(Main photo: Lao agricultural expert Sombath Somphone, who went missing in December 2012, in 2005 file photo. Courtesy of Somphone family)
The 10th annual International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearance Sunday offers a fresh reminder that Laos has done little or nothing to investigate citizens, including a highly respected development expert, who have vanished in the communist Southeast Asian nation, human rights groups said.
Rural education and development expert Sombath Somphone and others remain unaccounted for, years after disappearing, in most cases after last being seen in police hands.
On December 15, 2012, police stopped Sombath Somphone in his vehicle at a checkpoint on the outskirts of the capital Vientiane. He was then transferred to another vehicle, according to a police surveillance video, and has not been heard from since.
Before his abduction, Sombath had challenged massive land deals negotiated by the Lao government that had left thousands of rural villagers homeless with little paid in compensation. The deals sparked rare popular protests in Laos, where political speech is tightly controlled and heavily punished.
“We can see clearly that the Lao government has never been interested in disappeared persons or their families. For example, they have never reported progress on the case of Sombath Somphone,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, told RFA’s Lao Service Thursday.
“The Lao government has been avoiding the issue by saying they were not involved. They claim they don’t know and didn’t see, and they haven’t investigated his disappearance,” he said, adding that the activist’s case has made Lao citizens afraid to speak out or conduct activities that might be perceived as going against government policy.
Though authorities have denied any responsibility, the abduction is widely acknowledged by rights NGOs, UN Agencies and the U.S. State Department be an enforced disappearance.
“As usual the Lao government still denies any knowledge in the case of Sombath Somphone. Even if the Lao government has no answers in this case, they should at least cooperate with us in order to protect Human Rights in Laos,” a former member of Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission told RFA.
For his work, Sombath Somphone, 68, won the U.N.’s Human Resource Development Award for empowering the rural poor in Laos and the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership.
Sombath Somphone is the most prominent of four cases in which Lao citizens have gone missing after encounters with police.
Democracy activist, eco-tourism entrepreneur
Od Sayavong had been part of the “Free Lao” network of migrant workers and activists in exile in Thailand and had participated in peaceful pro-democracy and anti-corruption protests outside the Lao embassy and UN offices in Bangkok.
During one such protest on June 16, 2019 Od and others had called for political freedoms and human rights in Laos, especially for the victims of government land grabs and dam collapses that have left hundreds stuck in poor housing without a way to earn a living.
He had also called for the release of three Lao workers given long prison terms in April 2017 for criticizing the government on Facebook while working in Thailand, and for a U.N. investigation into the disappearance of Sombath Somphone.
Od Sayavong had applied for political asylum with the UNHCR and was recognized as a refugee when he was last seen Aug. 26, 2019 in his home in Bangkok. He was 34 at the time.
Sompawn Khantisouk was the owner and manager of a small ecotourism lodge and was active on conservation issues the northern province of Luang Namtha.
He went missing after he was ordered to report to a police station in January 2007, shortly after he had mobilized local villagers to speak out against land seizures for Chinese-invested agricultural projects that were damaging the environment.
The U.S. network PBS reported in 2016 on Kha Yang, an ethnic Hmong who fled to Thailand to escape widespread persecution of his minority.
Yang and his family were among 158 UN-documented refugees living in a Thai immigration center awaiting resettlement in a Western country who were deported back to Laos after Bangkok decided to stop hosting Hmong refugees in 2009.
They escaped to Bangkok again in April 2011, and he was detained later that year at his construction site job by Thai authorities and informally deported to Laos in December 2011. It is unclear if he is still alive, his wife told PBS.
RFA contacted Laos’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but an official of the ministry declined to give comments via telephone, saying that inquiries can be made only in writing.
UN: ‘End these heinous crimes’
A Lao citizen, who requested anonymity for security reasons, told RFA that most disappeared people are those who openly criticize the government in a country that marked 45 years of communist rule this year.
“Anyone who is critical of the government on political issues or who posts criticism on Facebook will be marked as being against the government,” the source said.
“People who criticize the government these days are those who live overseas. If they do it from Laos, they have to escape overseas, otherwise they will be arrested for anti-government acts.”
Laos signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances but has yet to ratify it.
The UN Human Rights Office in a news release called on Southeast Asian nations to ratify the convention and criminalize enforced disappearances.
“The time has come to end these heinous crimes in South-East Asia,” said Cynthia Veliko, Regional Representative of the UN Human Rights Office in Bangkok.
“Strong commitments are needed by States to achieve that goal through adopting domestic legislation that meets international norms and standards and by fully implementing the Convention, including establishing appropriate domestic institutional mechanisms to investigate allegations of disappearances,” she said.
The office noted that only Cambodia has ratified the convention, while Indonesia, Laos and Thailand remain signatories.
According to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances there are at least 1,301 unresolved missing persons cases in Southeast Asia, almost half of which are in the Philippines.
The working group reported in 2019 that since its inception in 1980 it has transmitted 57,891 cases of disappeared persons to 108 states, 45,811 of which have “not yet been clarified, closed or discontinued.”
Washington-based Freedom House classified Laos as “not free” with a global freedom score of 14 out of 100 in its 2020 Freedom of the World survey. The Southeast Asian country scored 2 out of 40 in political rights, and 12 out of 60 in civil liberties.
“Laos is a one-party state in which the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) dominates all aspects of politics and harshly restricts civil liberties. There is no organized opposition and no truly independent civil society,” the NGO said.