The disappearance of a noted social activist is tainted with the suspicion that the authorities have silenced him due to his opposition to dam construction and other projects
It is almost clear that the disappearance last month of Sombath Somphone, a respected Lao civil society leader, after he was stopped at a police station, was not an accident. The manner in which the authorities in Vientiane have responded to enquiries into the matter has also raised the possibility of the complicity of local officials in his alleged kidnapping.
Laos must come clean on the whereabouts of Sombath. Otherwise the country’s reputation and standing in the international community will suffer, especially after the successful hosting of the high-profile Asia-Europe Summit last year. Sombath’s supporters throughout Southeast Asia and other regions have demanded that the Lao government provide more information. Even former Thai prime minister Anand Panyarachun, who seldom makes any comment on a personal level, has appealed to Vientiane to investigate Sombath’s case.
Sombath’s friends have set up social media networks to monitor the situation. Some of his supporters believe he is still alive, but with no information forthcoming more than a month since he was last seen, many others believe his life is in jeopardy.
So far, the Lao government has said little about Sombath, apart from asserting that he may have been involved in a personal dispute. That is its standard official rebuttal to any question about dubious action. As a Magsaysay Award laureate, Sombath has been given recognition for his work in training Lao people on issues related to agriculture and development.
With the kind of economic development that the Communist Party of Laos has chosen to focus on, rapid growth in extractive industries such as timber and minerals has been given top priority. Ongoing dam construction has caused repeated concern about the relocation of villagers and long-term destruction of the environment and traditional ways of life.
Laos is still an oppressive society. It is more open than before, but still closed in comparison with neighbouring Thailand, Cambodia and even Myanmar. So far, its authoritarian government has escaped criticism because it has successfully hidden under the cloak of Asean since it joined the grouping in 1997. Laos has also been lucky due to its landlocked geographical location, allowing the regime to continue with its archaic style of governance.
After the Cold War, Laos was quite isolated for a long period. Two years ago, with the full cooperation of the Thai government, against the demands of the international community, Lao Hmong refugees were sent back to Laos unwillingly. This only helped Laos and Thailand to improve their “national security”. Since then, Laos has trained its officials to track internal players from non-government, or rather non-party, sectors. Anybody who does not follow the party line is punished or reprimanded for “anti-social behaviour”.
At this time, pending further investigation, Sombath’s colleagues and friends believe that his disappearance and alleged kidnapping by the authorities could be linked to his opposition to the Sayaboury Dam’s construction and other environmental issues.
Sombath’s whereabouts will remain a big issue and the Lao government has to be held accountable. Asean must take up this matter, especially the Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights, which recently issued its much-heralded Declaration of Asean Human Rights. His disappearance looks more and more like a blatant display of political arrogance and central control inside Laos. Increasingly in the new regional landscape, such an authoritarian system is no longer acceptable.