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.”
(11/07/2012) Laos has given approval to the hugely-controversial $3.5 billion Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong River, reports the BBC. The massive dam, which would provide 95 percent of its energy production to Thailand, has been criticized for anticipated impacts on the river’s fish populations, on which many locals depend.
(09/26/2012) The forests of Lao are still suffering from widespread destruction with the government turning a blind eye to a thriving black market logging trade on the border of Laos and Vietnam, according to an update report by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Last year, the EIA found that powerful players, including the Vietnamese military, were plundering Laos of its forests for raw logs. Smuggled from Laos into Vietnam, the raw logs are crafted into furniture, which are eventually exported to Europe and the U.S. Now, over a year later a new report finds little has changed.
(08/27/2012) Fish are a hugely important protein source for many people around the world. This is no more evident than along the lower Mekong River delta where an estimated 48 million people depend directly on the river for food and livelihoods. But now a new study in Global Environmental Change cautions that 11 planned hydroelectric dams in the region could cut vital fish populations by 16 percent while putting more strain on water and land resources.
(07/28/2011) Dwindling forests in the Asian nation of Laos are being illegally destroyed and traded by Vietnamese companies with the Vietnamese army as one of the biggest players in this multi-million dollar smuggling operation, according to an investigation by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). EIA agents went undercover as timber purchasers to discover a long trail of corruption and poor enforcement from the destruction of Laos forests to furniture factories in Vietnam to stores in the USA and Europe. Even a ban on exporting raw timber out of Laos has done little to stop the plunder of the nation’s forests for outside gain.
(04/20/2009) Deep in the rugged mountains of Nam Et-Phou Louey National Protected Area (NEPL) on the Laos–Vietnam border, men smoke cigarettes and talk in hushed voices as they tramp through the forest. Approaching a baited trap, they hear the frantic snarls of an ensnared tiger. The tiger hangs by its front foot, suspended by a cable attached to a tree. The men shoot and make quick work of the tiger, removing its bones but leaving some of its carcass, including parts of its pelt, behind. The real money is no longer in tiger skins, but bones: the 10 to 12 kilograms of bone harvested from the adult tiger will yield $12,000-$15,000 in a region where per capita income is around $400 a year. Though the authorities are able to trace the weapon shells back to their village and locals know of the hunters’ haul, two years later the evidence has not been enough to hold the men accountable for their crimes.