December 20, 2012 00:00
By Supalak Ganjanakhundee
Police in Laos have begun investigating the disappearance of Magsaysay Award-winner Sombath Somphone - but he is suspected to have been held in custody by a state agency since Saturday.
“We lodged a petition on Monday with Vientiane police to search for him and they said they would do their best,” his sister Phetsamai said yesterday.
Petitions were lodged with many agencies including the foreign ministry, but they gave no acknowledgement about Sombath going missing, she said.
Sombath, a Laotian social activist, was last seen leaving his office in Ban Nakham at 5pm in the Lao capital and getting into his car.
He drove the dark-green Willy Jeep along the bank of the Mekong River heading east in Vientiane’s Sattanak district.
In his last phone conversation with a granddaughter while driving home, he said he was stopped by police at a checkpoint three to four kilometres from home, she said.
“But that’s very normal since authorities are now stepping up measures to maintain traffic order and control security during the Asean University Games in Vientiane,” she said in a phone interview from the Lao capital.
He was talking normally on the phone, asking his granddaughter if she wanted him to buy anything to bring home, she said from a police station where she was giving more information to officials about Sombath.
A staff member at Sombath’s office claimed he had evidence to prove Sombath was taken to a police station and later put in custody at unknown place. But Phetsamai said police did not give such information to her.
Sombath, the founder and former director of the Participatory Development Training Centre, is respected in the field of education and development because of his work.
He received the international Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2005 for community leadership.
Phetsamai said the family had no idea if his work would create a conflict with anybody in the country as he was mostly dedicated to education and development.
At the age of 60, he had retired from his job at the training centre but still had some unfinished work to take care of, she said.
He did not have any business or interests that could cause disputes with anybody, she said, adding that he had a gentle polite demeanour.
“We can’t imagine who would want to abduct or take him into custody for whatever reason, but we’re very worried about his safety,” she said.