Foreign Policy Blogs

When People Vanish

Sombath Somphone

Do you remember the term “disappeared” from the Cold War days? It was a common phenomenon in countries with a less than stellar record on human rights and democracy in the second half of the 20th century. Many people — sometimes outspoken critics of the government, sometimes not — would simply vanish. One day they’d be out in the fields picking crops, the next day — poof! Gone. Most if not all were never heard from again.

Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza favored taking several of his political opponents up in helicopters and hurling them out of the craft and into the hole of an active volcano. In Cambodia, many of the educated class were taken to the now infamous S-21 prison where unspeakable acts of savagery were carried out by the Khmer Rouge. Untold others languished in dungeons throughout the world from South America to Eastern Europe.

With the end of the Cold War and with many governments reliant on aid from the West — conditioned with improvements in a country’s good governance — instances of “disappeared” people were curtailed significantly. However, that is not to say that this occurrence had been eliminated completely.

We were reminded of this sullen fact over the past month in Southeast Asia.

In Laos, a country which still seems stuck in the Cold War era if its human development index is to be believed, a well-known activist was last seen being bundled into the back of a police car on December 15th.  Sombath Somphone, a tireless campaigner for sustainable development, has not been seen since. Despite the existence of CCTV footage of the incident outside a Vientiane police station, the one-party government of Laos denies any role. Instead, it offered up a baseless theory that Mr. Somphone’s abduction was the result of a personal dispute between the NGO worker and other, unnamed actors.

That postulation was dismissed as ridiculous by a party of ASEAN officials who arrived in the Lao capital in the days that followed to discuss the incident with Vientiane. Moreover, such a cavalier dismissal — in which it was implied that maybe Mr. Somphone deserved his fate — calls into question the sincerity of the communist government which claims that it “wouldn’t treat [its] own citizens like this.”

Southeast Asian journalist Luke Hunt didn’t mince words when analyzing such a dubious statement for The Diplomat Magazine:

Such a response was indicative of one-party regimes during the Cold War, indicating that Laos has not evolved much over the last 23 years. Its attitude has brought a universal condemnation of the government that tinged with a mix of outrage and disbelief.

Government officials seems less concerned over the fate of Mr. Somphone than they were about their sovereignty rights vis-à-vis ASEAN. According to Rob O’Brien in the Asian Correspondent:

In pressing its case the government did allude, however, to the differences of opinion over development issues that were widely reported to have been behind a rift between Sombath and the government.

In its rearguard, Laos pointed out that it has never interfered with its neighbouring countries over their domestic affairs, an ASEAN mantra designed to cover some of its more awkward member states.

A determined online campaign has been spearheaded by friends of the activist in an effort to find him, and outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has weighed in as well. Ordinarily, this type of pressure from the West would usually be enough to resolve the matter. But with Laos shifting more towards Beijing’s orbit in the past few years, it might be more unwilling to cooperate this time around.

In the meantime Sombath’s fate remains unknown.

Photo: AP



Tim LaRocco

Tim LaRocco is an adjunct professor of political science at St. Joseph's College in New York. He was previously a Southeast Asia based journalist and his articles have appeared in a variety of political affairs publications. He is also the author of "Hegemony 101: Great Power Behavior in the Regional Domain" (Lambert, 2013). Tim splits his time between Long Island, New York and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Twitter: @TheRealMrTim.