Representatives of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have criticized an investigation by Laos into the recent disappearance of a prominent activist. A delegation representing ASEAN expressed its concerns Wednesday during a fact-finding visit to Laos.
Sombath Somphone, founder of a non-governmental organization campaigning for sustainable development in Laos, went missing in the city of Vientiane while driving home in December. Images from closed-circuit cameras, obtained by Sombath's family and published online, show him being taken away from a police post by two unidentified individuals. He has not been seen since.
Officials in Laos say they have been investigating Sombath's disappearance, but have come up with few leads. In a letter published in various news media in early January, the Lao ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva, Yong Chanthalangsy, suggested his disappearance may have been the result of a personal or business conflict.
Sombath's work for the Participatory Development Training Center targeted Laos' marginalized and impoverished rural population.
Rights activists have expressed concern that the Lao government is not doing enough to solve the mystery. Some members of the Southeast Asian regional economic bloc ASEAN agree.
Speaking Wednesday at a news conference in Bangkok after a fact-finding mission to Laos, Philippines parliamentarian and ASEAN delegation member Walden Bello said the government failed to provide answers to basic questions of the investigation and tried to deny police involvement.
"We were told that after a month of investigation, the only thing that has been established is that the police had nothing to do with the disappearance. We told them that this was not credible and if we accepted this at face value as to the progress of the case, we ourselves would lose credibility," Bello said.
Charles Santiago, an ASEAN delegate from Malaysia, said that considering available evidence, an investigation should take only a matter of days. He pointed out inconsistencies in different government officials' explanations and the fact that only the lowest-ranking police officers had been assigned to the case.
"That the police and the civil administration have absolutely no interest, no political will, to get to the root of this problem, except saying in all our meetings that we want to get to the root of this problem, because the credibility of Laos has been hi," Santiago noted. "But when asked about the investigation itself it's absolutely stonewalling and the same script being repeated all the time, because the civilian component of government really has no idea what has transpired. Therefore, we have impressed that the investigation must move to the highest level of the military as well as the police."
Regional analysts say Sombath's disappearance is a test case for the new ASEAN human rights mechanism, to which the fact-finding committee will be making recommendations in Jakarta.