Clinton Calls on Laos to Find Missing Activist

By Grant Peck & Matthew Pennington 17 January 2013

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday added to international pressure on the authoritarian government in Laos to investigate the disappearance a month ago of a prominent social activist and reunite him with his family.

Sombath Somphone, 60, went missing Dec. 15 in the capital of Vientiane after he was stopped by police at a checkpoint. The government of the small Southeast Asian nation has disavowed responsibility for the disappearance, suggesting he was kidnapped over a personal dispute.

Laos is a one-party state and the government is intolerant of dissent, but associates say Sombath’s work was neither directly political nor confrontational. Educated in the US, he won one of Asia’s top civil awards in 2005 for his work reducing poverty and promoting education at a training center he founded.

Clinton said Sombath has worked tirelessly to promote sustainable development in Laos. She called on the Lao government to pursue a transparent investigation and to do everything in its power to bring about his “immediate and safe return home.”

The UN human rights office and the European Union have also voiced deep concern.

In Bangkok on Wednesday, three Southeast Asian lawmakers who visited Laos to discuss the case said they were not satisfied with the explanations they had received from Lao officials.

The lawmakers from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines rejected the idea that the disappearance was a simple kidnapping. They suggested Lao security agencies may have acted on their own in holding Sombath without informing other wings of the government.

“It is indeed possible that the officials we met, high though they are in the government and National Assembly, do not know what happened to Sombath,” Philippine lawmaker Walden Bello told a news conference. He said they urged officials to investigate whether elements within the government were behind the abduction.

Closed-circuit TV footage showed him being detained by police and then driven away in the company of two unidentified men.

While not a political figure, Sombath is a leading representative of Laos’ fledgling civil society.

He participated in an October meeting in Vientiane of non-governmental organizations from Asia and Europe. The forum highlighted the need to safeguard the environment and the fair land use for small farmers. Such views are often odds with those of the government, which emphasizes rapid economic growth and major infrastructure projects in what is one of Asia’s poorest nations.

The latest State Department human rights report, for 2011, said arbitrary arrests and detentions persisted in Laos despite laws prohibiting them. It also said “prison conditions were harsh and at times life-threatening, and corruption in the police and judiciary persisted.”

Peck reported from Bangkok, Thailand.