Sombath Case a ‘Blow’ to ASEAN

Rights groups say the disappearance of a Lao activist highlights Southeast Asia’s worsening rights record.
Email story
Comment on this story
Print story
Sombath Somphone in an undated photo from PADETC's website.
Sombath Somphone in an undated photo from PADETC's website.
Photo courtesy of PADETC

The “forced disappearance” of Lao activist Sombath Somphone is a blow to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), rights groups said Tuesday, as members of parliament across Asia and Europe urged the Laotian Prime minister to order an “urgent” investigation into his case.

The unresolved case of Sombath, who has been missing since leaving the office of his antipoverty training center on Dec. 15, represents a “threat to human rights” in the region, the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) said.

“From the perspective of human rights, it can be construed that Sombath Somphone is a defender of human rights, of resources—he protects people in his locality,” Pratabjit Neelapaijit, a representative of the Philippines-based rights group, told RFA’s Lao Service.

“Therefore the involuntary disappearance of Sombath Somphone amounts to a forced disappearance—an attack against human rights workers,” Neelapaijit said during a seminar by rights groups and nongovernmental organizations to discuss the missing activist’s case at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand on Tuesday.

Sombath, 60, is one of Laos’s most prominent civil society figures and his case has prompted international concern that his disappearance could be tied to his human rights work.

Saksinee Emasiri, a coordinator for the Human Rights and Peaceful Studies Institute at Thailand’s Mahidol University who was also present at Tuesday’s seminar, told RFA that Sombath’s disappearance was a sign that the state of human rights in the ASEAN bloc of nations—which includes Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam—is regressing.

“We feel as if the ASEAN community is stepping backwards,” she said.

“While the world is moving forward, suddenly Sombath Somphone was kidnapped in full public view on a busy street. How can such an incident happen?”

Police have shared CCTV footage from the night Sombath went missing that shows him pulling over his jeep at an intersection in Vientiane and getting out to speak with traffic police. He has not been seen since the video.

But police have not explained whether the vehicles and individuals in the footage have been identified, whether Sombath’s car has been found, and what police manning the traffic post that night had seen.

Participants at Tuesday’s seminar praised Sombath for his work in community development in Laos and said the activist provided a worthy example for ASEAN youngsters to follow.

Emasiri said that besides affecting the ASEAN community, his disappearance had also sent a chilling message to members of civil society groups in Laos.

MP letter

The seminar in Thailand was held as scores of parliamentarians from across Asia and Europe on Tuesday wrote a letter to Lao Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong, requesting an “urgent investigation” into the case of Sombath, who it called “one of the most respected and influential voices for sustainable people-centered and just economic and social development in Laos as well as in Asia.”

The open letter also urged the Lao government to “undertake all actions necessary to ensure [Sombath’s] immediate safe return to his family,” saying the members of parliament were “concerned about his safety, his state of health and his well-being.”

The request was signed by members of parliament from Austria, Australia, Belgium, Cambodia, Germany, Indonesia, Malaysia, The Netherlands, The Philippines, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, and the European Parliament.

Sombath’s wife Ng Shui Meng, who is a Singapore national, recently expressed regret over the lack of vital information from police on her husband’s case, stressing that the activist was in need of daily medication and urging authorities to allow her to see him if he was in official custody.

But a police report from Jan. 11 republished in the official Vientiane Times newspaper on Monday said Sombath was not in official custody and that his disappearance could have been due to personal or business conflicts.

An official of the Ministry of Public Security, speaking on condition of anonymity, told RFA on Monday that there was no new information on the case but that the investigation was ongoing.

Sombath, executive director of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Vientiane, is the recipient of the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership for the group’s efforts to promote sustainable development through the training of young people.

The activist had studied in the U.S. before returning to Laos to found PADETC’s precursor in 1980 and in October last year represented local civil society groups as a member of Laos’s national committee at the Asia-Europe People’s Forum in Vientiane on the sidelines of an international summit.

PADETC, which receives funding from the Dutch-based Novib/Oxfam and the EU, among other agencies, works on poverty prevention and sustainability projects such as fuel-efficient stoves, fish farming promotion, recycling, media, school volunteers, and teacher training.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

Comments (10)


from St. Paul

inside Lao and outside Lao not agree each other blame each other communist is good
all Lao a broad is bad do something bad
that's the way police killed them, that's the way you think so right? do you think
all people going to Lao will do bad to Lao
Government, i believe may one not all them
thinking again why they got killed and
missing all, you will missing too young
guy, do you understand politic. cool down
all young man, former fighter for souvana
phouma and souphanouvong thinking why i say something very stupid. thank you

Jun 09, 2013 03:31 PM

Anonymous Reader

from Lao

Three more Laotians from Minnesota just got killed in Lao . I'm sure they were killed by communist government installed by Hanoi. Real Laotian ,Hmong ,Thai and Cambodian must unite to run communist Vietcong back to Vietnam ! This is the only way to do ! Don't wait for the world to save our countries , it's not gonna happen ! We must unite now before too late !

Mar 08, 2013 10:45 AM


from Hoalland, MI

These three men might had got involved with some kind of unlawful activity there.

Mar 07, 2013 12:07 PM


from Upper Hutt

Lao people should know their government ruling country as communist and backed up by Vietnamese government , so sambath is the bone in their throat , he should bs dead already because Vietnamesd always do that to everyone who oppose their rule.

Feb 11, 2013 08:38 AM


from Los angelese

As the world know that communism is a cult government and never care about human rights, they had killed so many people and treat people as animals. Laos didn't have any voices for a while lots of people were killed and disappeared sombath somphone is just one of the case, but through out history communism was crueled and evil government to mankind. please bring peace to the world by eliminate communism from this world forever.

Feb 10, 2013 06:50 AM

View all comments.





More Listening Options

View Full Site