Six years after his disappearance at a Lao police checkpoint, the wife of rural development activist Sombath Somphone called again on the Lao government to account for his fate, saying she has been kept in the dark despite government promises to investigate his case.
"I am very sad that after six long years, I still have no news about Sombath,” Ng Shui Meng, a resident of Singapore, told RFA’s Lao Service in a phone call on Dec. 12.
“It’s the same situation,” Ng said.
“They keep saying that they cannot find Sombath, that they are still investigating,” she said.
“I expect the government to come clean and tell me what happened to Sombath, and also to give me a report of [their] investigation.”
Also speaking to RFA, Andrea Giorgetta—head of the Asia desk for Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights—said the Lao government should now provide “concrete evidence” of their progress in the investigation.
“We are extremely disappointed that another year has gone by, and that the Lao government still hasn’t provided any updates or report on the investigation of the disappearance of Sombath Somphone,” Giorgetta said.
“We renew our call for the government to thoroughly investigate his disappearance and determine his fate or whereabouts,” he said.
Sombath Somphone disappeared on the evening of Dec. 15, 2012, after his jeep was stopped at a police checkpoint outside the capital Vientiane, with video footage showing him later being forced into a white truck and taken away.
Though police promised to investigate, Lao authorities soon backtracked, saying they could not confirm the identity of a man shown in the video driving off in Sombath’s jeep, and refusing offers of outside expert help to analyze the footage.
Before his abduction, Sombath had challenged massive land deals negotiated by the government that had left thousands of rural Lao villagers homeless with little paid in compensation. The deals had sparked rare popular protests in Laos, where political speech is tightly controlled.
Sombath’s decades of work on behalf of farmers and sustainable agricultural practices helped him win the U.N.’s Human Resource Development Award for empowering the rural poor in Laos, and later the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.
'A complicated case'
Speaking in July at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Committee held in Geneva, Switzerland, Phoukhong Sisoulath—director general of the Treaties and Laws Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—said the Lao government remains “very concerned” about the disappearance of the popular development expert and advocate for land rights.
“It’s a very complex case, it’s a very complicated case,” Phoukhong said.
“And like any other complicated case, it will take time, it will take years, to resolve,” he said.
Following its July 11-12 review in Geneva of Laos’ rights record, the U.N. Human Rights Commission voiced strong concern over enforced disappearances, violations of the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, and prison conditions in the one-party communist state.
Reported and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Richard Finney.