By Joshua Simonidis
December 15 marks two years since the abduction of Lao activist Sombath Somphone. He was last seen on CCTV footage being stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane before being driven away in a white pickup truck.
Many observers believe the abduction or “enforced disappearance” of Sombath is related to a speech he gave during the Asia-Europe People’s Forum, the largest civil society event ever held in Laos. In his speech, Sombath said the Lao people needed to be given more space to be “the drivers of change and transformation.” Sombath was abducted a little more than a month later.
Prominent members of human rights organizations and foreign governments immediately called for an investigation into Sombath’s disappearance, but the Lao government appears to have done little more than a cursory investigation into what happened. However, while international appeals have continued over the past two years, calls from voices within the country have largely died down. This is, in large part, due to the fact that the government holds an iron-grip on Lao society and anything viewed as dissent is usually met by harsh punishment.
“An agronomist by training, Sombath used his skills to improve the livelihood of villagers, to educate and promote the development of young people, to protect the environment, and to always envision a sustainable future for his country,” says Lois Foehringer, a personal friend of Sombath and a former development worker in Laos. “He is and always has been a person of utmost integrity who has dedicated his life to empowering communities across Laos and working towards a more just society for his compatriots.”
Laos is one of the world’s few remaining communist states and, although market liberalization has changed the economic landscape, the regime retains strict authoritarian rule. The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party has ruled Laos since 1975 and is the country’s sole legal party, according to the country’s 1991 constitution. The party dominates the government and the country’s security forces, effectively monopolizing all authority within the country. In turn, the government clamps down on any perceived dissent, and officials operate with impunity.
The party’s chokehold has undermined the role of civil society in any discussions of governance in Laos. Informal civil society in remote regions has also been eroded by the centralization of authority in Vientiane. What has emerged is a civil society largely approved by and representing the interests of the ruling party.
International nongovernment organizations are generally limited to providing development assistance and services strictly in line with the government’s agenda, which subjects them to regular and lengthy approval processes at multiple levels.
Activists disappearing in authoritarian states are not uncommon, but Sombath is particularly notable because he is one of the most well-known and respected development activists in Southeast Asia and the face of Lao civil society. He is also a moderate who worked in close collaboration with the government for 30 years.
The case of Sombath gives the world a glimpse into the impunity and lack of accountability that exists in Laos today. The United States, other governments, and international organizations must continue to press Laos for information about and the release of Sombath. While this may not alter Lao policy in the near future, Washington and other champions of human rights should make clear that Laos’ treatment of its citizens will determine the extent to which it will be accepted in the larger community of nations.