What happened to Sombath Somphone?

Sombath Somphone.
26 March 2014
Sombath Somphone.

More than a year after vanishing, the mystery of missing Laotian development worker highlights Southeast Asia’s cruel record of forced disappearances.  

Poised and steadfast, Shui Meng Ng again recounted the evening of December 15, 2012, when she witnessed her husband’s disappearance at a police check point in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

“I was in the car in front of him. He was driving his jeep, following me,” she said.

Closed-circuit television footage shows 61-year-old Sombath Somphone being stopped by police, then entering a police station.

The grainy vision also reveals his jeep being driven away by a man who pulled up on a motorbike, and Somphone getting into a big white truck with flashing lights.

“That is the evidence we have of his abduction,” Shui Meng, a Singaporean national said.

She was speaking at a forum, Sombath Somphone and enforced disappearances in Southeast Asia, at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

Lao government officials say they are investigating Somphone’s case, but have offered little information on his whereabouts.

Well known for his work in community development in Laos, Somphone founded the Participatory Development Training Centre in Vientiane. The group works on poverty prevention and sustainability projects such as fuel-efficient stoves, fish farming promotion, recycling, and teacher training.

Shortly before he disappeared, Somphone organised the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF), the first international civil society event to be held in Laos.

Some suspect his keynote speech, was not the sort of thing the country’s authoritarian regime would have wanted to hear.

In it Somphone said:  “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 the drivers of change and transformation.”

Nethertheless, his wife insists Somphone always carried out his work, “knowing very well that working hand-in hand with the government was a very important way to gain confidence and support for his work”.

“Every program, every training activity that Sombath has done, has been done with approval from the government – from the central, to the province district down to the village level,” she said.

Somphone’s situation is chillingly similar to thousands of others who are abducted in a manner described by human rights groups as state-sponsored disappearances. 

“Enforced disappearances in Asia today are public acts. They take place in public locations and very often in front of witnesses,” says Dr Nick Cheesman, a researcher from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific’s Department of Political and Social Change.

In Somphone’s case, the video footage Shui Meng described during her talk was made available by police. A white van is affiliated with at least 16,000 people disappearing between 1987 and 1991 in the south of Sri Lanka alone.

While the number of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka today is much less than in the past, the practice still continues.

Victims across Southeast Asia are detained in ‘unconventional locations’ such as disused government facilities or quasi-official locations like an army camp.

It’s a tactic used to deliberately intimidate those who know about the abductions.

“A function associated with enforced disappearances is in part to create a sense that people don’t have the right to know what is being done to somebody,” Cheesman explains.

“To create a kind of paralysis, a kind of confusion, are key elements.”

Speculations surrounding Somphone’s disappearance have varied greatly.

His wife heard rumours he was an American citizen posing as a Lao national.

“There were also rumours that he took money from program funds. And that’s why he had to run away,” she said.

Cheesman points to problems with enforced disappearance not being on the statue books of any of the Asian countries where they occur.

“Murder is on the statue books of every country in the region. And yet enforced disappearance is on the statue book of none,” he says.

“It is not a crime to abduct somebody, kill them, and dispose of the body in a way that the crime cannot be uncovered, and the remains cannot be found.”

Shui Meng remains hopeful her husband might be returned to her safely.

In Australia she has appealed for help during talks given in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne.

A website set up in her husband’s name, www.sombath.org, contains further information aimed at facilitating his safe return.

In the meantime, only two countries in the region, Japan and Cambodia, have ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

The convention aims to prevent the crime, uncover the truth behind the cases, punish the perpetrators, and provide reparations to the victims and their families.

Shui Meng Ng was talking at ANU at the invitation of Crawford School of Public Policy and the Department of Political and Social Change. Watch a video interview between Crawford School’s Dr Keith Barney and Shui Meng Ng.    

Article by Belinda Cranston.

Updated:  16 October, 2013/Responsible Officer:  Web Communications Coordinator/Page Contact:  Web Communications Coordinator