Growing concern over missing Lao aid worker
Bangkok — There’s been growing concern over the disappearance of a well-known civil service and sustainable development leader in Laos. Sombath Somphone went missing last month and no one knows where he is or who took him.
His disappearance has created a movement in the southeast Asian country to help find him. It has also raised questions about the openness of the Lao government.
Sombath was stopped at a police check point in the capital Vientiane on December 15. Closed-circuit video shows him going into a police building, his jeep being driven off by someone else, and then a group of men leaving the building and driving off in a pickup truck.
He was on his way home for dinner. His wife was following him. Too overwhelmed by Sombath's disappearance to be interviewed on camera, I interviewed Ng Shui Meng via email:
Al Jazeera: Who do you think is holding your husband? Is it the police?
Ng Shui Meng: I don't know. The police said they are not holding Sombath. The government official statements also said the police are not holding Sombath.
What have they told you about the investigation into his disappearance?
The police has questioned me once, asking for basic information, they have questioned Sombath's sister once, our niece once, and also his colleague in his former office once. All about basic information related to Sombath and his work. The police has not disclosed to me or to any member of my family any information related to their investigation.
Why do you feel they have done this?
I seriously don't know. Sombath's work has always been open and with approval and cooperation with government organizations and institutions. I could find not any reason why anybody would do this to Sombath.
Who would benefit from silencing your husband?
Nobody that I can think of.
How do you respond to the government's statement that it could have been an abduction due to business or personal conflicts?
The government statement indicated that he could be kidnapped for reason of personal conflicts or business conflicts. Sombath is a mild-mannered, soft-spoken person. He is well-liked and respected by people he works with, whether they are his colleagues inside or outside the country, or government officials, or people from the community. He has no enemies. Sombath also does not have any business interests or dealings with people in business.
Your husband has been called an activist, do you agree with this title?
I have stated time and time again, Sombath is not an activist, he is a development worker and educator. His work has focussed largely on community development related to improving food security, rural livelihoods, promoting holistic education, and building young people's leadership skills. He also advocates understanding and respect of indigenous knowledge and cultural practices in preserving and protecting the environment and natural resources.
Do you think neighbouring countries like Thailand are doing enough to get a proper investigation or at least some answers from the government?
I am grateful that friends and local and international organizations, and the press in Thailand and elsewhere have registered their concerns and urged the Lao government to expedite the investigation of Sombath's whereabouts and to find him and return him to me and the family as quickly as possible. Such efforts must continue until until Sombath is found and returned.
Had your husband ever received threats before or was he concerned for his safety?
To my knowledge, none whatsoever.
Has he ever been harassed by Lao authorities?
None as far as I know.
Are you worried about his health?
I am worried sick for his health and wellbeing. The weather has turned cold in recent weeks in Laos, and at the time Sombath disappeared, he was only wearing shorts and a T-shirt. Sombath also needs daily medication for a medical condition. Without his daily medicines, I am aftraid his his medical condition will deteriorate and his health would be compromised. I can only appeal to whoever who has taken him to show some compassion and release him as quickly as possible.
Who should be doing more to find him or help get answers from the government; regional leaders, international organisations, etc?
Everybody should be doing more - the Lao police, the Lao government, the Lao citizens, the UN, governments in ASEAN, and governments around the world need to join hands to urge the authorities in Laos to find Sombath, and not let Sombath vanish so mysteriously from the surface of the earth. It is not right, it is not just.