Archive for October, 2013

October 29, 2013

William H. Sullivan, U.S. Ambassador to Volatile Laos and Iran, Is Dead at 90

William H. Sullivan, U.S. Ambassador to Volatile Laos and Iran, Is Dead at 90

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Published: October 28, 2013

William E. Sauro/The New York Times After being held prisoner, Mr. Sullivan became president of the American Assembly.

William H. Sullivan, a career diplomat who spent much of the 1960s and 1970s in volatile parts of the world — notably Laos, where he oversaw a secret bombing campaign, and Iran, where he was the last United States ambassador before militants took embassy employees hostage in November 1979 — died on Oct. 11 in Washington. He was 90.

He had been ill and in hospice care for many months, said his daughter Anne Sullivan, who confirmed the death.

Mr. Sullivan, a Navy gunnery officer in World War II whose ship, the U.S.S. Hambleton, was involved in the invasion of Normandy and the surrender of Japan, joined the Foreign Service in 1947 and spent the next several years moving through increasingly prominent State Department posts in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

He worked under Ambassador Clare Boothe Luce in Rome. He was a close aide to the diplomat W. Averell Harriman during the Cuban missile crisis and talks with the Soviet Union about limits on nuclear testing. In 1973, he was a top adviser to Henry A. Kissinger during the Paris Peace Accords, which led to the United States’ withdrawal of troops from Vietnam.

These roles were in addition to his prominent and complicated turns as an ambassador in politically charged areas — first in Laos, then in the Philippines and, finally, in Iran. He was appointed by presidents of both parties.

In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson named Mr. Sullivan ambassador to Laos as tensions with neighboring Vietnam were rising there. Though Mr. Sullivan was a civilian, he oversaw a covert bombing campaign in Laos that targeted North Vietnamese forces traveling the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The bombings were conducted by the C.I.A., and Mr. Sullivan initially concealed them even from visiting members of Congress.

When lawmakers learned of the bombings in 1969, many questioned whether Mr. Sullivan and the executive branch had the authority and expertise to carry them out. An aid worker in Laos, Ronald J. Rickenbach, told a Senate subcommittee that many of the attacks appeared to be “indiscriminate bombing of population centers.”

Mr. Sullivan, who was called numerous times to testify before Congress, defended the covert bombings and insisted that his knowledge of Laos allowed him to monitor them closely and to minimize civilian casualties. He later said that civilian deaths rose after the military took control of the bombing campaign.

Mr. Sullivan left Laos in 1969 and spent much of the early ’70s as the deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. He worked closely with Mr. Kissinger in lengthy negotiations with North Vietnam that produced the Paris accords.

Even as Mr. Kissinger praised him for his assistance in Paris, it was disclosed that Mr. Sullivan had been one of 13 government officials and four journalists whose phones were wiretapped from 1969 to 1971 with the approval of President Richard M. Nixon. The stated goal was to halt leaks to the news media. Mr. Kissinger provided the list of those to be tapped; he later said that he did so only to prove that officials were not leaking information.

Also in 1973, President Nixon appointed Mr. Sullivan ambassador to the Philippines, where he negotiated with the government of President Ferdinand E. Marcos to handle the flow of refugees fleeing Vietnam and, later, to close two military bases. Four years later, in a move Mr. Sullivan said surprised him given his extensive experience in Southeast Asia, President Jimmy Carter named him ambassador to Iran. Within months after his arrival, a rebellion began growing against the government of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, whom the United States supported.

By the fall of 1978, debate was raging within the Carter administration over what to do about the volatile situation. Mr. Sullivan clashed with Zbigniew Brzezinski, the president’s national security adviser, and complained that the administration was unresponsive to his repeated requests for clear instructions. Some criticized Mr. Sullivan for not seeing the seriousness of the threat to the shah, and thus to American political interests in the country. He argued later that the shah could have preserved power in a new coalition had the White House been more responsive.

In February 1979, a month after the shah had fled, the United States Embassy in Iran was briefly overtaken by Iranian militants, and Mr. Sullivan and several other Americans were taken prisoner. The Iranian government quickly freed them, but the episode prompted Mr. Sullivan to begin reducing the number of United States government employees in Iran, to fewer than 100 from more than 1,000.

Mr. Sullivan’s exchanges with the White House became increasingly bitter. In a 1981 memoir, “Mission to Iran,” he recalled receiving “a most unpleasant and abrasive cable” that “contained an unacceptable aspersion upon my loyalty.”

“When I was told by telephone from the State Department that the insulting message had originated at the White House,” he wrote, “I thought that I no longer had a useful function to perform on behalf of the president in Tehran.”

He left Iran that spring and retired from government service later that year. On Nov. 4, 1979, Iranian militants scaled the walls of the United States Embassy compound and took 66 Americans hostage, holding 52 of them until January 1981. The United States has not had an ambassador in Iran since Mr. Sullivan left.

William Healy Sullivan was born on Oct. 12, 1922, in Cranston, R.I. His father, Joseph, was a dental surgeon, and his mother, the former Sabina Foley, was a schoolteacher. He received his undergraduate degree from Brown University and, in 1947, a master’s degree in international law and diplomacy jointly from Harvard and the Fletcher School at Tufts University.

From 1979 to 1986, Mr. Sullivan was president of the American Assembly, a public affairs forum at Columbia University. After 1986, he served on the boards of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and other organizations.

In addition to his daughter Anne, his survivors include three other children, John, Mark and Peggy Sullivan, and six grandchildren. His wife of 62 years, the former Marie Johnson, died in 2010.

October 28, 2013

EU urged to find missing Lao activist

Human rights groups pressured visiting European parliamentarians in Laos Monday to demand answers about missing activist Sombath Somphone.

“The EU should use all its leverage to ensure Sombath’s safe return,” said a joint letter from Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Federation Internationale des Ligues de droits de l’homme and Human Rights Watch.

The civil rights activist has not been seen since Dec 15, when he was detained at a police checkpoint in Vientiane, and CCTV footage captured images of him being forced into a truck and driven away.

The Communist regime has denied knowledge of the incident or Sombath’s whereabouts.

The EU group, led by Werner Langen of Germany, met Monday morning with its diplomatic mission to Laos and was scheduled for a full day of meetings with legislators and ministers including Phongsavath Boupha, head of Laos’ national steering committee on human rights, officials said in Vientiane.

The rights groups said the delegates should “urge the Laos government to answer the many outstanding questions around Sombath’s disappearance and to establish an independent commission, ideally with international involvement or support.”

The EU is one of the leading aid donors to Laos, listed as one of the world’s least-developed countries. The bloc has expressed concern over Sombath’s disappearance and its implication for activists.

In August, Danish member of the European Parliament Soren Bo Sondergaard led a delegation to Vientiane to pursue the case.

Mr Sondergaard concluded that the government was “still in a state of denial” over Mr Sombath’s disappearance.

He called on the EU to put more pressure on Laos, such as threatening to block its bid to sit on the UN Human Rights Council or to graduate from its current status as a least-developed country.

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October 28, 2013

EU must maintain efforts to secure safe return of Sombath Somphone

EU must maintain efforts to secure safe return of Sombath Somphone

Last Update 28 October 2013

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Joint open letter addressed to members of EU Parliament

Dear Member of Parliament,

In view of your participation in the upcoming European Parliament (EP) delegation to Laos on October 28, we call on you to maintain your efforts to secure the safe return of prominent Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, a victim of enforced disappearance.

Sombath disappeared on 15 December 2012 in Vientiane, the Lao capital [1]. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) footage obtained by his family shows Sombath was last seen with local police at the Thadeau police post. The Lao authorities’ potential involvement in Sombath’s disappearance has been compounded by their failure to conduct thorough investigations and their rejection of external assistance, including to analyse the original CCTV footage.

Enforced disappearances are defined under international law as the arrest, detention or abduction of a person by state officials or their agents followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealing the fate or whereabouts of the person, placing the person outside the protection of the law. As one of the first countries in Southeast Asia to sign (though not yet ratify) the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in September 2008, Lao authorities bear the responsibility of preventing and remedying any enforced disappearance and are bound under international law to refrain from acts that would defeat the object and purpose of this treaty.

It is unacceptable that Sombath remains unaccounted for in the ten months since his disappearance—in spite of widespread international calls for his return. These include the EP resolution of February 7, 2013, as well as an appeal from High Representative Catherine Ashton in December 2012 and EU calls for Sombath’s return after the 4th Lao PDR-EU Working Group on Human Rights and Governance held in Vientiane in February 2013. We also note the more recent efforts on Sombath’s case made by members of an EP delegation to visit Laos in August.

At the same time, Laos receives millions of Euros in international development aid annually, including 12 million Euro in EU general budget support for the Lao government from 2008-2012. As per the EU Guidelines on Budget Support to third countries, the recipient countries’ “commitment to fundamental values”, including human rights and the rule of law, must remain a “key determinant of EU development cooperation, including general…budget support. [2]”

The EU should use all its leverage to ensure Sombath’s safe return. The EU must also urge the Lao government to answer the many outstanding questions around Sombath’s disappearance and to establish an independent commission, ideally with international involvement or support, to investigate the case.

Sombath’s disappearance has focused international attention on the disturbing lack of freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Laos, and has sent a chilling, intimidating message to the country’s already fragile civil society. In its engagement with the Lao authorities, the EU should therefore highlight the wider issues of the lack of respect for basic civil and political rights, including freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, and religion or belief. The EU should demand that the Lao government guarantee a more enabling environment for human rights defenders including those working on economic, social and cultural rights, and development activists such as Sombath.

In view of the Lao government’s recently expressed ambitions to join the Human Rights Council in 2016-2018, Sombath’s enforced disappearance represents a key test of its commitment to promote and protect human rights. In the country demonstrating the fastest growth in Southeast Asia in 2012, the work of civil society, including individuals like Sombath, is critical in ensuring human rights are not sidelined during Laos’ rapid development. The EU should stress to the Lao government that significant progress in the Sombath case must be a prerequisite of Laos’ candidacy for the UN Human Rights Council.

In line with the EU’s commitments to promote human rights through all its external actions, we call on you during your upcoming EP delegation visit to urge the Lao government to:

  • Ensure the safe and immediate return of Sombath Somphone.
  • Answer the many outstanding questions around Sombath’s disappearance and establish an independent commission to investigate the case.
  • Fully investigate the enforced disappearance of Sombath Somphone in a timely and transparent manner, appropriately prosecuting those responsible.
  • Address repression of civil and political rights, including freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Laos and ensure an enabling environment for civil society and human rights defenders.

Until Sombath Somphone is back safely with his family, his case will not be forgotten and calls for his return will persist. Thank you for your attention to our serious and continued concerns about his fate.


List of signatories:
Amnesty International
Christian Solidarity Worldwide
Human Rights Watch



[1] This case has been documented in detail, see Amnesty International, “Laos: Caught on Camera: The Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone,” June 2013, See also Joint Open Letter by 65 NGOs to Lao Prime Minister on the “Disappearance” of Sombath Somphone, January 2013,,230/Joint-Open-Letter-by-65-NGOs-to-12770, FIDH press release “Laos: Keep pressing Laotian authorities for the safe return of Sombath!,” 11 February 2013,,230/Laos-Keep-pressing-Laotian-12877, and HRW press release, “Laos: End Cover-Up in Activist’s ‘Disappearance,’” 14 June 2013,

[2] European Commission, “Budget Support Guidelines. Part II: Programming, Support and Management,” September 2012, p. 4-5, cf. 17ff,,design_management_en.pdf

October 28, 2013

The future of Laos: A bleak landscapeA bleak landscape

The future of Laos:  A bleak landscape

A secretive ruling clique and murky land-grabs spell trouble for a poor country

October 27, 2013

Sombath Somphone, Lao activist missing for 10 months, spurs wife’s desperate plea

Sombath Somphone, Lao activist missing for 10 months, spurs wife’s desperate plea

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Lindsay Murdoch
South-East Asia correspondent for Fairfax Media

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Vientiane: The wife of prominent social activist Sombath Somphone has made a desperate plea to Lao authorities, declaring he will leave the country and retire quietly with her if returned safely after being abducted in the Lao capital 10 months ago.

Ng Shui Meng, who has been married to the award-winning Sombath for 30 years, says she does not want to see any more damage done to Laos’ image and credibility over the abduction which human rights groups describe as a state-sponsored forced disappearance.

Every day since Sombath disappeared has been “an eternity of waiting, wavering between hope and despair.” 

“All I want is only the safe return of Sombath,” Ms Shui Meng, a Singaporean, told Fairfax Media.

“He is an old man who is in need of medical attention. Once he is returned I will take him out of the country for medical care and we will live out the rest of our lives in quiet retirement,” she said.

Ms Shui Meng said every day since Sombath disappeared has been “an eternity of waiting, wavering between hope and despair.” Hopes for 62 year-old Sombath’s welfare have been fading as the authoritarian communist-led Lao government denied any knowledge of his disappearance, claimed an investigation has failed to establish who was behind it and dismissed concerns by alleging that he must have been the victim of a shadowy business feud, without providing any evidence.

Even in a country with a notoriously poor human rights record where government critics have “disappeared” previously, the abduction of Sombath has shocked many Laotians and prompted calls for international donors to press for more to be done to ensure his return.

A widely respected agriculture specialist, Sombath received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in Community Leadership in 2005, the equivalent of the Nobel peace prize in Asia.

He was last seen by Ms Shui Meng as they were driving separately from his office in Vientiane to their home for dinner on the evening of December 15 last year.

The abduction was captured on grainy closed-circuit television footage that apparently was not supposed to be released by police.

It shows that Sombath’s jeep was stopped at a police post and he was taken inside.

A motorcyclist stopped at the post and drove off with Sombath’s vehicle.

A truck with flashing lights then stopped at the police post, two people got out and took Mr Sombath to the truck and drove off.

He never arrived home.

Amnesty International says the Lao authorities’ likely involvement in Sombath’s disappearance has been compounded by the police’s failure to conduct thorough investigations, which suggested a cover-up.

Other countries’ offers of external assistance, including analysis of the original CCTV footage, have been rejected.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, says the Lao government “needs to stop playing games and release Sombath or explain what happened to him”.

“This is a huge black mark on Laos’ already poor record as one of the worst rights-abusing governments in the region and we and other friends of Sombath will ensure this comes up in every international forum and meeting Laos attends,” he said.

Sombath’s abduction is perplexing because he is seen as a conciliatory figure who sat on panels with influential government members.

One clue may be a keynote speech he made two months before his disappearance at the Asia-Europe People’s Forum, the largest civil society event held in Laos.

“We focus too much on economic growth and ignore its negative impact … we need to give more space for the ordinary people, especially young people, and allow them to be drivers of change and transformation,” he said.

Sombath, who founded a non-government organisation called the Participatory Development Training Centre in 1996, which seeks to advance community education and training on sustainable development, has also spoken out about land seizures as Laos opened its doors to massive foreign investments that include mining, hydroelectric plants, rubber plantations, hotels and casino projects.

Earlier this year Laos joined the global community as a member of the World Trade Organisation and is lobbying for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council.

But the governing Communist Party fiercely defends its hold on power and vigorously cracks down on dissent while moving to liberalise its economy and promote tourism.

Activists who unravelled a banner calling for democracy are languishing in jail.

Five years ago environmentalist Sompawn Khantisouk was forced into a car in northern Laos and was never seen again while the government earlier this year blocked a US investigation into the disappearance of a US citizen and two other men in a southern Lao province.

A ceremony to honour Sombath in Laos was cancelled after security police threatened his colleagues and family.

In riverside Vientiane, most people decline to speak publicly about Sombath’s disappearance, fearful of reprisals from police and security forces which are under close communist party control.

Among those internationally who have expressed regret and called for Sombath’s safe return are US Secretary of State John Kerry, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In June 42 Australian academics signed an open letter to then foreign minister Bob Carr asking for Australia, as a major aid donor to Laos, to take a more assertive stand with the Lao government on the disappearance.

Human rights groups also want other countries to increase pressure on the government that benefits from hundred of millions of dollars a year in development aid.

“The government’s continued denials of complicity in the disappearance have zero credibility and point more clearly than ever to the critical importance of redoubled international pressure on Lao leaders if we are ever going to learn what has happened to Sombath,” said Human Rights Watch’s Mr Robertson.

Ms Shui Meng, a former UNICEF staffer who met Sombath in Hawaii in the 1970s while he was studying there on a scholarship, urged donor countries like Australia to help get the government to be more transparent, identify the kidnappers and return Mr Sombath or if he is incarcerated allow family members to visit.

“So far quiet diplomacy or more overt calls for action by governments have yielded zero results,” she said.

Ms Shui Meng said she can “only hold on to my hope and faith, as anything otherwise is unthinkable.”

“Not having hope is to give up and I will not give up … not yet,” she said.

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