A few weeks ago on December 15th, a mild-mannered but well-known NGO worker in Laos, Sombath Somphone, was following his wife home after dinner in Vientiane. They drove in separate cars but the 60-year-old Somphone never arrived and has been missing ever since.
CCTV footage obtained from sources and seen by relatives would later show a man with an uncanny resemblance to Somphone being bundled into a police car.
For most governments the response would be simple. An appropriate statement might read something like: “We are concerned and have launched a full investigation into his disappearance has been launched, everything possible is being done to ensure his safe return.”
This, however, is Laos and the “caring” authorities in Vientiane instead said they had no knowledge of his whereabouts, insisted he had not been taken into police custody and suggested he was possibly kidnapped because of a personal dispute. The implication being; maybe he deserved it.
Such a response was indicative of one-party regimes during the Cold War, indicating that Laos has not evolved much over the last 23 years. Its attitude has brought a universal condemnation of the government that tinged with a mix of outrage and disbelief.
Somphone used his non-governmental organization (NGO), Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC), to work for improved education and health facilities in a country which has been raising eyebrows by using billions of Chinese dollars to build major infrastructure projects. He was also proactive in modernizing antiquated farming techniques and improving food security.
In 2005 he won a Magsaysay award for his dedication to community service, and he is known for having a soft approach that has made him few, if any, enemies. Friends and family are now conducting a campaign through social media to help find Somphone, whose disappearance also followed the expulsion of the head of the Swiss development agency Helvetas, Ann-Sophie Grindiz.
Ms. Grindiz was expelled from Laos last month after being accused of criticizing the government in a letter to donors in which she said the government was stifling public debate and making life difficult for aid groups.
The United States, European Union and United Nations human rights officials have expressed their concern that Somphone is being held by authorities, a position supported by foreign envoys in the capital who have suggested his disappearance might require more than just diplomatic posturing.
Last month, for instance, a spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) told reporters: “We are concerned by what appears to be the enforced disappearance of Mr. Sombath Somphone,” later adding “We are highly concerned for his safety and believe that his abduction may be related to his human rights work.”
The Lao government responded by repeated its denials of having any been involved in the kidnapping.
As a result, the U.S., EU and UN are demanding fresh answers to questions surrounding his disappearance and are no doubt mindful that Laos still remains heavily dependent upon foreign aid to function.