Eight Months On, E.U. Lawmakers Talk Tough Over Disappeared Laos Activist

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Asahi Shimbun / Getty Images

Protesters demand the return of Laotian activist Sombath Somphone in front of the Laotian embassy in Bangkok on Dec. 25, 2012

The video is admittedly grainy, but what it shows is undeniable — well, at least to everyone except the Laotian government. Prominent Laotian civil-society leader Sombath Somphone was last seen on Dec. 15, 2012, driving in his jeep in the capital, Vientiane. CCTV footage (below) shows him being stopped at a police checkpoint and then driven away in a different vehicle while flanked by security personnel. Eight months on, European parliamentarians have accused the communist-run state of telling them “ridiculous lies” regarding the 62-year-old’s disappearance.

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Though hopes for his welfare are rapidly fading, the cause of Sombath refuses to follow suit. An official European Parliament delegation is due to travel to Vientiane on Oct. 28, and his disappearance will likely remain at the top of the agenda after an advance party that visited this week found their inquiries fell on deaf ears. “The Laos regime is still in a state of denial,” Soren Bo Sondergaard, a Danish member of the European Parliament, told reporters on Wednesday, adding that he wants to “send a signal to the regime that this case will not go away.” Sombath’s wife was apparently told by the chief investigating officer last week that her husband’s case has officially been closed, only for that to be hastily countered by superiors when further accusations of complicity began to fly.

Although Laos’ human-rights record is notoriously shoddy, the disappearance of its most prominent activist has caused shockwaves. A widely respected leader in education and sustainable development, Sombath was partly schooled in the U.S. and received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005. Laotian authorities have repeatedly declined offers for technical assistance in the investigation despite admitting zero progress, and previously dismissed concerns by alleging that this pillar of society must have been the victim of a shadowy business feud.

Even more perplexing is that Sombath was always seen as a conciliatory figure rather than an agitator — he kept the authorities informed about his participatory development projects, worked within official parameters and even sat on influential panels with senior government figures. “Every day spent without giving any acceptable answers to this very serious and symbolic case … is very damaging to the international image of Laos,” the E.U. delegation said in a statement.

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While Sombath’s fate is heartbreaking for those who knew him, his disappearance has also had a “chilling effect” on free speech and activism, with civil-society groups suddenly “scared to death,” says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch. Robertson describes the Laotian government’s reticence in the affair as “outrageous proof” of its involvement. “He was stopped at a police checkpoint in the capital city,” he tells TIME. “There is no conceivable way whatsoever that the Laos government doesn’t know what happened to him.”

Sondergaard says that the normally fractious European Parliament is united in this case, and Sombath’s name is certainly a constant refrain in the speeches of Vientiane-based diplomats from all quarters. International pressure to find answers will likely take into account two other issues: firstly, Laos’ prospective membership of the U.N. Human Rights Council — a possibility dubbed “laughable” by Robertson — and, secondly, the country’s bid to have the stigma of Least Developed Country status removed. Both these goals require reaching measurable benchmarks as well as the support of other states.

Such good will is now sorely lacking and must be regained if Laos is to get help addressing its myriad social, economic and humanitarian woes. About a third of the population lives below the international poverty line, surviving on less than $1.25 per day. International development programs to alleviate such conditions are linked to concrete sociopolitical reforms, which have been thrown into doubt by blatant human-rights abuses. And so even if the truth regarding Sombath never comes out, it may be some small solace that his memory is now serving as leverage to eke out better lives for his compatriots — just as he always strove to do.

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