The civil society leader’s enforced disappearance highlights the systematic suppression of rights, including free speech, in the landlocked country.
Today marks the sixth year since Lao civil rights leader Sombath Somphone forcibly disappeared on 15 December 2012.
Until his disappearance, the then 60-year-old internationally acclaimed rural development worker had been working tirelessly among farmers, applying his knowledge and skills in agronomy to improving their production against a murky backdrop of environmental destruction, land grabs, and suspicious land deals that had been blamed in large part on the government.
On that fateful evening, Sombath was spotted at a police checkpoint in the capital Vientienne, where his vehicle was stopped before he was forced to board an unmarked truck right under the noses of police, never to surface again.
More than half a decade since, repeated appeals from human rights groups and concerned members of the international community to the government for credible findings based on state probe into Sombath’s disappearance have yielded little or nothing at all.
State assurances that investigation is ongoing, with no demonstrable proof of its outcome, ring hollow. Government has denied responsibility for Sombath’s forced disappearance even if signs to the contrary were writ large on the night he disappeared.
Several other voices of dissent have similarly been silenced in Laos. In March 2016, three other Laotians forcibly disappeared upon return to their country to renew their passport. They were charged with criticizing the government online while they were abroad, and slapped with an imprisonment of 12 to 20 years.
Despite Constitutional guarantees of civil liberties such as free expression, media freedom, and right to peaceful public assembly, “citizens who exercise these rights can be held criminally liable based on Article 65 of the Penal Code for propagating ideas and acts against the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party or undermining state authority,” reported the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.
The enforced disappearance of Sombath and other human rights advocates, and the unrelenting recalcitrance of the Lao government in the face of persisting violations of civil and political rights in the landlocked Southeast Asian country, highlight the enormous risk of defying restrictions of, and the gross danger awaiting those who try to assert, basic rights. Sombath’s case is a horrifying illustration of this reality, and there is no gainsaying the massive suppression of fundamental freedoms weighing heavily on the people of Laos.
In the lead-up to the Ramon Magsaysay laureate’s abduction, Sombath had been vocal about and challenged the government’s highly questionable land deals, including with investors from China, Thailand, and Vietnam, which had pushed many already impoverished rural folk deeper into poverty – and fearful silence. This issue had sparked rare political protests. Yet, by and large, few, if any, dare speak against a government with a solid track record of choking fundamental rights including press freedom and free expression while imposing harsh punishments on those who muster the courage to speak out.
Sombath did – and it cost him dearly. To this day, he remains missing, with no veritable proof of whether he is still alive – or dead.
What is as clear as day to many is that the Lao government will stop at nothing to silence independent and critical voices in the country – and often this means arresting, or worse, banishing anyone who stands in the way of its highly repressive, one-party, communist rule.
Six years on, the search for truth about Sombath’s enforced disappearance continues while his family and friends, and kindred spirits within and beyond the borders of Laos, firmly hold out hope he is still alive and will surface sooner rather than later. This, notwithstanding the unremitting curtailment of rights and silenced voices that continue to cast a pall of gloom over the prospects of democracy in Laos.