Sombath Somphone returned to Laos from the US to serve the poor, to teach and inspire the young, and follow his heart. (Photo: YouTube)
“It does not matter how many years or how many days this suffering goes on. I will never give up searching for Sombath. I will continue my search until I know what happened to Sombath. As long as I am alive, I will never give up my search.”
These are the words of Shui Meng Ng on the eve of the eighth anniversary of the disappearance of her husband, Sombath Somphone, a Lao development worker who was snatched in front of a police station in Vientiane, Laos, on Dec. 15, 2012.
Shui Meng is one of the many wives of the disappeared who search from pillar to post for their loved ones. In our common work against enforced disappearances, I am fortunate to have been with her in 10 countries — the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, South Korea, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste, Morocco and Switzerland.
Rooted in her profound love for her disappeared husband, her perseverance to exert whatever efforts, great and small, to search for her husband led her to embrace the global struggle against enforced disappearances as her own.
Who is Sombath Somphone? The eldest son of a farmer, Sombath lived close to the Mekong River. Due to his extraordinary intelligence, he had the opportunity to study in the US. To give back to his people what he owed them, he returned to his country to serve the poor, to teach and inspire the young, and follow his heart. Rare it is for a man of his achievements to come back from a foreign land to a war-torn country. He could have lived a comfortable life in the US.
Yet he chose a path less traveled — working with farmers, sharing his knowledge and experience as a trained agronomist, and teaching the youth the art of learning based on concrete practice. He instructed them to respect their culture and the environment, which are sources of support for the majority of the people living off the land and the rivers of Laos. He also taught the young about the value of critical thinking and not just learning from theories from textbooks.
Sombath, a decorated development worker who received, among other accolades, the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award, disappeared eight years ago. CCTV footage revealed that his car was stopped at a police checkpoint and instantly, in the presence of police officers, unknown individuals forced him into another vehicle that drove him away. The same footage showed a man driving Sombath’s car away from the city center. Police present at the abduction did not lift a finger to help the victim, a fact that led one to conclude state agents’ participation in the disappearance.
The case of Sombath Somphone is the only case I am aware of where footage, serving as a concrete piece of evidence of the act, has been taken. Despite this glaring proof, ignoring the clamor of the international community, the Lao government miserably failed to investigate the case, as seen in the absence of investigation reports in several sessions of the UN Human Rights Council.
Disappearing Sombath is the most ungrateful act Laos did to one of its brightest citizens. Sombath, schooled in the US, chose not a life of luxury. On the contrary, he returned to his country after a devastating war of independence to contribute his skills and knowledge to its post-war reconstruction and to serve his people. Yet, ironically, Sombath was made to disappear.
Fingers point to the Asia-Europe People’s Forum, during which Sombath expressed consternation over Laos’ development agenda putting rapid development on external investment at the expense of its natural resources and its people.
In retrospect, 11 months prior to the disappearance of Sombath, during the January 2015 Universal Periodic Review, when Laos was vying for membership of the UN Human Rights Council, Phongsavath Boupha, then head of the Laotian delegation stated: “The Lao People’s Democratic Republic considers ratifying additional human rights conventions, including the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED).”
He further specified: “Lao People’s Democratic Republic’s candidacy for membership of the Human Rights Council for 2016-2018 highlighting that, if elected, it will do its utmost to contribute to the effectiveness and efficacy of the Human Rights Council, and continue to make concerted efforts to better the human rights of the Lao people.”
Eight years later, in a joint statement about the continuing enforced disappearance of Sombath, several human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Focus on the Global South and International Commission of Jurists, said: “In June 2020, during the third Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Laos at the United Nations Human Rights Council, the government refused to accept all five recommendations calling for an adequate investigation into Sombath’s enforced disappearance. The government also refused to accept another eight recommendations calling for investigations into all cases of alleged enforced disappearance.”
The signatories called “for the establishment of an independent and impartial investigative body tasked with determining Sombath’s fate and whereabouts. The new body should receive international technical assistance in order to conduct a professional and effective investigation in accordance with international standards.”
The statement further urged the Lao government “to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance without delay, incorporate its provisions into the country’s legal framework, implement it in practice, and recognize the competence of the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances to receive and consider communications from or on behalf of the victims in accordance with Article 31 of the Convention.”
Eight long years have elapsed. “The Lao official narrative remains the same — the police are still investigating — and still it has found nothing. The silence grows more deafening by the day,” Shui Meng says.
As in previous years, Sombath’s family led by Shui Meng held a prayer ceremony at Wat Na Khoun Noi forest temple on Dec. 13 to pray for Sombath’s good health and safe return.
Shui Meng has never given up amid obvious cover-up efforts by the Lao government. When asked what the future holds in store for her, she said: “I shall keep on searching for truth and justice for Sombath by continuing to knock on every door of the diplomatic community, human rights organizations, and the United Nations.”
Not lessened with time, her suffering has turned into courage. She vows to demand from the Lao government to reveal what happened to Sombath and bring the perpetrators to justice.
Shui Meng laments that “the pandemic has not made it easier for me and for other human rights defenders. Advocacy meetings and events like International Day of the Disappeared, which normally brought together human rights defenders and victims of disappearances, cannot be held. This caused an even greater sense of isolation for the victims of enforced disappearances like me.”
In unison, the human rights community repeatedly chants: "Surface Sombath NOW! Surface all victims of enforced disappearances NOW!"
Mary Aileen D. Bacalso is president of the International Coalition Against Enforced Disappearances. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.