Laos must come clean on Sombath

Photo credit: Stephan Sautter

A slightly edited version of this opinion piece appeared in the Bangkok Post on 15 December 2015

Today marks the third anniversary of the enforced disappearance of prominent Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone.

Sombath was last seen at a police checkpoint on a busy street of the Lao capital, Vientiane, on the evening of 15 December 2012. Sombath’s disappearance was captured on a CCTV camera placed near the police checkpoint. CCTV footage showed that police stopped Sombath’s car and, within minutes, unknown individuals forced him into another vehicle and drove away. The CCTV footage clearly shows that Sombath was taken away in the presence of police officers.

After three years, there is no evidence that the government has undertaken a serious and competent investigation of Sombath’s disappearance. Instead, the government has been conspicuous for its near total silence, insinuations, and contradictory declarations regarding Sombath’s fate or whereabouts.

The Lao government’s recent claim that the authorities were still seriously conducting an investigation and “trying their utmost efforts” is belied by the fact that the last police report on the probe was issued on 8 June 2013.

Following an official visit to Laos in September 2014, a delegation of Members of Parliaments (MPs) from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states declared that Lao authorities had “erected a brick wall of silence” on the status of the investigation. As a result, the MPs believed that there was no active investigation and accused the government of a cover-up for state officials implicated in his abduction. This assessment was reinforced in January 2015, when the Lao government tried to divert attention away from its involvement and insinuated that Sombath’s disappearance might have been the result of a conflict with a criminal group.

In June 2015, the government claimed the case of Sombath’s disappearance was “complex and difficult to solve quickly.” However, this statement is at odds with the findings of a leading international expert on forensic investigations who concluded in December 2014 that the case of Sombath’s disappearance remained “eminently solvable.”

The pattern of deceit, denials, and inconsistent statements is not limited to the case of Sombath. The Lao government has adopted the same tactics with regard to other cases of enforced disappearance in the country. One such case involves five student leaders who were arrested in October 1999 in Vientiane for planning peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations. For many years, the government categorically denied it had even detained the five. However, between 2003 and 2011, government statements evolved from denials to ambiguous statements and, finally, to timid admissions.

To date, what is known for certain is that two of the former student leaders remain imprisoned in solitary confinement with their legs locked in wooden stocks at all times. Witnesses described them as looking like “human skeletons.” A third one died in a Vientiane prison in September 2001. The fate of the two others remains unknown. In June 2015, in response to recommendations made by states during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) to investigate all allegations of enforced disappearance in the country, Laos dismissed such allegations (except for the case of Sombath) as “not true.”

As Laos prepares to assume the Chair of ASEAN in 2016, the issue of Sombath’s enforced disappearance looms over the country. The Lao government has gone to great lengths to stifle any discussion of Sombath’s disappearance and – in some cases – it has successfully silenced Lao civil society as well as some actors in the international community.

The Lao government’s action are self-serving and represent short-term public relations gains. However, in the long term, its actions seriously damage the country’s international reputation. The Lao government’s failure to make any progress on the issue of enforced disappearances was likely a decisive factor in Laos’ unsuccessful bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in October 2015.

In keeping with their long-established policy of non-interference into each other’s internal affairs, ASEAN member states - with the notable exception of Singapore - have remained completely silent on the issue of Sombath’s disappearance. This is no longer tolerable. While few expect regional governments to openly criticize Vientiane over Sombath’s disappearance, ASEAN member states must be more willing to actively engage the Lao government on the issue of enforced disappearances. Countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia, which have experienced hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances stemming from long periods of traumatic political turmoil, have taken some positive steps to address the issue. They could use their experience to engage the Lao authorities and lead by example.

The benchmark for a successful ASEAN chairmanship will not be determined by the number of high-level meetings that Laos will be able to organize but by the progress its government will make in addressing crucial human rights issues, including enforced disappearances.

Andrea Giorgetta is the Southeast Asia Desk Director of FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights)

Read more