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Lao govt 'lacks will' to find missing activist

Publication Date : 17-01-2013

 

One month after the disappearance in Vientiane of Magsaysay award winner Sombath Somphone, there does not appear to be any political will within the Lao government to find him.

This is the conclusion of three Members of Parliament from Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines after their visit to Laos this week.

The MPs plan to approach the Jakarta-based Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) which, they said, should send a team to Laos to investigate the disappearance on December 15 of the respected civil society leader. The case was a test for the AICHR's credibility, they said.

Meanwhile, several sources said foreign donors may be quietly readying coordinated plans to hold back the flow of funds to the impoverished country, to put pressure on the government.

These donors are reassessing their positions in the country following the disappearance of Sombath, who is married to a Singaporean national, and the expulsion less than two weeks earlier of the head of the Swiss development agency Helvetas. However, some analysts caution that the government may not be fazed.

Helvetas' Anne-Sophie Gindroz was expelled last month for a letter she wrote to development partners that was highly critical of the Lao government. Gindroz and Sombath had helped organise the Asia-Europe People's Forum in Vientiane late last year, where local rural people critical of government land grabs and the dislocation of locals by big projects faced open intimidation by government officials.

The three Asean politicians, Philippine congressman Walden Bello, Indonesian MP Lily Wahid and Malaysian MP Charles Santiago, met top Lao officials during their visit. While they stressed that they had received cooperation, Dr Bello said: "We are far from satisfied with the answers we got."

Lao officials, for instance, had told them Laos did not have the technology to analyse closed-circuit TV footage. There is a CCTV record of Sombath, 62, being stopped, ostensibly by traffic police, and then getting into another car that arrived on the scene. He was driven away and has not been heard from since.

The MPs pointed to two different power centres in Laos, a one-party state ruled by the communist Lao People's Revolutionary Party and its politburo.

"It appears the Lao government does not have the political will to solve the issue," Santiago said. "The civilian government is going round in circles. The answer is with the party, the politburo and the military."

The Lao government, in formal statements, has said an investigation is under way, and added that it had been established that Sombath was not in police custody. The government said there remained the possibility that a personal or business dispute led to Sombath's abduction.

Critics have questioned why, one month on, no further information is forthcoming.

 

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