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Disappearance Of Lao Civil Society Leader


Sombath Somphone of Laos, the winner of Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005. (file)

Questions remain following a statement by the Government of Laos on Sombath Somphone.

Questions remain following a statement by the Government of Laos on the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, a prominent civil society leader, in the capital Vientiane last month. The United States urges officials there to take clearer steps to further the public’s understanding of the investigation into this important matter.


On the evening of December 15, Mr. Sombath, the founder of the Participatory Development Training Center, or PADETC, was reportedly stopped by traffic police on his way home from his office.

Surveillance camera footage from that evening shows him talking with what appear to be two police officers and then being escorted to a nearby police booth. Minutes later, an individual arrives on a motorcycle and drives away in the jeep Mr. Sombath was driving. The footage then shows two unidentified men leaving the police booth and driving away in a pickup truck. Mr. Sombath has not been seen since being escorted in to the police booth.

After inquiries were made in the United Nations, Laos’s ambassador to the U.N. office in Geneva, Switzerland, issued a statement that Mr. Sombath was not taken into police custody and he may have been kidnapped because of a “personal conflict.”

Mr. Sombath, 60 years old, established PADETC in 1996 to promote education, training and sustainable development in Laos. In recognition of his work both in Laos and across Asia he was presented with the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership. He is a widely respected civil society leader and his family asserts he has no business or personal conflicts that would have led him to being kidnapped.

The United States is deeply concerned about Mr. Sombath’s disappearance. The Lao government’s official statements about the incident have not clarified the situation. We recognize the work Laos has done for years to improve its international reputation, culminating in a number of positive achievements during 2012 such as hosting the 9th Asia-Europe Meeting and joining the WTO.

The circumstances around Mr. Sombath’s unexplained disappearance could put at risk the improving investment climate in Laos. We call on Lao authorities to undertake a full, thorough and transparent investigation into the case, in keeping with Laos’s aspirations to become an internationally respected, rule-of-law-based society.
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