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Mystery surrounds disappearance of prominent environmental activist in Laos
December 23, 2012

Deforestation for an industrial rubber plantation in Laos. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Questions surrounding the disappearance of 60-year-old Sombath Somphone deepened after the government of Laos denied kidnapping and holding the prominent social activist, reports the Associated Press.

Somphone, who received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005 for his social and environmental work, disappeared December 15, 2012. Closed-circuit TV footage showed Sombath being taken to a roadside police station in the capital city Vientiane after he was stopped by traffic police.

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch said the footage and other accounts “indicate that Lao authorities took him into custody, raising concerns for his safety.” But Lao authorities quickly rejected the charge, asserting that Sombath had been kidnapped as a result of "a personal conflict or a conflict in business." The Lao government did not provide any evidence to support their statement, but said it was investigating the disappearance.

Sombath's work focused on sustainable development in Laos. According to UNESCO, Sombath has pushed "eco-friendly technologies and micro-enterprises and to enhance education by introducing fuel-efficient stoves, promoting locally-produced organic fertilizer, devising new processing techniques and marketing strategies for small businesses, initiating garbage recycling in the capital city, and organizing extra curricular programs for the youth." While his activities aren't thought to have posed a direct threat to Lao PDR's notoriously authoritarian government, his participation in a recent NGO gathering may be linked to his disappearance, according to the AP report:
    As the senior NGO figure in Laos, Sombath had a high profile at the Asian-Europe People’s Forum, which is held on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting of ministerial-level leaders from both continents. The people’s forum highlighted the concerns of NGOs, whose priorities—such as safeguarding the environment and ensuring fair use of land for small farmers—are often at odds with those of the government, which emphasizes rapid economic growth.

    The contradiction is found as well in neighboring countries, especially those also undergoing a transition from socialist economies: Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. Mega-projects fuelling economic growth, such as dams, also bring opportunities for official corruption.

    Harassing Sombath would send a message to the NGO community not to challenge the government. In a similar fashion, Laos earlier this month expelled the head representative of the Swiss NGO Helvetas for criticizing the government.
Arbitrary arrests and detention still occur in Laos, according to the U.S. State Department.

Human Rights Watch said Thursday Sombath's disappearance doesn't bolster Lao PDR's human rights standing.

“The Lao government needs to immediately reveal Sombath’s location and release him,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in statement. “The Lao authorities should realize that the risk to their international reputation grows by leaps and bounds every day Sombath’s whereabouts remain unknown.”

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