From ‘Somchai’ to ‘Sombath’: the Inconvenient Truth for Victims of the Disappeared.

On the evening of Saturday, December 15 last year, Sombath Somphone was seen in CCTV footage being taken away by a man in plain clothes in a white truck, after he had been stopped by police officers in Thadue Road, Vientiane, Laos. 

Nine years ago, on March 12, 53-year-old Somchai Neelapaijit was abducted by five police officers in daylight in the Ramkhamhaeng area of Bangkok, Thailand. 
 
What they had in common, besides never being seen again since then, is that they both are citizens working to promote the rights and freedom of others. Sombath worked in education and agricultural development for over two decades, while Somchai worked as a human rights lawyer, especially with those involved in security-related cases in Thailand’s troubled Deep South. 
 
“It’s been almost ten years since Somchai has disappeared, yet we’ve barely seen any progress despite the fact that the DSI (Department of Special Investigation) has taken this up as special case,” said Angkhana Neelapaijit, the wife of Somchai, during a public seminar entitled ‘Human Rights in ASEAN: Lessons Learned from the Disappearance of Sombath Somphone and Somchai Neelaphaijit.’ 
 
The event on March 28, jointly organized by the Somchai Neelapaijit Memorial Fund and the Justice for Peace Foundation among other organizations, was to commemorate 100 days of Sombath’s disappearance as well as the ninth anniversary of Somchai’s. 
 
Angkhana said since the domestic justice system does not function properly in finding the truth, she hopes that international pressure and mechanisms would be able to protect human rights. 
 
However, she questions whether the common people would get any benefit from the soon-to-be ASEAN community. 
 
Ng Shui Meng, wife of Sombath Somphone, expressed similar doubts. Even though ASEAN member countries recently adopted an ASEAN Human Rights Charter and established the ASEAN Inter-governmental Commission for Human Rights (AICHR), she said in reality those mechanisms rarely come into play.  
 
“It was only after Sombath’s disappearance that I understood how toothless these regional and international human rights instruments and institutions are, and how empty are the states’ claims of respect of rights, the rule of law and due process,” said Shui Meng in a statement for the seminar. 
 
“I also now come to realize how helpless individual citizens can be and how few recourses they have to seek justice.”
 
After Sombath disappeared in December, the case received worldwide attention with the European Union and United States expressing concern, while the Lao government denied any involvement, suggesting that Sombath’s disappearance may be due to personal or business conflicts. 
 
The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance reports that since 1980, there have been 78 cases of Enforced Disappearance in Thailand, seven in Laos, eight in Burma, 165 in Indonesia, 782 in the Philippines, two in Cambodia and two in Malaysia. Civil society however believes the actual numbers are higher. 
 
Angkhana said the Working Group has several times requested the Thai government to allow a fact-finding mission to be conducted in Thailand but the government has refused. 
 
But aside from affecting the families’ victims, the disappearance also has a chilling effect on those working in civil society. 
 
Withoon Permpongsacharoen, Director of the Mekong Energy and Ecology Network, who has worked closely with Sombath, said Sombath’s abduction has scared people who work in non-governmental development organizations. After Sombath disappeared, some decided to turn their back on development work in Laos and never returned. 
 
He believes that the Lao government is involved in Sombath’s disappearance, due to his role in hosting the Asia-Europe People’s Forum in November last year which displayed open criticism of Lao economic development plans.   
 
“I think the Lao government underestimates what has happened. They thought they could do it and things would go silent, but on the contrary, the case has drawn quite intensive international attention,” he said. 
 

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