Asean MPs press Laos on missing activist

Pravit Rojanaphruk in Bangkok/The Nation
Asia News Network

Bangkok (The Nation/ANN) - Asean governments should issue statements pressing the Laotian government to shed light on what has happened to civil society leader Sombath Somphone, Philippine lawmaker Walden Bello said in Bangkok yesterday.

Bello, a member of a group of Asean parliamentarians, visited Vientiane between January 13 and 15 to seek a speedy investigation on the whereabouts of Sombath, who disappeared a month ago.

It's believed Sombath may have been involved in a land-grabbing conflict.

"Governments should be issuing statements at this point. Sombath is not only a Laotian but also a member of the Asean community," said Bello, who spoke along with two colleagues at a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand yesterday.

Bello added that the credibility of the Laotian government is now at stake, along with that of the Asean Human Rights Charter and the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHA).

Former Thai senator Kraisak Choonhavan said 18 Thai MPs had signed a petition demanding the Laotian government reveal the truth about Sombath. He was last seen on CCTV footage being taken away by police a month ago.

Kraisak didn't elaborate as to the party affiliations of the 18 MPs.

Kraisak criticised the Laotian political system, saying it "doesn't have the people's representation at all".

Malaysian MP Charles Santiago said he was dismayed to discover that only a junior police officer interrogated Sombath's wife, who is a Singaporean national. Santiago said all they asked her was when she got married to Sombath and whether they had any children. He said the government should conduct a proper investigation with a high-level investigator in charge.

"The government has no political will to go to the root of the problem," said Santiago.

Lily Wahid, an Indonesian MP and member of the Asean parliamentarian team, said a Laotian permanent secretary for Foreign Affairs had told her that Sombath was probably still alive.

"I think they know what happened to Sombath," she said yesterday, adding "we cannot hope for too much."

Wahid said it was time Asean states acted in "synergy" to press the Laotian government on the matter, as the longer it takes, the higher the chance of Sombath not being alive.

Santiago agreed. "The longer [it takes for] the person to surface means the person will not surface anymore."

She said she would discuss the matter with AICHA after returning to Jakarta and would urge Indonesian MPs to act.

"Today, we have to start the international pressure on Laos," she said.