Why A Missing Lao Activist Should Concern Us All


In February 2013, there was much fanfare when Laos became the 158th member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). This was a big step for the  country, and the free trade model of economic development was again celebrated as providing a pathway to membership in the global community, improved living standards and a general decline in poverty.

However, amidst these celebrations many both within and outside the country were pre-occupied with the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, an internationally recognised Laotian community rights activist.

Just who Sombath was and why his disappearance is so important, both as an individual and as a representative of his country, goes to the core of the failings of neoliberalism as a model for development. It highlights that without a conscious effort to improve human rights and equality, economic development will make some very rich while leaving the majority of the population behind. This is not a model for long-term stability.

Sombath Somphone is the founder of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Laos.

He is truly a success story. Coming from an impoverished rural farming family in Laos’ Khammouane province, he was granted an exchange scholarship to spend his final year of high-school in the US before being granted another USAID scholarship to study Education and Agriculture at the University of Hawaii. In 1979 Sombath returned to Laos to work on rural development issues and, 17 years later in 1996 he started PADETC, continuing his focus on local-scale development and poverty alleviation. To this day PADETC represents one of only a few civil society organisations in Laos that have been driven primarily by Lao citizens, rather than foreign expatriates.

Sombaths‘ work has been internationally recognised. In addition to being awarded the Human Resource Development Award (2001) for empowering the rural poor in Laos from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific’ (UNESCAP) he is also a recipient of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership (2005).

In October 2012 Sombath and other PADETC staff became involved in the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) held in Vientiane, Laos.

Although the forum had official approval and was opened by the deputy Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith this was a tense time in Laos. The very sort of communities that Sombath sought to empower – poor farmers – had come from rural areas to testify about being displaced from their land. Security agents sat in the back row at every panel discussion and jumped up to defend the Lao government at the slightest hint of criticism. All speakers were filmed and at least one villager who complained about government policy was openly intimidated.

In an atmosphere of intimidation, Sombath approached members of his government to solve the crisis.

Sombath also presented a keynote speech (pdf) at the forum’s opening ceremony and many believe that it was Sombath’s role in this event that led to his disappearance.

In his keynote, Sombath focussed on both the failings and achievements of “development”, including ongoing inequalities:

“Emotionally and spiritually speaking we have even fared worse – there is so much greed, so much corruption, so much intolerance and bigotry, and so much violence that prevail in many of our societies both in Asia as well as in Europe. 

…the development model is not balanced, not connected, and definitely not holistic. Ordinary people, not politicians, not the rich, and not CEOs, form the majority population in any society and hence how society develops need to take into consideration their needs….

In the Lao context, poverty and sustainable development are two sides of the same coin, the two are inter-dependent and interrelated.”

Though on first glance Sombath did not directly criticise the government, stating that “listening to the voices of the people is the first step to transforming the power structure” is not the sort of comment that the Lao government likes to hear. Indeed, they could be interpreted as seditious in Laos.

Sombath went missing in December 2012. According to a website established to support him, CCTC footage from 15 December 2012 confirms that he was stopped and taken into custody by police

On news of Sombath’s disappearance, both the international community and local activists quickly mobilised and on 20 December 2012, 21 INGOs working in Laos issued a letter to the Government of Laos Ministry of Foreign Affairs to register their concern and offer their assistance in “any way possible”.

The international response to Sombath’s experience has included statements from Hillary Clinton, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and United States Secretary of State John Kerry, calling for Laos to either release Sombath or launch an official investigation. The US embassy in Vientiane also issued a statement calling for more to be done about Sombath’s disappearance.

Australia’s response has been less impressive.

In a radio interview for ABC Radio Australia, Dr Keith Barney from the Australian National University discussed a letter that a group of "concerned scholars" within Australia had sent to the Department of Foreign Affairs and trade. (The authors of this article are both signatories). The response from the Department has been, at best, insufficient. With a $50 million aid program to Laos and Australian companies having invested heavily in Lao mining and natural resources, there is much more that can be done.

As Barney emphasised, Sombath’s disappearance sends a “chilling message to those working in community development, particularly Lao nationals, about their ability to speak freely on critical issues of resource rights and development policy in Laos”.

“Most European countries have made Mr Sombath's case a priority issue in any bilateral meetings, and Lao ministers travelling in Europe are constantly reminded of the case. In Thailand, a broad network has been set up by friends, NGO workers, journalists and academics to help search for Mr Sombath and keep the pressure on Lao authorities.”

Australia needs to do more. The year 2012 marked a coming of age for tiny landlocked Laos.

In July Hillary Clinton became the first US secretary of state since the 1950s to visit the country. The World Trade Organization formally voted in October to allow Laos into the trade grouping after years of negotiations. In early November, Laos’s capital Vientiane hosted the Asia-Europe Meeting, which was attended by dozens of world leaders and senior officials, including the Prime Minister of China and the President of the European Council. Laos’ estimated economic growth of 8.3 per cent last year made it Southeast Asia’s second highest economic performer (after East Timor) and the 17th fastest growing national economy in the world. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2003rank.html  However, all is not well in Laos.

The disappearance of Sombath shows that the Lao state has no intention of allowing its increased integration with global economic flows to lead to increased political freedom, or for that matter to meet the commitments that it made in 2009 to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Lao state has a history of human rights abuses against its citizens, especially the Hmong, and international institutions such as Médecins Sans Frontières and Amnesty International have raised concerns over these matters. Economic growth has not changed this. If anything, it has given corrupt officials new opportunities for wealth appropriation and exploitation, and a new incentive to use violence as a means to silence the public.

Despite verbal pressure from the international community, no economic sanctions have followed. It is no wonder that if there are members of the Lao state who know what happened to Sombath, they are not listening.

Even worse, the month before Sombath’s disappearance, the ASEAN Declaration of Human Rights was signed – with Laos as a signatory.

Civil society groups from Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand have pushed for greater support of Sombath, but the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission for Human Rights (AICHR) (established in 2009), been weak in its response. ASEAN needs to recognise that Laos’ poor response to human rights reflects poorly on the region.

Sombath’s disappearance reveals the fallacy of the AEPF and the front that such meetings like to put forward about development – a front that justifies greater private investment and that seeks to represent development as "working" when this is anything but the case. It reveals that economic liberalization in a politically repressive environment means the rights of the poor are almost non-existent; they become seen merely as inconveniences in the way of greater wealth accumulation for elites.

Sombath’s position on development is important to reflect on: he believed that engaging with youth was crucial to successful sustainable development. He also believed strongly in the link between education and development. These are values that we share. He was a man who called for new approaches to teaching that focused on the linkages between economics, sociology, cultural awareness, nature and people’s well being – essential ingredients in the development of a sustainable society.

Sombath’s disappearance also speaks to the weakness of regionalism in Asia, which remains driven almost exclusively by economic ties. Over the past year there has been much fanfare about Australia’s engagement with the ‘Asian Century’. However, the desire for increased economic integration must not be an excuse to fall silent against human rights abuses. Australia was once a chief global advocate of democratic social and political freedoms. If Australia wants to show leadership within Asia, Sombath’s disappearance is a good place to start.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.