On 15 December 2012, Sombath Somphone, a civil rights activist, disappeared in Vietiane, Lao. His wife, Ng Shui Meng, was the last person to see him.
Sombath Somphone had a high profile at the Asian-Europe People’s Forum. His work, safeguarding the environment and ensuring fair use of land for small farmers, often put him at odds with the government, which emphasizes rapid and environmentally destructive economic growth.
In mid-January, I observed the ASEAN Parliamentarian press conference at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand. Three ASEAN reps, from Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, spoke about their meeting with Lao high officials. The head of the ASEAN delegation, Walden Bello (member of the House of Representatives of the Republic of the Philippines), said in a statement:
We were told that after a month of investigation the only thing that has been established is that the (Lao) police had nothing to do with the disappearance. We told them that this was not credible and that if we accepted this as fact as to the progress of the case, we would ourselves lose credibility.
We asked if Sombath’s disappearance might have something to do with the Asia Europe People’s Forum and the expulsion of Anne-Sophie Grindroz, the country director of the Swiss agency Helvetas. All we got in answer to this question was that Anne-Sophie was acting against Laos’ interests. There was a denial that Sombath’s disappearance was connected to her expulsion or the holding of the AEPF.
Its my belief that “rogue” elements of the government and military are involved in Sombath’s disappearance, and as such ASEAN is toothless to pressure the country.
Nor would it be in the interest of ASEAN to dip into Lao’s internal affairs, such is the redundancy of the regional group on concerns of human rights violation and its pride of non-interference.