It reads like fiction straight from a Colin Cotterill novel. The setting is Vientiane, capital city of the People’s Democratic Republic of Laos.
Sombath Somphone is a gentle and unassuming man aged 63. Married to a Singaporean, Dr Ng Shui Meng, a former senior Unicef official, Mr Sombath was conferred the prestigious Magsaysay Award for Community Development – the region’s equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize – in 2005. He spent the majority of his career in Laos, his native home, working with farmers and youths to promote a form of development that was mindful of the country’s values.
On Dec 15, 2012, Mr Sombath disappeared into thin air. Alone in his jeep, he was driving to his home in Vientiane. His family were in the car in front of him. Mr Sombath was stopped at a police checkpoint. Shortly afterwards, he was escorted away in another vehicle. Then his jeep was driven away.
The events were captured on a grainy CCTV video but poor picture quality makes it difficult to ascertain exactly who was filmed. Mr Sombath’s “offence” has been neither revealed nor acknowledged, yet he has not been seen since. All his family wants to know is whether he is alive.
There is some evidence of the regime’s involvement in the abduction. Five days after Mr Sombath was escorted away from the police stop, an official from the Lao foreign ministry confirmed to an Asean diplomatic mission that Mr Sombath would be “released soon”, only to retract his statement days later. That same week a police source told the family that Mr Sombath had been seen in a police holding centre. Two days later, the family was told by another police contact that Mr Sombath had been moved to a military camp outside Vientiane.
However, since that first week, Lao government officials have denied any knowledge of Mr Sombath’s whereabouts. On the surface, the deafening silence and denials of the leaders and the apparatchiks of the system seem inexplicable. The regime’s abuse of Mr Sombath’s rights strike fear among the people, yet its apparatchiks routinely observe a golden silence and are rewarded for it. Mr Sombath’s relatives have been warned by officials to keep their distance.
Is this surprising? Laotians live in a nightmarish Kafkaesque world where intrigues and byzantine conspiracies lurk in secretive labyrinths. The Marxist-Leninist Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) has governed Laos since 1975, and has a standing ban on opposition parties. There is competition for power between the LPRP, the Ministry of National Defence and the Ministry of Public Security. During its December 2012 session, the National Assembly was critical of the government, pointing out that better efforts to combat corruption were needed, and calling for more say in the passage of bills.
Economic growth has been healthy, hovering around 8% GDP growth per annum for the last five years. But the government is still reliant on foreign aid, which makes up almost a fifth of its annual revenue. Balancing the interests of private investors and aid agencies has become more difficult – and a source of conflict within the government.
One example is the controversial Xayaburi dam project. In November 2012, after a meeting between the government and various aid agencies, the Lao media reported that aid agencies asked the government to consider the rights of the people affected by these types of projects, but later expelled the director of a foreign aid agency for writing a letter that was critical of the government.
Mr Sombath had never spoken out against the dam. The organisation he founded in 1996, the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC), worked in a participatory way with communities to improve their livelihoods, promoting sustainable development, education and understanding their land rights.
Ironically, Mr Sombath was detained not long after he helped convene a highly successful international meeting between Asian and European civil society organisations in Vientiane with the blessings of the Lao government.
Laos, a member of Asean, has unwittingly turned the Sombath disappearance into a kind of cause celebre. Unfortunately, the regime’s continued denials have also legitimised the criticism of the Asean member states insincerity towards the commitments expressed in their newly established institutions on human rights and social development. Asean has not issued any statement on the issue.
Since his disappearance, several countries, including individual Asean member states, have expressed their concern over the issue. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, as well as several of his ministers and officials, also discussed the matter with their Laotian counterparts who have repeatedly insisted that they have no knowledge of the matter.
Asian, Australian, European and American civil society organisations and media have also made their representations to the Lao authorities. Recently, the chairman of the Asean delegation in the European Parliament, Werner Langen, on a visit to Vientiane, said the Sombath issue will “not be forgotten” and warned that Laos could become isolated over the issue. Indeed, as one of the poorest states in the world Laos cannot afford any suspension, or threat of suspension, of assistance from its development partners over the Sombath issue.
Already, the government faces the risk of social instability for its failure to pay salaries to its civil servants for the last four months. Falls in rubber prices, arbitrary breaking of contracts and land-grabbing for foreign companies have further fuelled discontent among the people.
These internal challenges undermine the party leadership’s efforts to shed the country’s least developing country (LDC) status and its aspirations to sit on the executive boards of international organisations such as the United Nations Commission for Human Rights (UNCHR), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Family Planning Association (UNFPA).
Laos has the sovereign right to punish its citizens according to its laws but international norms dictate that Asean member states met the standards in the international and regional protocols on human rights and social development they adopted. Asean also has an obligation to preserve its credibility and ensure that Laos does not become the next pariah state.
The particular persistence of the European Union over this last year has finally extracted some response from the regime. At the High Level Roundtable of several states (including Asean) and international organisations in Vientiane on Nov 19, European states raised the Sombath issue. For the first time there was a surprising shift in the tone of the regime from denial to one of assurance: “… that it is more concerned than they are and had provided the family access to the police and other authorities and had taken all necessary steps to continue the investigation and to bring the perpetrators to justice”.
After a year of silence, the disclosure should be treated as an opportunity to seek redress for Mr Sombath.
If Sombath Somphone can disappear in broad daylight, it can happen to anyone. Asean governments and their stakeholders, in the name of human decency, have the right to clear answers from the Lao leadership. They should take the following actions urgently:
— Asean should consult with the Lao government on the Sombath situation and seek his immediate release
— Parliamentarian Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the conscience of our times, visit Vientiane to seek justice for Mr Sombath and his family
— The international community and international agencies should continue to seek the release of Mr Sombath.
Asean governments aspire to realise a people-centred Asean Community in 2015. The community is obliged to uphold progressive commitments outlined in the Asean Charter.
The Sombath crisis is only part of the deeper problems that beset the region. If there is to be meaning to Laos’ international ambitions and Asean’s lofty legal instruments, neither of them should reduce the Sombath Somphone affair to just another character in a work of fiction.
M Rajaretnam is a former special adviser on community building and outreach to Dr Surin Pitsuwan, Asean secretary-general from 2008 to 2013.