By Kathryn Tinker
December 15 marked the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of Lao agronomist Sombath Somphone. Sombath was stopped by traffic police and escorted to a pickup truck while driving home in Vientiane last December, and his whereabouts have since remained unknown. Lao authorities’ refusal to address the case has prompted human rights organizations such as Amnesty International to accuse the government of a cover-up.
Sombath’s case is striking because he is well-known internationally and was not a political figure. Through his government-approved Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC), Sombath worked to foster sustainable development by empowering young people to build better, self-reliant communities. In 2005, he was honored with the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, known as Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize, for his work with PADETC.
Sombath’s disappearance is not an isolated incident. A group of nine people who in 2009 organized human rights protests was detained by Lao police and also disappeared. Another prominent case is Somphone Khantisouk, a critic of environmentally damaging agricultural projects, who disappeared after being abducted by uniformed men in 2007.
Oppression of civil liberties in Laos is well-known. Foreign human rights organizations are banned, and state-owned media holds a monopoly on information. The government recently announced new regulations to expand its reach to social media sites.
Yet the Lao government continues to receive development funding as it has for decades, despite its extremely poor human rights record. Western governments, including U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his predecessor Hillary Clinton, have requested Vientiane to take action on the Sombath case, but so far have not increased diplomatic or economic pressure.
The United States, European Union, and other democratic government need to keep raising Sombath’s case with Vientiane during bilateral and multilateral meetings, and urge Laos to respect the basic human rights in accordance with its international obligations. One year after Sombath’s disappearance, it is time for Washington to increase the pressure.