The Case of Sombath Somphone

Sombath Somphone at work

This October marks the 4th anniversary of the founding of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission of Human Rights (AICHR). Since AICHR was formed ASEAN has had a mixed track record with human rights. Although there have been some impressive political reforms across the region, particularly in Burma, some states appear to have grown increasingly confident in their ability to commit human rights abuses against their citizens. Nowhere has this been more so than in Laos.

Often presented as an idyllic Buddhist nation, the poor track record of human rights abuses in Laos has largely slipped under the radar of the international media. All this suddenly changed, however, following the enforced disappearance of Mr. Sombath Somphone in late 2012. A recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership – one of the most prestigious awards for human development in Asia, and the founder of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Laos, Sombath Somphone (61) amongst the most widely respected development workers in East Asia. In October 2012 Sombath play a key role in coordinating the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (APF), the largest civil society event ever held in Laos.

During the forum Sombath gave a keynote speech, in which he stated that; “We focus too much on economic growth and ignore its negative impact… we need to give more space for the ordinary people, especially young people, and allow them to be the drivers of change and transformation.” His speech was inspirational, but his comments that “hearing from the voices of the people is the first step to transforming the power structure”, is not the sort of thing that the country’s authoritarian regime likes to hear.

On the evening of 15 December 2012, while driving to his home in Vientiane, Sombath was stopped at a police checkpoint and escorted into a roadside police building. Shortly thereafter a motorcyclist arrived, fired a gunshot into the air and drove off in Sombath’s vehicle. A truck with flashing lights arrived at the police post and two unidentified men emerged from the vehicle and forced Sombath into the truck. He has never been seen since.

Although the Lao police have refused to supply the CCTV video footage that captured the abduction, Sombath’s wife, Ng Shui-Meng, was clever enough to record the footage on her mobile phone. Having made the video available on YouTube, Sombath’s disappearance quickly became an international news story. Articles about his abduction have been published in French, Vietnamese, Indonesian, German, Thai and English, including stories from the BBC, The Guardian, Wall St Journal, Le Monde Diplomatique, Al Jazeera, ABC Australia, the Bangkok Post and the New York Times.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have officially stated that they believe Sombath has been the target of an “enforced disappearance” — defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts.

In addition, Hillary Clinton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the United States Secretary of State John Kerry have all issued statements voicing their concerns, while the European Parliament has issued a statement calling for ‘the ASEAN Human Rights Commission to establish an inquiry Committee to investigate the events surrounding the enforced disappearance.’

Within the region, members of ASEAN nations have also demanded answers. Civil society groups from Malaysia, the Philippines, Cambodia and Thailand have all pushed for greater support for Sombath and in 2012 the Philippines passed the first law in Asia criminalizing enforced disappearances.

Unfortunately, however, ASEAN’s response through AICHR has been weak. In support of ASEAN’s ‘non-interference’ approach to regionalism, AICHR has refused to speak up about Sombath, leading Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch, to state, “the silence of ASEAN’s human rights commission about Sombath’s case reflects this body’s fundamental inability to protect human rights.” Of course it is not only AICHR that needs to show a greater interest in this case, but also the Lao government.

Since its inception in 1980, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) has recorded seven cases of unacknowledged detention in Laos. While this figure remains low compared to other countries in the region it remains a serious cause for concern, particularly given that such disappearances are not consigned to the country’s historic past. Over the past 15 years the Lao government has frequently and systematically used enforced disappearances as a means to intimidate and silence its citizens, including the imprisonment of five organizers of a pro-democracy movement in 1999 and the 2007 disappearance of Sompawn Khantisouk, the owner of an ecotourism guesthouse in Northern Laos who clashed with members of the local government over large-scale rubber concessions in the area.

Aside from enforced disappearances, the government has also faced widespread condemnation for ongoing human rights abuses against the Hmong, an ethnic minority community that fought against the Lao communist forces during the Vietnam War. Both Amnesty International and Médecins Sans Frontières have released multiple reports detailing the ongoing mistreatment of the Hmong by the Lao military, including acts of unjustified imprisonment, murder and rape.

Less horrific, but still a serious problem, has been the widespread land seizures that Sombath and others spoke of at the people’s forum. As Laos has ‘opened its doors’ to foreign investment the rate of state land seizures has grown exponentially. Rubber plantations, mining, and hydropower projects have all been major causes of forced displacements, but they have not been the only causes.

Hotel and casino projects in the north of the country and sports stadiums in the capital of Vientiane have also resulted in land seizures. In the tourist mecca of Luang Prabang, villagers who protested against the confiscation of their land to make way for a golf course were thrown into jail. Elsewhere in the city, others who were displaced to make way for airport upgrades were living in tents and without access to piped water more than a year after their relocation. Even the accommodation for the visiting delegates of the Asia-Europe meeting that the people’s forum preceded was built on land appropriated from local farmers.

On 2 February 2013 Laos became the 158th member of the WTO. Although a big step for the small land-locked country’s membership in the global community, the disappearance of Sombath shows that the Lao state has no intention of allowing its increased integration with global economic flows to lead to increased political freedom. Inequality is growing and, despite a 2012 growth rate of 8.1%, the human development ranking of Laos dropped from 133rd in 2009 to 138th in 2013. Although by no means the only factor, state corruption has played an important role in this slippage. Transparency International, a global organization targeting corruption, ranks Laos 16oth of 176 countries on its corruption perceptions index. Reports of corruption and bribery are widespread in the country’s civil society sector, although it is almost impossible to get people to speak publicly about this problem. According to the distinguished Lao scholar, Professor Martin Stuart-Fox, “Corruption has become endemic” in Laos, where “there is no freedom of the press [and] the police and security forces are under close party control.”

Without increased pressure for political reform future enforced disappearances are likely to occur in Laos. People will continue to be forcefully evicted from their land and the country’s natural resources will continue to be sold off to the highest bidders with little concern for the welfare of future generations. As Laos becomes increasingly tied to investments and aid funding from East Asia it will also become increasingly important for AICHR and other East Asian institutions to ramp up their response to the country’s human rights abuses.

For more information on Sombath’s disappearance please visit www.sombath.org

Kearrin Sims is a PhD Candidate at Institute for Culture and Society, the University of Western Sydney.  His research explores how the ‘rise of Asia’ is reconfiguring practices and discourses of development in Laos. Specific interests include; Chinese ODA and FDI in Laos, development-induced displacement, poverty alleviation, community empowerment and social justice. More information on his research and publications can be found at www.laophd.com.