Scholars voice support for missing Lao activist

Radio Australia

Scholars voice support for missing Lao activist

Updated 23 July 2013, 13:33 AEST

More than 40 scholars from Australia’s leading universities have banded together to call on Canberra to take a tougher stand with authorities in Laos over the disappearance of the country’s best know community leader.

Sombath Somphone, who’s in his early sixties, has been missing since being driven away from a police post seven months ago.

Presenter: Sen Lam

Speaker: Keith Barney, Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy.

BARNEY: No there is no new information, the families and those closest to the case indicate that there’s no new details with the investigation. Sombath’s family have called the police investigation superficial, and the Lao government has refused international offers of technical assistance with the investigation, for example with examining the original camera footage. So there does not seem to be the political will within Laos to seriously investigate the abduction.
LAM: And Keith Barney you and of course with your colleagues, you’re all calling on the Australian government to do more. What exactly do you expect of Canberra?
BARNEY: Well in relation to our concerned scholars letter, we received a reply from Senator Carr on June 21st and Bob Carr responded to questions raised by Senator Lee Rhiannon in the June senate estimate hearing, and in his letter Carr explained that he had personally raised Sombath’s case with his Lao counterparts, particularly the Lao Prime Minister and the Foreign Affairs Minister. And he mentioned the human rights dialogues with Laos that Australia engages in the latest being in April 2012. However in response to our request for a more formal public statement by the Australian government, in his letter Carr referred back to the senate estimate transcripts and in the transcripts it was stated that the request to issue a formal statement at the highest level would be taken on notice. So it seems as though the department of Foreign Affairs and Trade is being a bit circular in their response to date to our letter.
LAM: Indeed Australia’s Foreign Minister Bob Carr did raise the issue of Sombath Somphone with the Laotian authorities directly when he visited Vientianne earlier this year, so why should things be different now?
BARNEY: Well we feel that Australia is lagging behind other countries in its rather muted response to date regarding Sombath. For example the US Secretary of State Clinton and Kerry have both issues formal press statements on Sombath’s case, and the EU parliament has passed a formal resolution calling for a speeded up investigation and for Lao authorities to end the practice of arbitrary arrests and secret detentions. So we’re requesting that the Australian Foreign Minister make a more formal public statement on Sombath’s abduction, so more than a tweet and more than a statement buried in senate estimate transcripts.
LAM: So Australia of course has a 50-million dollar aid program with Laos. Are you hopeful that that might give us some kind of political leverage?
BARNEY: Yes Australia does fund many worthy initiatives in Laos supporting human rights and improved governance, civil society and sustainable natural resources management. And in fact the organisation that Sombath Somphone founded, the Participatory Development Training Centre, was a previous recipient of Australian support. So Sombath is a leading and inspiring proponent of the good governance agenda that Australia wishes to support in Laos. And we feel that Australia needs to send a clear message that the poor investigation into his abduction is unacceptable and that his plight will be placed at the front end of all bilateral discussions with Laos until he’s located.

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