Just over a year ago, community development worker Sombath Somphone was plucked from the streets of Vientiane by police. He has not been heard of since, despite overwhelming evidence linking his disappearance to the government and its dictatorial internal security apparatus.
But even the Laos government has its friends. One spin doctor went so far as to describe Sombath’s disappearance as a “piffling affair,” which somehow seemed like not so much of a big deal when compared with the extraordinary renditions of the United States.
And in rebuffing Human Rights Watch (HRW) the scribe of sorts described the Sombath issue as “like those poor Guantanamo-bound wretches.”
Comparing Sombath’s plight to people like Hambali – the mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings which left more than 200 people dead and who apparently still resides in Gitmo – beggars belief.
“Thankfully, here in Southeast Asia, Sombath’s abduction is something of a big yawn,” he adds.
Not quite. Laos has some issues to face. Sombath’s disappearance has ensured human rights groups like Amnesty and HRW will be paying much closer attention to the country’s human rights record while pushing for more information on his whereabouts.
The US State Department noted: “Sombath was abducted on the evening of December 15, 2012, from a Lao police checkpoint in Vientiane. This deplorable event was recorded on Lao Government surveillance cameras.”
Regional newspapers have noted how the Laos government denied it knew anything of the abduction while international wires like Reuters ensured Sombath’s high priority on the international news agenda.
A group of United Nations human rights experts, including Maina Kiai, have urged the Laos government to step up its efforts in investigating the enforced disappearance of Sombath, who they described a prominent human right activist working on issues of land confiscation and assisting victims in denouncing such practices.
On other fronts, Lao’s relations with Vietnam and Cambodia have soured over Vientiane’s recalcitrant attitude toward dam construction. Its fiscal extravagance has raised economic alarm bells. Christine Lagarde, President of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), recently paid a visit after her institute warned Laos must tighten its fiscal policies or risk a major economic crisis.
Sources are now saying the Laos government is struggling to pay its own public servants.
If Sombath’s disappearance is a “piffling affair,” then according to those calculations so must be the Ramon Magsaysay Award – counted as the region’s Nobel Prize equivalent and an award which the U.S.-educated Sombath was awarded back in 2005 for his work in sustainable development.
Laos can continue to ignore what happened – or, by acknowledging and dealing with Sombath’s disappearance as best it can, the government of Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong might benefit and find some respect it desperately needs in the international community.
If not, then senior figures in the government responsible for internal security could find themselves candidates at the International Criminal Court (ICC). After all, that is the court’s job and surely no “piffling affair.”
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.