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This year was is supposed to have been a year to remember for Laos _ that was until the evening of Dec 15. ”I last saw my husband driving in his jeep behind my car on Saturday, 15 December, 2012. We were both going home to dinner,” said Ng Sui Meng.
”His jeep was still behind my car around 6pm near the police station at Thaduea Road. After that I did not see him anymore,” Mrs Ng said in an appeal to the Lao government after her husband, Sombath Somphone, went missing on that day.
This year Vientiane and the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party showed the world that their country could easily handle big international events. It hosted the Asia-Europe Summit (Asem) last month, the biggest ever in their history.
Other good news came along this year when the country gained its long-sought membership of the World Trade Organisation after years of negotiations.
Everything seems to confirm the gradual opening of a country once extremely cautious about outside influence on the back of fears of endangerment to the firm grip of the ruling Communist Party.
Change is expected to come, though, with less tolerance of criticism of the government and a bigger role for non-government organisations (NGOs).
But the feel-good mood of Lao watchers turned sour when Mr Sombath disappeared on Dec 15.
The news was a shock to them and left them bewildered. The 60-year-old activist had never been regarded as an enemy of the state.
He founded the Participatory Development Training Centre in Vientiane to promote development and education and was still active even after he stepped down as director.
His work as a social developer was internationally recognised when he received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award on Community Leadership in 2005.
Mr Sombath was a key figure as a co-organiser of the Asia-Europe People’s Forum, which ran alongside the Asem.
Not surprisingly, he was called ”one of the most respected and influential voices for sustainable people-centred and just economic and social development in Laos” by the forum.
More than a week has passed now and at time of writing, his whereabouts are still unknown and the reason behind his disappearance remains a mystery.
Some people have tried to link his disappearance with his advocacy of environmental issues concerning the Xayaburi dam, but that seems too difficult to configure as he has never put himself on the opposite side of the government on this issue.
Vientiane has denied any involvement in the case. Laos’ Foreign Ministry suspects he could have been snatched by unknown people after he was stopped by police at a post on his way home.
Despite government denials, Vientiane cannot distance itself from the issue. Security camera footage supplies evidence that at the very least the police saw him before he disappeared after, according to his wife, ”a truck with flashing lights stopped at the police station and drove off with him”.
His Singaporean wife has appealed to officials at all levels, from village to national government. But Lao authorities seem slow to take action, despite calls for an urgent investigation growing louder from NGOs in Thailand to governments in Washington and Europe.
Mr Sombath’s disappearance came exactly one week after Anne-Sophie Gindroz, country director for Laos of Halvetas, a Swiss-based NGO promoting an agricultural project, left the Lao capital on Dec 8. She was given 48 hours to leave the country after criticising the government.
The two cases might not be connected, but it signals new concerns about Laos’s tolerance of critics.
It’s noted that the work of the NGOs has not changed, and that the country is more open to investment, while party youngbloods have been given a role in running the country over the conservative old guard.
Trying to link the two cases will not benefit the country at all and concern will grow as long as the authorities continue to hesitate to investigate the respected activist’s disappearance or probe the police who saw him before he went missing on that Saturday evening.
Nobody can help Laos except the government itself to prove all doubters that they are wrong.
Saritdet Marukatat is Digital Media News Editor, Bangkok Post.
About the author
- Writer: Saritdet Marukatat
- Position: Opinion-Editorial Pages Editor