An open letter to HE Pehin Dato Dr Awang Hj. Ahmad bin Hj Jumat, Chair, Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights:
The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (Forum-Asia), a regional human rights organisation representing 47 non-governmental organisations across 16 countries in Asia, writes to you to express the gravest concern on the disappearance of a prominent education and development worker in Laos, Sombath Somphone. He has been missing since December 15 and there has been little information regarding his safety or whereabouts. His wife, Ng Shui-Meng, last saw him at about 6pm that day as they drove home separately from the office.
Sombath is the founder and retired director of the Participatory Development Training Centre in Laos, which promotes sustainable development. He is a highly respected educator who in 2005 received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, one of Asia’s top civil awards. He was also an instrumental figure as a co-organiser of the highly successful Asia-Europe People’s Forum 9 held prior to the 9th Asia-Europe Summit Meeting in Vientiane last October.
Available CCTV footage shows Sombath’s vehicle on Thadeua Road in the vicinity of Watnak village, Sisattanak district, Vientiane, on December 15. He was then seen entering the police post. Following that, his vehicle was taken away by an unidentified man who arrived on a motorcycle. The motorcycle remained parked there. A white pickup truck then arrived, flashing hazard lights. The footage shows Sombath being escorted to the truck by two men who had arrived in it. He has not been seen since and we are deeply worried about his safety.
There are many questions surrounding the troubling circumstances of his disappearance. For example, it is not known why Sombath was allowed to leave with the men in the white truck or why the police did not take any action regarding the alleged “kidnapping” as highlighted in the government’s official statement on December 19.
We urgently request that the Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights, as the body responsible for the promotion and protection of rights in Southeast Asia, immediately communicate with the Lao authorities to expedite the investigation of the case, to determine the whereabouts of Sombath Somphone and to ensure his safe return to his wife and family.