The disappearance of Sombath Somphone: an Interview with Ng Shui Meng

I talked recently with Ng Shui Meng, the wife of Sombath Somphone, a Laotian man and close associate of AFSC who ran civil society programs in Laos until he disappeared in December, 2012.  Despite having close circuit television (CCTV) footage documenting his abduction, the Laotian government has denied any knowledge of Sombath Somphone’s whereabouts.  Shui Meng came to the United States recently to request the assistance of AFSC, Amnesty International, Quakers and others to take action to support the return of Sombath Somphone.  You can find many ways to support Sombath at the website: -Lucy

Lucy Duncan (LD):  Tell me about the day of Sombath’s disappearance… what happened?

Ng Shui Meng (NSM): He disappeared on 15 December 2012, a Saturday. We usually go out in one vehicle, but I had a meeting early in the morning. He regularly plays ping pong for exercise, so he took his beat-up Jeep to go play ping pong.  Then he came to meet up with me at 5:30 or 6:00 and we were going home for dinner. 

I was in front of him, he was behind me.  Traffic was quite light because it was Saturday evening.  He was in my rear view mirror until past the police post.  When I didn’t see him in the rear view mirror, I thought he maybe stopped to get gas.  He should have been home no later than 10-15 minutes after I arrived.  I called his phone—the message said that his phone was switched off. 

I waited for dinner time, he still didn’t show up. I thought maybe he met a friend.  We had dinner. I waited.  I decided, it’s not right.  I called up his family and friends, asked them to call various people.  We went out looking for him. 

I thought he could have gotten into an accident.  I visited hospitals, checked whether he had an accident. I described him, his head of white hair.  The hospital said, “No,” they hadn’t seen anyone like that.

The next day we reported the case to the district police.  The police took down the case, but it was a Sunday, no one works on a Sunday. They said, “Oh, don’t worry, take a report to the municipality and say that he is missing.”  We became a little bit nervous. 

When we were looking for him, we noticed there was a CCTV on the main streets including the place where I last saw him.  On Monday we made a police report, we went to the video room, manned by some low level police.  I reported a missing person and asked them to show us the CCTV footages along this road. I said, maybe he got into an accident. 

What I saw on the CCTV was that his Jeep was stopped at the police post.  He got out eventually and walked to the police post. A motorcyclist approached and got off his bike, and drove the jeep away.  Then a white truck approached, someone got in [with Sombath] and it took off as people were closing the doors.  Then someone came and took the motorcycle away. It’s all in the footage.

When I got the footage, I called up the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and said I have footage to show you. They said, bring them over.Sombath Somphone in 2005, when he received the prestigious Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership

At that point when I got the footage, I was optimistic. I thought they must let him out, no way they can deny this happened.  They can release him.  At that point I was optimistic he would be released.

Soon after we talked to the officials, we received complete denial.  We asked the Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Assembly, and the Prime Minister’s office, to let Sombath come home.  We received no response. 

One week later, the police issued the first statement: They acknowledged that he was stopped because police were checking vehicle documents. They said he could have been kidnapped for personal reasons or business reasons. 

To this day, they have maintained that story.  I have contacted my own embassy to please use their good offices to seek for Sombath’s return.  The [Lao government] response is always, “We don’t know what happened, we don’t know what happened.” 

When disappearances happen, very few people know about it, the media does not cover any of it.  Families are too afraid to talk about it.  We don’t know how many people.  Most of the time no one has any evidence, but [in Sombath’s case] we have tapes and still the government denies it happened.

LD:   What were the circumstances surrounding his abduction?

NSM: In 2012 he was involved in the organization of the Asia Europe People’s Forum, a civil society forum which brings together heads of states from Asia and Europe.

He was asked by the international NGOs and by a few non-profit associations (NPAs) to co-chair the national organizing committee; the other co-chair was appointed by government.  He was going to do this as one of his last contributions to civil society work.

The meeting occurred on October 9-12, 2012.  It had taken a year of consultation, meetings, organizing committees. The government expected 300-400 participants, but when the count up for participants was made, 800 people came, the largest one ever held.  

Sombath Somphone with Dr Ng Shui MengIt was a good opportunity to provide a forum for Lao civil society to learn about development issues and to come forth with their own ideas.  With agreement from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, he brought together people from local governments and different segments of society to come and participate.

The meetings were organized to bring forth the perspectives of people, discover what’s happening in their locality, what are the development challenges. The common issues were livelihoods, access to resources, issues of corruption, access to basic needs like education, sanitation, water.  In Laos for the first time the voices of people were summarized, and their aspirations were incorporated into the vision statement from the forum itself.  Sombath’s Co-Chair agreed on the issues to be discussed, on the topics, the keynote speakers; all of that was approved. 

Sombath knew that there was some risk involved—the Lao government was ambivalent to civil society meetings.  From the government’s perspective Laos should be more engaged regionally, globally and not so isolated. At the same time there is a feeling of insecurity about national security from the police and security forces.  We found a lot of security people taking notes at every panel during the forum.  Villagers came out and expressed ideas and were harassed on the spot.  When they returned to villages, they were arrested, roughed up, and released. 

The security apparatus of the state was uncomfortable with the opening up of the state, and uncomfortable with civil society opening up in Laos.  The government was shaken by the fact that so many people came for the forum and that open questions were raised.

They looked for a scapegoat. Fear was palpable, even up to today.  No one will be critical of what the government does. After news that he had disappeared, a number of civil society leaders left the country. As a leader of community development, it sends a clear message to the rest of civil society.

LD: Tell me about Sombath Somphone’s work in Laos, particularly around agricultural development.

NSM: He founded an organization called “Padaek” (or PADETC, the Participatory Development Training Center). “Padaek” is the Lao word for fish paste, which is used in a lot of Lao cooking.  He chose that name because his organization is all Lao, and his intention was to flavor the food, the community, in a very indigenous way.  Sombath’s whole orientation was that development should be very much with the participation of the people.  Even though people are poor, they are part of the social fabric and have so much to contribute to the development of their country. 

He believed you should trust the poor, trust those who aren’t very educated— they will flavor your life.  In his approach to whatever he does, key to it is people’s participation. He brings together people who may not agree with him, if you have more divergent ideas and hear them all, it will add up, help to see an issue from different perspectives. His organization was one of the first recognized not-for-profit organizations in the country.

LD: Tell me about Sombath Somphone’s relationship to Quakers.  How did he form a connection and what has that connection meant to him? How has it influenced his work?

NSM: When he was a student at the University of Hawaii, we befriended Quakers Stewart and Charlotte Meacham.  They were a major influence on our lives.  Sombath was influenced by the Quaker values of nonviolence, social justice, and pacifism as a form of activism.  We spent an enormous amount of time with Stuart and Charlotte right after the Vietnam War.

He was the son of a poor farming family, with no political position. He needed to go back to support his family and try to use the skills he [learned] at the university; he felt he could use whatever he learned to support post-war reconstruction of Laos.  He turned down the green card offered him from the US. Because of that, he lost his USAID scholarship.  He was under investigation by the FBI, who thought he must be a communist. AFSC friends made sure his name was removed from the FBI watch list.   

His first project was with the support of AFSC.  I joined him in the early 80s in Vientiane; I was also a consultant with AFSC on some programs.  In Laos there were only two foreign agencies, AFSC and the Mennonites.  After the US lost the war, all the international agencies left, but AFSC and the Mennonites stayed.  

LD:  How can Quakers and other US citizens be supportive of your efforts to find Sombath?

NSM: I am asking for support for all concerned organizations to ask about Sombath. Despite no response, if no one asks, he will be disappeared permanently.  I know that people are talking about it.  It continues to be an issue being raised in government circles. 

Continue sending questions to the embassy, and raise the issue and say the family needs to know.  People are sometimes returned after many years. It’s important to keep asking for him to be released.  There are many ways for people to support his return listed on our website. We ask Quakers to do all they can to keep asking.

Take action to support Sombath Somphone here.