For Ng Shui-Meng, the past 10 months have been lonely, frustrating and frightening. She has been engaged in a vain struggle to discover what happened to her husband, Sombath Somphone, who almost certainly was kidnapped and murdered, possibly with the complicity of members of the Laotian government.
Shui-Meng refuses to give up, hoping that the 61-year-old Sombath, a popular and internationally known development expert who disappeared last Dec. 6 as he was on his way home to dinner, may still be alive. There are suspicions that Sombath had aroused the antagonism of major land interests over his attempts to protect the interests of the largely rural peasant population.
An estimated 40 percent of the country’s arable lands are now in the hands of foreign interests, studies say. However, his wife says Sombath has never been confrontational and had worked closely with the government to alleviate poverty.
Sombath, recipient of the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award and many other prestigious honors, simply vanished as he and Shui-Meng were driving home in separate cars in the Laotian capital of Vientiane. The disappearance has stirred criticism from the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and a wide range of human rights organizations for the government’s apparent refusal to come clean on the case.
"I was driving ahead of him in a separate vehicle, and he was behind mine, so I passed a police post, and when I looked back I didn’t see his car," the Singaporean-born Shui-Meng said in an interview. "I didn’t think too much about it, but when I got home, he didn’t come. I called his phone, but it was switched off. I thought maybe he had been in an accident."
After a day of looking for him, she and friends went to the police post where "we noticed there were cameras installed," she said. "And so we decided to ask the police if they would play the tape and they said ‘sure.’"
Allowing the group to see the tapes was a fatal mistake for the Laotian authorities. They contained evidence that Somphone’s vehicle was stopped, that he was escorted into the police post, that someone else drove his vehicle away, and that a white truck arrived and apparently took him away as well. He was never seen again, nor was his jeep.
Although the police wouldn’t give her the tapes, she managed to use her phone to film them as they played. The police, however, say the tapes were inconclusive and that they couldn’t be verified who drove the jeep away from the police post, or who the two persons were who drove away in the white pickup truck.
The government has continued to issue statements that they don’t know anything and that they are continuing to investigate despite the evidence contained on the tapes. They apparently have turned down requests to contact Interpol for help, however, and they have grown increasingly irritated at protest. When officials of the US Embassy recently hung a giant sign on their water tower asking what happened to the human rights campaigner, thugs carrying AK-47 rifles surrounded the embassy and intimidated the local Laotian employees into taking it down for fear of their safety.
The disappearance has grown into an international issue that has deeply discredited the Laotian government, with Maina Kiai, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association bringing up the case in a Sept. 23 speech to the United Nations, with US President Barack Obama in attendance:
"Civil society and those voicing dissent face some of the most significant challenges, unlike those who support official policies. In Laos, Sombath Somphone "disappeared" last December for his advocacy of land rights of peasants, never to be heard from again," Kiai said.
Amnesty International issued a scathing report earlier this year, saying "Despite public commitments made by the Lao authorities over the last few months to investigate Sombath’s disappearance, the police investigations have so far been inadequate. Further, until now, the authorities have failed to provide adequate information on the progress of the investigations to Sombath’s family and others with a legitimate interest, and to publish findings that answer some of the key questions around Sombath’s disappearance."
The inadequate investigations, the fact that Sombath had last been seen at a police post, that the police did nothing to prevent him from being taken away, "suggest some level of involvement by the Lao authorities," the report said.
Somphone founded the Participatory Development Training Center to promote education, leadership skills and sustainable development in Laos, which became Laos’s best-known civil society organization. He has long been involved attempting to turn around the deeply impoverished Laotian economy, in fact working in cooperation with authorities for poverty reduction and sustainable development.
What may have aroused the government’s ire, Shui Meng said, was his involvement in organizing a meeting to deal with people’s complaints that was supposed to feed into an October Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM).
Shui Meng "refuses to give up," a friend said. "She says ‘even if they produce a body, if they think I will go away, they have got another think coming’. She will stay with this case."
(John Berthelsen is the editor of the Asia Sentinel)