Laos must come clean on Sombath
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Laos must come clean on Sombath

Today marks the third anniversary of the enforced disappearance of prominent Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone.

Sombath was last seen at a police checkpoint on a busy street in the Lao capital, Vientiane, on the evening of Dec 15, 2012. Sombath's disappearance was captured on a CCTV camera placed near the police checkpoint. CCTV footage showed that police stopped Sombath's car and, within minutes, individuals forced him into another vehicle and drove away. The CCTV footage clearly shows that Sombath was taken away in the presence of police officers.

After three years, there is little evidence that Lao authorities have undertaken a serious and competent investigation of Sombath's disappearance. Instead, there has been near total silence, insinuations, and contradictory declarations regarding Sombath's fate or whereabouts.

Lao authorities' recent claim that authorities were still conducting an investigation and "trying their utmost efforts" is belied by the fact the last police report on the probe was issued on June 8, 2013.

Following an official visit to Laos in September 2014, a delegation of members of parliament from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) member states declared Lao authorities had "erected a brick wall of silence" on the status of the investigation.

As a result, the MPs believed there was no active investigation and accused the government of a cover-up for state officials implicated in his abduction.

This assessment was reinforced in January 2015, when the Lao government insinuated that Sombath's disappearance might have been the result of a conflict with a criminal group.

In June 2015, the government claimed the case of Sombath's disappearance was "complex and difficult to solve quickly." However, this statement is at odds with the findings of a leading international expert on forensic investigations who concluded in December 2014 that the case of Sombath's disappearance remained "eminently solvable".

Lao authorities have adopted the same tactics with regard to other cases of enforced disappearance in the country.

One such case involves five student leaders who were arrested in October 1999 in Vientiane for planning peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations. For many years, the government denied it had even detained the five. However, between 2003 and 2011, government statements evolved from denials to ambiguous statements and, finally, to timid admissions. 

Two of the former student leaders are believed to be imprisoned in solitary confinement while a third one died in a Vientiane prison in September 2001.

The fate of the two others remains unknown. In June 2015, in response to recommendations made during the United Nations' Universal Periodic Review (UPR) investigating allegations of enforced disappearance in the country, Laos dismissed the allegations as untrue.

As Laos prepares to assume the chair of Asean in 2016, the issue of Sombath's enforced disappearance looms over the country.

Any discussion of Sombath's disappearance has been stifled. Apart from damaging the country's reputation, the failure to make any progress on the issue of enforced disappearances was likely a decisive factor in Laos' unsuccessful bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in October 2015.

In keeping with their long-established policy of non-interference with each other's internal affairs, Asean member states -- with the notable exception of Singapore -- have remained completely silent on the issue of Sombath's disappearance. This is no longer tolerable.

While few expect regional governments to openly criticise Vientiane over Sombath's disappearance, Asean member states must be more willing to engage the Lao government on the issue of enforced disappearances.

Countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia, which have experienced hundreds of cases of enforced disappearances stemming from traumatic political turmoil, have taken some steps to address the issue. They could use their experience to engage the Lao authorities and lead by example.

The benchmark for a successful Asean chairmanship will not be determined by the number of high-level meetings that Laos will be able to organise but by the progress its government will make in addressing crucial human rights issues, including enforced disappearances.

Andrea Giorgetta is the Southeast Asia Desk Director of FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights).

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