BANGKOK – An international human rights group is urging Southeast Asian nations to pressure Laos to provide information about a social activist who has not been seen since he was apparently detained more than two months ago by state security forces.
Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should intervene with Lao authorities, who deny knowledge of Sombath Somphone's fate even though he was last seen in police custody.
The case has put a rare spotlight on politics in the landlocked nation, which remains one of the most politically repressive nations in Asia, even as it is making a transition from Communism to a more open market economy.
Sombath's wife, Singaporean native Ng Shui Meng, has been campaigning for her husband's freedom in Laos and on the Internet.
"The Lao government's long silence about Sombath Somphone's whereabouts increase our concerns for his safety," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "The authorities seem more focused on deflecting international criticism than genuinely investigating Sombath's disappearance."
The New York-based group said it sent a letter to the human rights commission of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, pointing out that it has the right to obtain information from member states on human rights protection.
Sombath disappeared on Dec. 15 after he was stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane. A few days later, the Lao Foreign Ministry said he may have "been kidnapped perhaps because of a personal conflict or a conflict in business." It said "authorities concerned are currently and seriously investigating." Accounts from Sombath's wife and supporters, however, suggest that any investigation has been slipshod at best.
The latest U.S. State Department human rights report, for 2011, described Laos as an authoritarian state under one-party Communist rule, and that arbitrary arrests and detentions persist despite laws prohibiting them.
Laos' government is intolerant of dissent, but associates say Sombath's work was neither directly political nor confrontational. Educated in the U.S., 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. He had returned to his homeland after the 1975 Communist takeover to apply his University of Hawaii learning in education and agriculture.
In January, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Sombath worked tirelessly to promote sustainable development. She called on the government to do everything in its power to bring about his "immediate and safe return home."
The U.N. human rights office and the European Union have also voiced deep concern.
Similar cases of disappearances and killings in Laos have gone largely unsolved.
"Sombath's disappearance is a major test for ASEAN and its human rights commission," Adams said. "ASEAN's silence in Sombath's case reflects a deeply rooted lack of credibility in protecting the basic rights of people in Southeast Asia."