Rights groups are demanding that US Barack Obama ask the Lao authorities for a renewed investigation into the whereabouts of missing Lao civil society activist Sombath Somphone, who disappeared in December 2012 and who has not been heard from since. The first sitting U.S. president to visit Laos, Obama arrived in Vientiane on Tuesday morning and met with Laotian President Bounnhang Vorachit.
Obama and leaders from across South East Asia are meeting in Vientiane, the capital of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), to attend the ASEAN summit from September 6-8th 2016. In advance of the visit, US officials spoke of an emerging partnership on development between the two countries, which focuses on health, nutrition and basic education. As visitors frequently note, the pace of life is slow in Laos, remarkably so. But beneath the tranquil surface that President Obama will encounter, there lurk endemic human rights problems.
“Barack Obama must seize this rare opportunity to raise concerns about the human rights situation in the notoriously closed country, including by asking the authorities, ‘Where is Sombath?’” said T. Kumar, Amnesty International USA’s International Advocacy Director.
On December 15th 2012, Sombath Somphone, a leading member of Lao civil society, was stopped by traffic police and taken away in a pick-up truck. His whereabouts remain unknown, his family has not been kept informed by the authorities, and there has been no credible investigation into his enforced disappearance.
“More than three years have passed since Sombath Somphone was last seen. We have no alternative but to conclude that the authorities are either directly responsible for his disappearance, or have failed miserably to take all necessary measures to get to the bottom of what happened,” said Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s Director for South East Asia and the Pacific.
Sombath Somphone’s disappearance was chillingly captured on CCTV. In the video, he is last seen stopped at a police post, and asked to step out of his car by traffic police. Moments later, a motorcyclist arrives at the scene, abandons his motorcycle and drives away in Sombath Somphone’s car.
A few minutes later, another man emerges from the police post, and waits by the side of the road. Soon, a pick-up truck arrives, with its lights flashing. Sombath Somphone and others get into the truck. The truck then leaves, with armed people riding a motorcycle leading the way. The passenger on the motorcycle fires a gunshot in the air.
Phil Robertson, Deputy Director of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch said that “President Obama and world leaders gathering in Laos need to demand answers and accountability from their Lao government hosts on the case of disappeared NGO leader Sombath Somphone. The message has to be clear that the cover up has to end, Sombath needs to be found, and that no other outcome is acceptable.”
Sombath’s case has come to be viewed as emblematic of the issue of enforced disappearances in Laos, where eight other cases have been brought to the attention of the UN group that investigate the human rights violation, and indeed crime, of enforced disappearance.
The Lao government has failed to order an independent investigation into Sombath’s disappearance and has resisted efforts to have his case discussed at previous ASEAN events.
“The establishment of an independent commission to impartially, thoroughly and effectively probe his case is long overdue. The commission should not only ensure that Sombath Somphone is safely returned to his family, but also identify those suspected of criminal responsibility and bring them to justice in fair trials, without recourse to the death penalty,” said Rafendi Djamin.
On August 25th, 45 organizations and individuals addressed a letter to President Obama asking that he pressure the government of Laos to investigate into Sombath’s disappearance and create a safe public domain for non-profit organizations and independent media.
“As you prepare your public remarks for the ASEAN Summit this September, we ask that you please raise once again the worldwide concern about increasing incidents of disappearances, violent acts and threats against civil society actors,” the letter to President Obama states. “Your sustained concerned could make all the difference, not only for Sombath, but in deterring future abductions of this kind and in promoting the vitality of ASEAN’s civil society sectors.”
Sombath received his education from the University of Hawaii, where he studied Education and Agriculture. In 1979, he returned to Laos and initiated various successful community development projects and youth leadership training programs, and received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership for his work. Prior to his disappearance, Sombath was involved in the Asia Europe People’s Forum and served as the bridge between the international communities and the government of Laos for the forum.
“Despite clear evidence on the CCTV footage suggesting that the police was involved in Sombath’s kidnapping, the government of Laos has repeatedly lied and continues to deny any responsibility,” said Thor Halvorssen, president of Human Rights Foundation. “For the remainder of his stay in Laos, President Obama should use his power as chief of state of one of the world’s strongest democracies to speak on behalf of Sombath’s family and confront the government of Laos over its appalling human rights record,” he added.
President Obama’s top aide, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, stated on Tuesday, that he will meet with Sombath’s wife, Shui Meng Ng, on Thursday. Rhodes also said at a press briefing Tuesday that “we care very deeply about her case and her husband, and we believe she deserves to know what happened to her husband.”