Story and photos by Anon Chawalawan
It has been over a month since Sombath Somphone, a Lao senior civil society leader, disappeared on December 15th, 2012.
A closed caption television camera captured the scene when Sombath’s van was stopped by police in Vientiane. He was then forced into another car, and then quickly driven away. Since then, no one has seen him again.
The shocking disappearance of Sombath has not only been a concern for his family and fellow Laotian activists, but has also alarmed activists on a global scale. In Thailand, the Thai Volunteer Service, Amnesty International (Thailand), the Justice for Peace Foundation, and other NGOs organized the event, “Sombath Somphone & Beyond: Human Rights Violation in the Mekong Region and Its Impacts on Mekong Youth”) on February 5th, 2013, at Thammasat University.
The event was split into two parts, a musical performance and a public talk. Besides these two programs, the event organizers also organized a variety of other activities for activists and other concerned individuals who attended. Event organizers displayed a big white banner for participants to write messages or draw pictures symbolizing peace or depicting Sombath and his work. Amnesty International (Thailand) also organized a petition for participants to sign in solidarity and support for the release of Sombath that will be delivered to the government of Laos.
Since Sombath was a champion of promoting a role for youth in social activism, many of the events focused on youth involvement. The bands that performed in this event were mainly bands composed of young people active in youth interests and social action. They played songs written by themselves dedicated to peace. In the public discussion session, all of the speakers as well as the moderator were mainly young activists and academics. During the public talk, the participants not only discussed the urgency of Sombath’s situation, but also shared their own experiences of social activism and work, as well as discussed threats that each of them had encountered while trying to carry out their respective missions.
All of the youth activists agreed that the disappearance of Sombath was a very troubling sign. The activists who struggle against the interests of either the authorities or corporations can put themselves in danger if their work is deemed threatening to those in power. They also shared the concern that forced disappearances were not only implemented in Laos but in many other countries as well. Therefore, activists across the region need to fight this matter across borders and consider it a universal issue and threat to human rights.
One of the organizers of the event said that after she heard the news about Sombath, she felt deep concern as Sombath worked in the same social sector as her. She also expressed her concern for the safety of other activists in Laos. After hearing what happened, she helped to organize the event after discussing the situation with other activist friends in Thailand. The organizers however did not want the event to focus only on Sombath as an individual case. They promoted the concept “Sombath and Beyond” to raise consciousness more generally among the people and especially youth to encourage the message that anyone can be a victim of forced disappearance, not just Sombath.
Feedback from the participants was very positive. Many participants mentioned that they had not heard about Sombath’s case before the event.
One of the students from Thammasat University who attended said that forced disappearances was a terrible practice, and should not be allowed to happen as it is clearly a human rights violation. She also mentioned that she had signed the petition from Amnesty International to call for the immediate return of Sombath.
A group of high school students who participated in the event said that they viewed forced disappearances as a violation of freedom. They also said that they wished more youth were concerned about social issues.
A foreigner who is currently a volunteer with a local NGO said that the music in the event was very touching. She said that she learned a lot about disappearances in the region after listening to participants. In her own country disappearances had not happened in 15 years.
Overall, this event seemed to be very successful. It did raise awareness among the participants of not only Sombath’s case, but also about disappearances in general. However, it would be best if there was no need for such events. Forced disappearances need to be resisted and prevented by all means.