Laos: Where is Sombath Somphone?

‘Find Sombath Somphone’

Sombath Somphone, a development economist and educator from Laos, was last seen on December 15, 2012. A month after his mysterious disappearance, his friends and supporters from around the world are asking the Lao government to intensify the search for Sombath.

Sombath Somphone was last seen in Vientiane on the evening of Saturday 15th December when he was driving home in his jeep. His family and friends immediately contacted the police, visited hospitals, and informed Embassies, but nobody knew where Sombath had gone.

Two days later, CCTV footage became available that showed Sombath being stopped by police and then abducted.

Sombath founded the Participatory Development Training Centre in Laos and his lifelong work in the field of education and community development was recognized when he won the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award, which is known as Asia’s Nobel Prize, for community leadership.

Sombath’s wife, Ng Shui Meng, thinks it’s not entirely accurate to call him an activist. She explains the philosophy behind Sombath’s numerous projects:

Sombath’s development philosophy is that of promoting balanced and sustainable development. Sombath has never opposed economic development, but he urges that economic development be balanced with spiritual well-­‐ being, social improvement, and environmental and cultural protection.

Sombath’s abduction was revealed in a CCTV footage:

Ambassador Yong Chanthalangsy of Laos to the United Nations in Geneva issued this statement in behalf of the government in relation to Sombath’s case:

The Lao government is deeply concerned about the disappearance of Mr Sombath Somphone and attaches importance to the investigations underway in order to find out the truth of this incident.

On this incident, the concerned authority as the law protection agency that protects and maintains social order has the legal duty to find out the truth in order to bring the perpetrators to justice and ensure justice to Mr Sombath and his family according to the law

Thomas Wanhoff asks why police failed to stop Sombath’s ‘abductors’:

Questions still remain why the police did nothing when they witnessed that someone stole the car and Sombath was forced into the car. He certainly would have informed the police officers if he had been kidnapped.

Sombath, “the trainer of trainers’

News of Sombath’s kidnapping drew strong reactions inside and outside Laos. Government officials and civil society groups from other countries are one in urging the Laos government to help find the missing Sombath. In Thailand, more than 60 groups signed a petition in support of the campaign to find Sombath:

We, civil society organizations in Thailand, urge concerned Lao authorities to take every urgent action with regard to Mr. Sombath’s disappearance. We look forward to hearing that all immediate and necessary efforts are made to search his whereabouts and investigate the cause of his disappearance.

Above all and last, we hope that Mr. Sombath remains safe and will re-appear to resume his unfinished mission. For this will be encouraging to not only those sharing a similar mission, but, those committed to the course of making this world a better place for us all

Writing for New Mandala, Simon Creak and Keith Barney asks if Sombath’s disappearance is related to his advocacy for the protection of land rights of ordinary villagers:

Links are instead being drawn between Sombath’s disappearance and his involvement with the controversial AEPF (Asia-Europe People’s Forum held in Vientiane last November), particularly his support for people who made statements advocating for the rights of villagers who are suffering from the loss of their customary lands and resources. As Sombath’s wife has reiterated in public comments, government officials were also involved with the National Organizing Committee of the AEPF, so the event as a whole should not have been tainted.

Harrison George analyzes the impact of Sombath’s disappearance among the Laos civil society networks:

So the effect has been properly paralyzing. Nobody in Lao can guess who will be next. Nobody knows where the line is that they should not cross. Some people have left the country; some have done a duck dive, flitting from safe house to safe house in the hope that the security forces are still a few steps behind. And everyone is keeping their mouths firmly shut.

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