Mys­tery sur­rounds the dis­ap­pear­ance of ac­tivist in Laos

Obama ad­dressed the is­sue in re­cent visit, but rights groups fear lit­tle will be done as spot­light fades

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS - Thomas Maresca

“All I want is for who­ever knows what hap­pened to Som­bath to just let me know what hap­pened to him. ... What­ever hap­pens, I’m not afraid” Ng Shui Meng, wife of miss­ing ac­tivist

VI­EN­TIANE, LAOS The last time Ng Shui Meng saw her hus­band, he was driv­ing his beloved vin­tage Amer­i­can jeep.

That was a De­cem­ber evening al­most four years ago, af­ter Som­bath Som­phone was stopped by traf­fic po­lice. He never ar­rived home for din­ner.

The dis­ap­pear­ance of Som­bath, 64, a prom­i­nent Lao ac­tivist who fo­cused on ru­ral de­vel­op­ment and re­duc­ing poverty, is a per­sis­tent re­minder of hu­man rights abuses by the com­mu­nist govern­ment here.

Pres­i­dent Obama’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, Ben Rhodes, met with his wife Thurs­day, say­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion has con­sis­tently ad­dressed Som­bath and other rights is­sues be­hind closed doors as Obama and other in­ter­na­tional lead­ers held a sum­mit in this tiny South­east Asian na­tion last week.

But af­ter the U.S. del­e­ga­tion left and the global spot­light turns away from Laos, hu­man rights groups worry that Som­bath’s dis­ap­pear­ance will be for­got­ten and the govern­ment will have lit­tle rea­son to ease its crack­down on any dis­sent.

“The dis­ap­pear­ance of Som­bath has been very, very ef­fec­tive for the Lao­tian govern­ment in terms of shut­ting down civil so­ci­ety or any sort of crit­i­cism of the govern­ment,” said Sam Zar­ifi with the In­ter­na­tional Com­mis­sion of Ju­rists, a hu­man rights group.

“And maybe that’s a les­son they’ve learned. That dis­ap­pear­ing some­one is a small price to pay, be­cause at the end of the day, all the global lead­ers show up and you have a nice event and ev­ery­body will for­get,” he said.

Not Som­bath’s fam­ily and sup­port­ers, who are still search­ing for an­swers about his dis­ap­pear­ance.

Se­cu­rity cam­era footage of the traf­fic stop shows what hap­pened. Som­bath gets out of his jeep and talks to po­lice. Some­one else shows up and drives away in Som­bath’s jeep. A pickup pulls up; Som­bath gets in and it speeds off, led by armed men on a mo­tor­cy­cle.

Those few grainy clips are all that Shui Meng and the rest of Som­bath’s fam­ily, col­leagues and friends have to hold onto. Shui Meng said she hasn’t had any con­tact with author­i­ties for an up­date in more than two years.

“Not know­ing is ter­ri­ble,” said Shui Meng, a na­tive of Sin­ga­pore who met Som­bath when they were both stu­dents in the United States at the Univer­sity of Hawaii. “Not hav­ing any in­for­ma­tion and know­ing for a fact that a wall of si­lence has fallen is ter­ri­ble.”

Many be­lieve that Som­bath was taken in an en­forced dis­ap­pear­ance, an in­ter­na­tional le­gal term for a se­cret, state-spon­sored ab­duc­tion. The tim­ing is also sus­pect, com­ing af­ter an in­ter­na­tional con­fer­ence that he helped co­or­di­nate.

At that event, plain­clothes po­lice has­sled and fol­lowed at­ten­dees, and copies of a re­port Som­bath helped pre­pare were con­fis­cated. Just days be­fore his dis­ap­pear­ance, a Swiss worker was kicked out of the coun­try — a sign of a grow­ing crack­down.

“More than three years have passed since Som­bath Som­phone was last seen,” said Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional’s di­rec­tor for South­east Asia and the Pa­cific. “We have no al­ter­na­tive but to con­clude that the author­i­ties are ei­ther di­rectly re­spon­si­ble for his dis­ap­pear­ance, or have failed mis­er­ably to take all nec­es­sary mea­sures to get to the bot­tom of what hap­pened.”

Over the past week, sev­eral hu- man rights groups called for Obama to pub­licly pres­sure Laos on hu­man rights and to bring up Som­bath by name at the sum­mit. His state­ments, how­ever, re­mained mea­sured.

At an ad­dress to the Lao peo­ple, he said: “As we do around the world, the United States will con­tinue to speak up on be­half of what we con­sider uni­ver­sal hu­man rights, in­clud­ing the rights of the peo­ple of Laos to ex­press your­selves freely and de­cide your own fu­ture.”

To crit­ics, those words failed to send a pow­er­ful enough mes­sage.

“Pres­i­dent Obama missed a golden op­por­tu­nity to show that he stands with the fam­ily of Som­bath Som­phone and Lao civil so­ci­ety against those in the Lao govern­ment who think it is ac­cept­able to haul away com­mu­nity lead­ers at night, and in­tim­i­date and im­prison those ex­press opin­ions the author­i­ties don’t like,” said Phil Robert­son, deputy Asia di­rec­tor for Hu­man Rights Watch.

Rhodes, Obama’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, said the Lao govern­ment’s re­sponse is that it still is in­ves­ti­gat­ing Som­bath’s dis­ap­pear­ance. “Given (Som­bath’s) promi­nence, this is some­thing that we’ll con­tinue to raise,” Rhodes said last week.

Mean­while, Shui Meng is left with ques­tions.

“All I want is for who­ever knows what hap­pened to Som­bath to just let me know what hap­pened to him,” she said. “I’m do­ing what I think every per­son in my sit­u­a­tion would do. Seek the truth, find out what has hap­pened to the per­son you love most. So what­ever hap­pens, I’m not afraid. Nei­ther will I ever give up try­ing to find out what hap­pened.”

THOMAS MARESCA, SPE­CIAL FOR USA TO­DAY

Ng Shui Meng, the wife of miss­ing Lao­tian ac­tivist Som­bath Som­phone, stands near a miss­ing per­son bul­letin at her crafts shop in Vi­en­tiane.

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