Posts tagged ‘Vientiane’

December 17, 2014

HRW: Lao government’s investigation into Sombath case ‘is a sham’

Human Rights

HRW: Lao government’s investigation into Sombath case ‘is a sham’

Two years ago, prominent activist Sombath Somphone vanished from the streets of the Lao capital Vientiane. Although the authorities could give answers, they have remained silent to this day, says HRW’s Phil Robertson.

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Laos Sombath Somphone Archivbild 2005

On the evening of December 15, 2012, civil society leader Sombath disappeared without a trace. He was on his way home from the office when he was pulled over at a police checkpoint. The rights activist was later taken to another vehicle and driven away. His whereabouts still remain unknown.

Right from the beginning, it is widely believed to be a case of enforced disappearance, with many suspecting the Southeast Asian nation’s Communist one-party government to be behind the abduction. The government, however, has so far firmly denied any responsibility for the incident. The Sombath case stirred an international outcry, with prominent figures like Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Desmond Tutu calling for his safe return and urging the authorities not to block a thorough investigation.

Sombath had for decades campaigned for the rights of the land-locked nation’s poor rural population and the protection of environment. In 2005, he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Prize, considered Asia’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize. In a DW interview, Phil Robertson, Asia expert at Human Rights Watch, strongly criticizes the Lao government for their hard stance.

Phil Robertson Human Rights Watch

Robertson: ‘The authorities know far more than they are letting on’

DW: It has been two years since Sombath went missing. Are there any news concerning his whereabouts and his fate?

Phil Robertson: No, there’s been very little additional news about his whereabouts or what has happened to him. What we know is that Sombath was taken away as seen in the CCTV video of December 15, 2012, and there are reliable sources that said he was still in the custody of the authorities in Vientiane later that night, but then little more is known after that.

The Lao police’s investigation has been a complete joke so far. The authorities know far more than they are letting on, and it’s really become quite clear that the government’s investigation is a sham, designed to draw out the time and frustrate those demanding answers – presumably with the aim of getting them to finally give up and forget.

But two years on, we’re not going to forget, and we’re going to remain committed to supporting his wife, Shui-Meng Ng, and family, in their demands for answers. I’ve lost count of the number of offers of technical assistance by European and North American police forces to the Lao police for their investigation, but all of those offers have been refused.

As a recent report from the International Commission of Jurists shows, there are many lines of investigative inquiry to be pursued if the Lao government were interested in doing the sort of thorough investigation required by international human rights law – but instead, they are engaged in a cover-up, and a campaign of enforced silence in Vientiane to prevent anyone from saying more about Sombath.

The many governments providing development assistance to Laos should make a big issue of this and demand a real search for the truth of what has happened to Sombath.

From the very beginning, the Lao government has denied that it had anything to do with Sombath’s disappearance. Is there any chance that someone other the government is responsible for this?

​The Lao government has been lying from the top on down when it comes to the Sombath case. At the start of their inquiries, they freely admitted that the person pictured in the CCTV footage was Sombath – but now they are claiming that maybe it was not him. So if anything, the investigation is not making any progress. It’s rather going backwards.

Lately, Lao diplomats have been trying to peddle a new theory that Sombath’s work brought him into conflict with Thai mafia elements involved in Laos and that it was the Thais that did something to him. Of course, there is no evidence of that. This is yet another part of the officials’ ongoing effort to confuse and misinform, and desperately try to transfer blame to somewhere else other than the Lao government.

For the second anniversary of his disappearance, a group of legislators, civil society leaders and activists launched the so-called Sombath Initiative. What does this Initiative stand for?

What the Sombath Initiative stands for is an ongoing campaign for answers about what happened to Sombath. The initiative calls for justice for him and his family, and reminds his vision and work in participatory rural development. It will counter the effort by the Lao government to “buy time” with their bogus investigation and press people to forget. The Initiative will ensure that no one forgets the case.

Furthermore, it will also defend Sombath’s reputation and his work from the kind of scurrilous rumors that the Lao government is trying to spread to somehow discredit him.

Do you reckon that the new initiative could actually achieve something in order to solve the case and compel the government to start a thorough investigation?

​The Initiative will bring together all of Sombath’s friends, allies, and admirers from home and abroad to press the Lao government to change its views and start a real investigation into the enforced disappearance of Sombath.

The challenge in disappearance cases is always to sustain the interest and momentum of those who care against the efforts to cover up the truth. And often, these battles take years. We hope that it will not take that long to find out what has happened to Sombath, and ideally see him returned to his family, but the Sombath Intiative is built to sustain a campaign indefinitely until we get the answers we seek.

Vita Park

Sombath had for decades campaigned for the rights of the country’s poor rural population

What effect did the disappearance of Sombath have on others? What has changed since then?

An unprecedented chill has come over grass-roots villages and communities in Laos of the sort not seen since the early years after the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party took over in 1975 and started sending perceived opponents to ​brutal “re-education camps”.

The difference between then and now is the existence of various civil society groups and non-profit associations, led by many who received training and encouragement from Sombath and the Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC) that he founded.

Among these groups, there is now great fear and self-censorship because they see that if such a prominent civil society leader as Sombath can be taken, then no one is safe. So a wall of silence has descended in Vientiane. On the government side, only a few persons are authorized to give the standard government line and everyone else says nothing. On the civil society side, people are looking over their shoulders and are afraid of talking about Sombath.

Sombath has been missing for two years now. In your opinion, what are the chances that he is still alive?

I really don’t know, but we’re all hoping for the best. It’s hard to imagine that a man who has so selflessly contributed to his nation’s development and the well being of ordinary people should be considered an enemy to anyone. ​

Phil Robertson is deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

October 17, 2013

Lao Airlines plane crashes into Mekong river, killing 44

Reuters U.S. Edition

Lao Airlines plane crashes into Mekong river, killing 44

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BANGKOK | Wed Oct 16, 2013 1:22pm EDT

(L to R) Manfred Rhodes, 17 months, Phoumalaysy (Lea) Rhodes, 35 years, Jadesuda Rhodes, 3 years and Gavin Rhodes, 39 years, who died when their Laos Airline Flight.

(Reuters) – A Lao Airlines plane flying in stormy weather crashed into the Mekong river in southern Laos on Wednesday, killing all 44 people on board, among them nationals of 10 countries.

The virtually new ATR-72 turboprop plane flying from the capital Vientiane crashed at about 4.10 p.m. (0910 GMT) just eight kilometers (five miles) short of its destination Pakse, which is near the borders of both Thailand and Cambodia.

The airline said in a statement it had yet to determine the cause of the crash, in which a senior aviation official said the tail end of Typhoon Nari may have been a factor.

Those killed were mostly Lao nationals. But seven French nationals were also killed, the country’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said.

South Koreans, Australians, Canadians, Taiwanese, Chinese, Burmese and Vietnamese and five Thais were also among the dead, said Thailand’s foreign ministry spokesman, Sek Wannamethee.

Several officials confirmed none of the passengers or crew survived.

Lao Airlines is the national carrier of the communist state and has operated since 1976. Its aircraft carried 658,000 passengers last year and it has a fleet of just 14 planes, mostly propeller-driven.

Southern Laos was affected by Typhoon Nari, which hit the region on Tuesday killing 13 people in the Philippines and five in Vietnam.

Vestiges of the storm might have caused the plane to crash, Yakua Lopangka, Director General of the Department of Civil Aviation, told the Vientiane Times newspaper.

Thai television showed a photograph of the plane partly submerged in shallow water on a stretch of the Mekong, the tail severed, next to a handful of rescuers in small boats.

State-run news agency KPL quoted a witness saying strong gusts of wind blew the plane off course and rescue attempts were complicated by a lack of roads near the crash site.

Lao Airlines has six ATR-72 planes, a European turbo-prop aircraft co-manufactured by Airbus parent EADS and Italian aerospace firm Finmeccanica.

In a statement, ATR said the aircraft that crashed was its latest ATR 72-600 model, designed to seat between 68 and 74 people. It had left the production line in March this year.

ATR said Laos authorities would lead an investigation into the crash, whose cause had not been determined.

Lao Airlines operates on seven domestic routes and has international flights to China, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore.

(Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Martin Petty; additional reporting by John Irish and Tim Hepher in Paris; editing by John Stonestreet and Tom Pfeiffer)


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August 2, 2013

Laos residents lose capital land battle

Vientiane Authorities Say That Luang Area Belongs to Investors

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By Radio Free Asia

That Luang Marsh, August 2010.

Authorities in Laos have issued an order informing hold-out residents of an area in the capital slated for a massive urban development project that they are not to sell their land as it now belongs to the site’s developers from China.

The order came amid general concerns of government mismanagement and corruption in disputes between residents and investors.

The planned U.S. $1.6 billion project under construction in Vientiane’s That Luang marsh area has been hailed as a showpiece commercial center in the fast-growing capital, but residents say they were offered compensation less than one-tenth of market value for their land.

The 1.25 square mile (3.25 square kilometer) That Luang Marsh Specific Economic Zone broke ground in December, but while a majority of residents have accepted the pay out, more than 100 families had held out for more, refusing to move from the site.

Recently the Vientiane municipal government issued an order prohibiting all sale, purchase, and transfer of land in eight villages in Xaysettha district, where the project is located, an official in charge of administering Special and Specific Economic Zones told RFA’s Lao Service.

According to the order, the villages are included in the 365-hectares (900-acre) concession granted to Chinese project developer Shanghai Wan Feng Group, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The eight villages in Xaysettha district include Houa Khoua, Non Savang, Vangxay, Non Sanga, Nong Nieng, Chommany, Viengchaleun, and Phonephanao.

“No consideration will be given” to people who claim they are the lawful owners of the land and property in the villages, the official said, though the government will provide monetary compensation to those who give up their land for the project, he said without elaborating on the reimbursement scheme.

The development project is part of an effort to modernize Vientiane and draw increased tourism to the city. It will include a public park, sports complex, shopping mall, entertainment complex, and service centers.

The SEZ will also provide infrastructure for businesses trying to establish a presence in the capital.

Some 435 families have been affected by the project and residents complain they have had little say in the decision-making process about development in the area, for which plans have been in the works for several years.

In 2010, plans for an even bigger urban development project on a 3.9-square-mile (10-square-kilometer) area in the same location by a different Chinese developer were scrapped because, according to then-minister of planning and investment Sinlavong Khoutphaythoune, the company was reluctant to pay U.S. $400 million in relocation compensation to the roughly 7,000 affected households.

Dispute factors

A senior State Inspection Agency official told RFA this week that land disputes between companies granted concessions and Lao citizens are largely due to government mismanagement and corruption.

He did not cite any specific project.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the official said that the most common practices by local government that lead to land disputes are granting concessions without first surveying or measuring land and using land as capital for development projects.

He said other practices include the relocation of people impacted by development at drastically low rates of compensation and abuse of power by officials who are bribed to seize land from residents to lease to investors.

Over the past three years, he said, inspections have shown that bribery is a common malpractice among officials, in addition to the use of threats and referring to false laws to force unwitting citizens from their land.

Even when residents who are more informed about their legal rights fight back, they are often at a disadvantage, he said, adding that more than 4,000 lawsuits against the government are currently languishing in courts across the country.

According to field inspections, the official said, government land concessions often encroach on private land, while investors granted concessions frequently encroach upon national forest reserves to carry out illegal activities such as cutting down trees for export.

Laos, one of the least developed Southeast Asian states, has become the subject of massive foreign investment, especially from companies from China, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Much of Laos’s economic growth has come from land concessions for natural resources—including timber, agricultural products, minerals, and energy—but some worry that it comes at a cost for those who lose their land.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Viengsay Luangkhot. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

March 19, 2013

Laos stonewalls on disappearances


Laos stonewalls on disappearances

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A US-based human rights coalition has strongly condemned Laos for obstructing attempts to find three Hmong-Americans missing since early January.

The case of the three Hmong-Americans missing in southern Laos has been linked to the equally mysterious disappearance of civic activist Sombath Somphone, whose case also has been stonewalled by the entire Lao government and security apparatus.

“Brutal and corrupt elements of the Lao security services, including the secret police, military and communist party apparatus, appear to be seeking to cover-up what has happened to these three Americans,” said the statement, issued on Tuesday and posted on the CCPA website.

The US State Department said it had sent three embassy officials to Savannakhet to investigate the disappearances, but they were assaulted by Lao security forces.

“Local Lao officials refused to provide any information or assistance in determining the welfare and whereabouts of the missing men, and physically prevented the Embassy officials from entering an incident site which may be related to the case,” a US Embassy spokesman in Vientiane said.

The human rights group Center for Public Policy Analysis (CPPA) on Tuesday charged that Laos was obstructing attempts to learn the fates of the three missing men.

The ethnic men were last seen in Savannakhet province in southern Laos.

Souli Kongmalavong, Bounma Phannhotha and Bounthie Insixiengmai, all from Minnesota state, “appear to have gone missing under mysterious circumstance involving the Lao secret police and military,” Tuesday’s statement said.

The activists linked the disappearance of the three US citizens to the case of civic activist Sombath Somphone.

Mr Sombath, a Lao citizen, disappeared in Vientiane on Dec 15. The government has stonewalled all information about his disappearance.

The CPPA’s statement came with support from United Lao for Democracy and Human Rights (ULDHR), the Lao Human Rights Council (LHRC), the United League for Democracy in Laos, Inc. (ULDL), the Laos Institute for Democracy (LIFD), and a coalition of non-governmental organisations.

The Vientiane embassy’s statement on Sunday said the US government had received information the three Americans died in a traffic accident.

But when consular officials tried to get information on the scene, Lao security stopped them.

“We will continue to vigorously press the Lao government for information and assistance with this case,” it said.


ThailandPost : 2,254

Discussion 1 : 19 Mar 2013 at 11.081

A Lao refugee colleague told me that bad things can happen to those who go back. She did pay a visit, until her uncle advised her to leave for her safety. Those who fled are still referred to as “traitors” by the government, even though she was only a child at the time.

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March 19, 2013

Laos stonewalls on disappearances

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