The Curious Case of Sombath Somphone
Image Credit: Wikicommons

The Curious Case of Sombath Somphone


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.

noy sanilavong
January 29, 2013 at 04:21

The LPDR is a single party regime, where there is little space for meaningful democratic debate, and when taking advantage of that limited space, repercussions follow. He is NOT the first victim that have been quietly disappeared into thin air, since the regime took power.  Several thousand of innocent men and women of it own citizens have been quietly disappeared and the majority of them continueing to suffer under the hand of the goverment, the unknown of what happen to them remain still remain a mystery.
The LDPR will only select those who cooperated with them, act like them, cheat like them to be in power, but those that  speaking out against their poor policies were and will continue to disappeared, un-accounted for, until  UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and other foreign aids, such the U.S., EU and UN stopped foreign aids once and for all… meant what they said, and to "really questions the surrounding his disappearance."  
We will never find him or know where his whereabout.  

Free Lao
January 27, 2013 at 14:14

It was the work of the most powerful dark secret force that has a direct link to the ruling party. They have more powers and authority than the normal law enforcement entities of Lao government. They are above the laws of the country because they are under the protection of the ruling party which has the ultimate powers in the nation. No other powers in the country can challenge them.

The leaders of the ruling party are afraid that Mr. Sombath Somphone will be transformed to be the Ang Sann Sou Yee of Laos as it happened in Burma. This paranoia of the Lao pdr leaders made them to eliminate This potential threat before it becomes a real threat to their absolute powers and their ruling monopoly.

Lao leaders have mismanaged the nation to allow 41 % of Lao agricultural land to be in the hand of foreigners affecting the lives of many thousand of Lao people. Mr. Sombath Somphone has started to collect the impact of this policy and to conduct the survey of Lao people in 16 provinces to document the negative impacts of the land crab issues.

Lao leaders see his action as a threat so they decided to pre-empt this threat by have their secret force to abduct him and eliminate him in the process.

Lao leaders will do everything in their powers to delay, ignore, and even to come up with the scapegoat to cover their crime.

arthur a nye
January 15, 2013 at 13:38

i have spent my last 4 winters living here in yasathon thailand       for my 1st 3 winters my business visa required me to cross into laos via mukdahan/savannakhet cistoms immigration or in cambodia    i applied for and recieved a retirement visa and do not need to cross into laos any further     i had been planning a cross border trip to  laos to visit some [ho chi minh trail ] sites   i believe i will wait until mr sombaths situation is resolved and hope he comes out alive n well

January 12, 2013 at 23:00

Mr. Somphone probably criticized the Lao government of their corruptions and incompetent. Hence, the aliens abducted him.

Oudomdeth Khamphitham
January 12, 2013 at 07:44

This  laotian individual is not the first victim of LPDR regime after  taking power and ruling Laos country since 1975. Several thousand it own citizens have been quietly disappeared and majority of them continueing to suffer under the hand of the goverment that suppose help to protect them and sadly the world choose  to forget them.This gentleman happened to work with NGO for long time and these same NGO turn  blind eye on irregularities and  Lao corrupted goverment official for fearing retaliation by not be able to extend contract. Hope World community is seeing true color  of LPDR.  

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief