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Remembering the disappeared

Winners of 'Asia's Nobel Prize' call for renewed focus on missing activists

Remembering the disappeared

Ramon Magsaysay awardees Jong Ungphakorn of Thailand, left, and Lahpai Seng Raw of Myanmar, second from right, join calls for ASEAN states to play an active role in the search for victims of enforced disappearances. Also in the photo are Mary Aileen Bacalso, secretary general of the Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances and Edita Burgos, right, mother of missing Filipino activist Jonas Burgos. (Photo by Joe Torres)

Published: August 27, 2015 07:11 AM GMT

Updated: November 17, 2022 11:56 AM GMT

The region must do more as a whole to search for victims of enforced disappearances, recipients of the Ramon Magsaysay award said this week.

This was the call made by Ramon Magsaysay awardees Lahpai Seng Raw and Jon Ungphakorn during a gathering of families of victims of enforced disappearances and human rights activists in Manila on Aug. 27.

Ungphakorn, a London-born Thai nongovernmental organization executive and former Thai senator, said members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, or not doing enough.

"Enforced disappearance is the most cruel crime not only against individuals but also against families, communities, and society," Ungphakorn told ucanews.com in an interview.

"We must all work together," he said, adding that civil society needs to continue to press governments "to become active on this issue".

He was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, for governmental services in 2005.

Ungphakorn said ASEAN, which is set to fully integrate the economies of Southeast Asia later this year, has the obligation to be at the forefront on the disclosure of the whereabouts of victims of enforced disappearances.

Lahpai Seng Raw, a 2013 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee from Myanmar, said "state repression can only be eliminated through the engaged efforts of civil society across the globe".

"Let us not be intimidated by state repression ... We must continue to strive together until a satisfactory explanation of each case of enforced disappearance is achieved and the perpetrators are brought to justice," she told ucanews.com.

Lahpai Seng Raw is founder of Myanmar's largest civil society group, the Metta Development Foundation, which runs health care, agriculture and peace projects in Kachin state.

Social activist Walden Bello, a former member of the Philippine Congress, said the disappeared should be one of the main items on the agenda of the ASEAN community.

"We cannot take our liberties for granted, we cannot take for granted that the agencies of the state will not carry out this method of control if they feel it is necessary," he said in a speech before the gathering.

"As ASEAN is slated to become one regional community, a real integrated region, it is incumbent to all of us to say 'stop'," Bello said.

Citizens of ASEAN's 10 member states cannot be proud of having an integrated community if it's one that that tolerates human rights violations, he said.


Unanswered questions

Families of prominent missing people said it is important to keep fighting for human rights, even of their own loved ones are still missing.

"We know that our pleas fall on deaf ears, but we should continue our search and become witness for others to continue the fight for human rights," said Edita Burgos, mother of missing Filipino activist Jonas Burgos.

Ng Shui Meng, wife of missing Lao development worker Sombath Somphone, told ucanews.com that "there will be no closure to the case of Sombath’s disappearance until answers are found".

Sombath, a 2005 Ramon Magsaysay winner, promoted sustainable agriculture and food security among farming communities in Laos. He disappeared in Vientiane on Dec. 15, 2012.

Close-circuit television footage obtained by Sombath's family showed that he was stopped by the police and was driven away in a car. He has never been seen again.

The Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances issued a statement renewing its call to "surface the disappeared without delay, to bring justice to the perpetrators, to ensure reparation, and to guarantee that enforced disappearance will never be repeated again."

In its 106th session, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances examined at least 400 cases of enforced disappearances from 30 countries, including recent ones and updated information on previous cases.

As of 2014, a total of 43,250 cases from 88 countries were under active consideration by the U.N.

Asia has the highest number of cases reported to the U.N.: at least 8,000 in Kashmir; Sri Lanka, 5,676; Philippines, 625; Nepal, 458; Timor Leste, 428; India, 353; Indonesia, 163; Pakistan, 99; Thailand, 71; China, 30; North Korea, 20; Bangladesh, 29; Lao PDR, 2; Myanmar, 2; and Cambodia, 1.

Only four countries in Asia — Japan, Kazakhstan, Iraq, and Cambodia — have so far ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, and only Japan has recognized the competence of the Committee on Enforced Disappearances on inter-state complaints, but not on individual cases.

While the Philippines is the first and only country that has a domestic law against enforced disappearances, defining and penalizing enforced or involuntary disappearance, it has not yet signed and ratified the convention, which could have complemented the existing law.


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