Exactly four years since his forcible disappearance, the family of Lao development worker Sombath Somphone is still waiting for answers.
Somphone disappeared in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, on December 15th, 2012. CCTV footage that surfaced last year shows police stopping the civil society leader at a checkpoint and instructing him to leave his jeep, before ushering him in another vehicle and driving away. He was never seen again.
A well-respected figure in Lao civil society, Somphone founded the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) to train government officials and Lao youth in community-based development programs. His work focused on sustainable farming, supporting small-scale agribusinesses, and promoting eco-friendly methods and technologies to alleviate poverty – including the use of fuel-efficient stoves, organic fertilizers and recycling initiatives.
“Over decades of his work in grassroots rural development, Sombath inspired thousands of Lao farmers and their families with simple yet innovative techniques to help them farm better and live better,” commented Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “But today, Sombath’s uncertain fate prompts fear among Lao civil society groups that their survival is at the whim of the government.”
Somphone consciously avoided direct involvement in politics throughout his career, and the reason for his detention remain unclear. Despite international pressure, the government has failed to provide any explanation for his disappearance.
“Since the start, the Lao government’s investigation of Sombath Somphone’s disappearance has been a pattern of delay, denial, and cover-up,” said Robertson.