The wife of prominent social activist Sombath Somphone has made a desperate plea to Lao authorities, declaring he will leave the country and retire quietly with her if returned safely after being abducted in the Lao capital, Vientiane, 10 months ago.
Ng Shui Meng, who has been married to Mr Sombath for 30 years, said she did not want to see any more damage done to Laos’ image and credibility over the abduction, which human rights groups describe as a state-sponsored forced disappearance.
”All I want is only the safe return of Sombath,” Ms Shui Meng, a Singaporean, said. ”He is an old man who is in need of medical attention. Once he is returned I will take him out of the country for medical care and we will live out the rest of our lives in quiet retirement.”
Ms Shui Meng said that every day since Mr Sombath disappeared had been ”an eternity of waiting, wavering between hope and despair.”
Hopes for 62-year-old Mr Sombath’s welfare have been fading as the authoritarian, communist-led Lao government denied any knowledge of his disappearance, claimed an investigation had failed to establish who was behind it and dismissed concerns by alleging that he must have been the victim of a shadowy business feud, without providing any evidence.
Even in a country with a notoriously poor human rights record where government critics have ”disappeared”, the abduction of Mr Sombath has shocked many Laotians and prompted calls for international donors to press for his return.
A widely respected agriculture specialist, Mr Sombath received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in Community Leadership in 2005, the equivalent of the Nobel peace prize in Asia.
He was last seen by Ms Shui Meng as they were driving separately from his office in Vientiane to their home for dinner on the evening of December 15 last year.
The abduction was captured on closed circuit television footage that apparently was not supposed to be released by police. It shows that Mr Sombath’s vehicle was stopped at a police post and he was taken inside. A motorcyclist stopped at the post and drove off with Mr Sombath’s vehicle.
A truck with flashing lights then stopped at the police post, two people got out and took Mr Sombath to the truck and drove off. He never arrived home.
Amnesty International says the Lao authorities’ likely involvement in Mr Sombath’s disappearance has been compounded by the police’s failure to conduct thorough investigations, which suggested a cover-up. Other countries’ offers of external assistance, including analysis of the original CCTV footage, have been rejected.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the Lao government ”needs to stop playing games and release Sombath or explain what happened to him”.
Mr Sombath’s abduction is perplexing because he is seen as a conciliatory figure who sat on panels with influential government members. One clue may be a keynote speech he made at the Asia-Europe People’s Forum, the largest civil society event held in Laos, two months before his disappearance.
”We focus too much on economic growth and ignore its negative impact … We need to give more space for the ordinary people, especially young people, and allow them to be drivers of change and transformation,” he said.
Mr Sombath has also spoken out about land seizures as Laos opened its doors to foreign investments that include mining, hydroelectric plants, rubber plantations, hotels and casinos.
In Vientiane, most people decline to speak publicly about Mr Sombath’s disappearance, fearful of reprisals from police and security forces. Among those internationally who have expressed regret and called for Mr Sombath’s safe return are US Secretary of State John Kerry, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Ms Shui Meng has urged donor countries including Australia to encourage the government to be more transparent, identify the kidnappers and return Mr Sombath, or, if he is incarcerated, to allow family members to visit him.
She said she can ”only hold on to my hope and faith, as anything otherwise is unthinkable.”