Thai govt 'obliged to find Lao activist'
25 days since Sombath's disappearance, seminar demands Bangkok get involvedNot only Laotian authorities, but also Thailand must take responsibility for the disappearance of Lao activist and Magsaysay Award winner Sombath Somphone, who is widely believed by civic groups to have been abducted for his role in fighting a Thai-Lao development project on the mekong River.
Panellists at a seminar held on the 25th day after Sombath's disappearance called on the Laotian government to take responsibility, alleging that Lao police were clearly seen taking part in the "enforced disappearance".
Closed-circuit television footage shows Sombath being stopped by police at a checkpoint before being taken away by a group of unknown men in a pickup truck in the evening of December 15.
The 2005 Magsaysay Award winner has championed sustainable development in the landlocked country for decades. His work to preserve the natural environment went against mega projects including the Thai-invested Xayaburi Dam, the panellists said.
The Thai government should show some responsibility over Sombath's disappearance and play a role in the search for him, as Thailand directly benefits from major infrastructure projects in Laos, said Prof Surichai Wankaew, director of the Peace and Conflicts Study Centre at Chulalongkorn University.
People must show to Asean governments that they have power, and Thai activists should step up campaigns on human-rights issue following Sombath's disappearance, and nine years after Thai lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit's kidnapping, he said.
Asean countries should try to strike a balance in development and not focus just on economic stability. They should also maintain the culture and livelihoods of local people, the professor said.
"The Asean Economic Community is not just about creating a single market; it will affect a lot of people's lives," Surichai said.
"The AEC means more than trading. If Asean nations do not value the lives of other people, what will the pride of the community be? So all of us must return to pressure our own governments on what they think about this issue."
Dr Nirand Pithakwatchara, a member of the National Human Rights Commission, said the Thai government should inform the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights about its progress in protecting people from enforced disappearance.
The significance of Sombath's case was not limited to an individual, because his campaign to protect human rights won him the Magsaysay Award, and he had become a symbol of human rights in Asean, he said.
"What happened to Sombath challenges the human rights issue in the region. Sombath worked to create love and care and social justice," he said.
Angkhana Neelapaijit, president of the Justice for Peace Foundation, whose activist-lawyer husband Somchai has been missing since 2004, said Sombath's disappearance was apparently a warning from the Laotian government.
Vientiane wanted to send a message that it would not accept the participation of civil society, she said.
Asean members should be allowed to check human rights abuses among themselves, she said, noting that enforced disappearances would not stop if the practice were not criminalised.
Jon Ungphakorn, a former Bangkok senator, who received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for government service in 2005, the same year as Sombath, told the seminar that he and 52 Magsaysay Award recipients and officials had sent an open letter to the Laotian prime minister and Laotian government agencies asking them to investigate Sombath's disappearance.
Sombath's safety would depend on pressure from other Asean governments, as Vientiane would not listen to NGOs, Jon said.
Other Asean governments must express their uneasiness about Sombath's alleged enforced disappearance, he said.
Pablo Solon, a former Bolivian ambassador to the UN, said forced disappearance was a crime against humanity and people should campaign against this crime. In Argentina, people rose up in street protests after ten of thousands went missing, he said.