysay Award, considered Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize.
He was given the award in 2005 for his work with the Participatory Development Training Center, a group he founded that trains Lao youth and local government leaders in community development and poverty reduction.
Police have shared surveillance footage from the night Sombath went missing that shows him pulling over his jeep at an intersection in Vientiane and being transferred to another vehicle. He has not been seen since.
Laos has turned down international requests to provide assistance in the investigations, including a U.S. offer to provide technical help to enhance the quality of some blurry images of the video footage.
Japan is the biggest bilateral donor to Laos, an impoverished and landlocked country rich in natural resources.
Abe’s meeting with Thongsing will come on the heels of his visit to Vientiane in November, when Japan pledged financial support for four development projects in Laos, including an expansion of the city’s airport and a poverty reduction project, according to the Vientiane Times.
Human Rights Watch’s Japan director Kanae Doi said Japan’s words would “carry weight” with Laos and Abe should use this leverage to tell Laos “that it needs to stop ignoring the pleas to reveal what happened to Sombath.”
“On the one-year anniversary of Sombath Somphone’s abduction, Prime Minister Abe should break Japan’s public silence and call upon the Lao government to reveal the truth about Sombath’s fate,” she said, according to a statement by the group.
Leaders from all 10 ASEAN Nations—Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam— are expected to attend the Dec. 13-15 summit, with some of them attending the subsequent Mekong-Japan Summit.