The governments of Laos and Thailand were accused of lack of sincerity in implementing the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration (AHRD) at a roundtable discussion on “What Does Sombath Somphone’s Abduction Signal to ASEAN?” in Bangkok on Wednesday.
Niran Pitakwatchara, a human rights commissioner, said the Thai government should encourage discussion within the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR).
“The region has just adopted the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration aimed to promote and protect rights of the people. The AICHR has also been working for three years now. Hence the forced disappearance of outstanding human rights defender Sombath in Laos should be of great concern for not only Laos but for ASEAN as well,” said Dr Niran.
Jon Ungphakorn, a member of the National Human Rights Commission’s subcommittee on civil and political rights, said similar circumstances elsewhere showed that human rights defenders of all forms could be “disappeared” by the powers-that-be as a signal to the people that challenging the rigid tenets of society would not be allowed.
“The Sombath and Somchai (Neelapaijit) cases are the same. I strongly believe the Lao government and/or Lao Communist Party high-ranking officials have something to do with Sombath’s disappearance,” said Mr Jon, a former Bangkok senator and a Ramon Magsaysay laureate.
Mr Sombath’s disappearance was even more startling as there was a fledgling civil society in Laos.
“Sombath’s disappearance is intended to suppress or threaten the emergence of civil society in that country,” he said.
Mr Jon called for the dismantling of the principle of non-interference, held to like a mantra by member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
“The practice of non-intervention should be abolished, at least on the issues of the human rights of the ASEAN people, as it is does not concern issues within borders, but of a community which proclaims to be caring and sharing,” said Mr Jon at the seminar at the Student Christian Centre.
Mr Jon and 51 other Magsaysay laureates have sent a letter of appeal to Vientiane, together with other regional and international civil societies. The move prompted the United Nations in Geneva to express concern that the Lao activist may be the victim of an “enforced disappearance” by the authorities.
Mr Sombath, 60, who had been honoured for his work to reduce poverty and promote education in Laos through a training centre he founded, has been missing since Dec 15 last year when he left his office in Vientiane to drive home to his wife, and never arrived.
Police closed-circuit camera footage from that night, which relatives have posted online, shows him being stopped by traffic police.
However, Vientiane’s ambassador to Geneva, Yong Chanthalangsy, told UN Special Procedures officials – independent investigators assigned by the UN Human Rights Council – that they had been misinformed about the case and that traffic police had not taken Sombath into custody during the stop.
Pablo Solon, whose brother was among the large number of people in Bolivia who disappeared in 1972, said ASEAN people must not accept such weak explanations by the Lao officials.
“The state authorities are obliged to give an explanation – who were the traffic police involved and why did they stop the Lao activist. The state security in that country must be held responsible for this obvious abduction,” said Mr Solon, executive director of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South.
Surichai Wun’Gaeo, Chulalongkorn University’s director of Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, said Mr Sombath was a modest and accommodative activist who raised for debate certain core issues about balancing economic development, as Laos was eagerly heading towards urbanisation and modernisation based on the “Battery of Asia” concept.
“The case of Mr Sombath is not only a tragedy and a shock for the ASEAN region but also the world, as he is part of tiny genre of people who are challenging the current socio-economic paradigm.
“He is a soft but determined scholar and activist trying to work towards the peace and harmony of the people and nature,” said Mr Surichai.
His disappearance should be a wake up call for ASEAN that focusing on quick business returns through a single market without ensuring a sustainable environment, traditional wisdom and human dignity, was inadequate, he said.
Mr Surichai called for ASEAN policy makers to accommodate and tolerate civil society individuals and organisations who work towards ensuring greater policy space for such a debate.
Witoon Lianchamroon, Bio Thai Foundation director, said Mr Sombath was a charming activist model for Thailand as he was not aggressive, but humbly engaged his colleagues and the authorities.
The October forum of activists from ASEAN and Europe in Laos, for which Mr Sombath was instrumental in mobilising debates around the nation, might be one of the reasons for Sombath’s disappearance, said Mr Witoon.
Mr Sombath’s two main concepts – focusing on community-based policy formulation and the balancing of spiritual- and religion-based happiness with the country’s development might have been seen as a challenge.
Angkhana Neelapaijit, director of the Justice for Peace Foundation, said unless enforced disappearance was stipulated as a crime, the region was only makeing an empty boast in claiming to be modernising as a human rights-caring community.
“The cases of Sombath and my husband (Somchai) are similar, a threatening signal to those defending and fighting for the rights of others.
“Authorities in these two countries, which have ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, should be ashamed of what they have proclaimed,” said Mrs Angkhana.