Sombath case needs pressure

Sombath case needs pressure

Sombath Somphone was probably the most effective and best-known NGO representative in Laos. One year and one day ago, on his way home for dinner, Mr Sombath was pulled from his car by several unknown men just outside Vientiane. He was bundled into a police vehicle and driven away. He has not been seen since, and his government has not just ignored the case, it has actively worked to cover it up.

A substantial number of concerned Lao and foreign citizens held a vigil at the Laos embassy on Pracha-Uthit Road yesterday. There was no surprise that diplomats showed no interest. That has been the response from all Vientiane ministries and departments since the evening that Mr Sombath failed to show up for dinner with his wife. The grainy closed-circuit TV video showing the actual abduction has roused no concern of any kind from authorities, even though it was a government CCTV camera.

One of the most puzzling facts about the Sombath case is that the victim posed no known threat to the government, the ruling Marxist party or any official. He was 60 when he was taken. He did not take part in, let alone lead, any political group.

His well-known Participatory Development Training Centre, known as PADETC, was an official group approved by the government in 1996. It trained young people and government officials in community development. He and the centre received honours from the United Nations, the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, the Nippon Foundation and many others _ but never from a political-type group.

A year ago this week, a spokesman for the government denied any official involvement in the disappearance. Then, authorities went silent. Requests and demands for investigations from Lao friends, foreign colleagues, top diplomats and even Nobel Peace laureates have simply gone unanswered. Asean, as always, has been equally silent, in tacit support of one of its most abusive governments.

The beauty, culture and way of life of Laos has allowed the hierarchy of the one-party state to build a repressive regime with little outside notice. The Lao People's Revolutionary Party has neither opposition nor accountability.

While the oppressive side of the Lao government is known and documented, Mr Sombath's disappearance raised the stakes. Recognised internationally, known for his politics-free development programmes, Mr Sombath and his friends deserve more support from groups and governments that claim to oppose human rights abuses. The government that seized Mr Sombath without consequences can abuse any citizen at any time, without feeling it needs to answer to its people or the international community.

The Asean Secretariat supports the four-year-old Asean Inter-governmental Commission on Human Rights. The group has actually shown no known concern for the uncounted violations of human rights in the region. The egregious and obvious offence of Mr Sombath's abduction would be an excellent case for the Asean group to adopt, and press to a decision.

Governments, especially one-party states, commit and then multiply abuses of their citizens only because they go unchecked.

While some prominent voices from powerful governments have requested that Laos act on the Sombath case, no diplomatic or economic pressure has been applied. A year after Laos refused to account for its missing citizen, it is time to increase the pressure.

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