On October 26, 1999, Lao student activists Thongpaseuth Keuakoun, Seng-Aloun Phengphanh and Bouavanh Chanhmanivong were arrested for peacefully protesting. Now, although they are presumed to be detained in Vientiane, their exact whereabouts are unknown and they are yet to be found, even though Chanhmanivong and Phengphanh were set to be released in 2012. These activists who were part of the Lao Students Movement for Democracy (LSMD), a group that called for democracy, social justice, and human rights reforms, and were detained along with Mr. Khamphouvieng Sisa-at, and Mr. Keochay of the LSMD who were arrested for “generating social turmoil and endangering national security” and charged with treason. However, the men were peacefully protesting with posters that advocated for social, economic, and political reform in Laos. Unfortunately, Sisa-at died in prison, due to heat exhaustion, food deprivation, and lack of medical care. Keochay was released in 2002 due to completion of his given sentence, but his family was never informed about his release.
Even after citing Article 2 of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance (ICPPED), which describes the LSMD activists’ kidnapping as an enforced disappearance, the Laotian government has not acknowledged the LSMD activists’ deprivation to liberty, and also refuses to ratify the ICPPED, which was signed 2008. Amnesty International urged leaders at the Asia-Europe Meeting Summit (ASEM 9) to push for the release of the LSMD student activists. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and the Lao Movement for Human Rights direct the Laotian government to “conduct swift, thorough, and impartial investigations into all cases of enforced disappearances in the country and hold those responsible accountable.” While there have clearly been efforts to condemn the LSMD members’ kidnapping, there has been little progress since 1999 for the Laotian government to comply.
The case of the LSMD activists is not a unique situation. Sombath Somphone, a 60-year old civil society leader and community development worker, disappeared in front of a Vientiane police post on December 15, 2012, and was last seen on camera footage, where unknown individuals forced Somphone into a vehicle and drove off, never to be seen again. Despite the difficulties of gaining the trust of the new Communist government, Somphone still worked persistently for community food security and the environment, as he pioneered sustainable farming methods to battle the difficulties that subsistence farming placed on Lao farmers. In particular, Somphone introduced a low-cost technology system through the usage of a fertilizer called “azola,” that improved rice production. Somphone also advocated for the usage of alley-cropping of rice, and the raising of fish in rice fields, as a means of agricultural efficiency. Altogether, Somphone’s expertise in sustainable agriculture and agronomy led Somphone to start his own non-profit organization called Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC), a training group for farmers that used Buddhist principles and promoted education, leadership and critical thinking skills.
Somphone’s efforts were so successful that he earned the UNESCAP Award for Poverty Reduction in 1974, along with other acclamations throughout his life. In particular, he was named the Co-chair of the National Organizing Committee (NOC) of the 9th Asia Europe People Forum (AEPF) in 2012. Notably, at the AEPF Somphone spoke at, a large volume of security personnel were in attendance, who disrupted the meeting when comments critical about Laos were made. Additionally, DVD copies of the event and Somphone’s consultation workshops he spearheaded were confiscated by the security personnel. While the Lao government claims to have no involvement in Somphone’s disappearance, the behavior of the AEPF security personnel seems to be evidence of suspicious activity and restrictions on free speech that was apparent at the event.
In response to the lack of investigation launched by the Lao government to uncover Somphone’s whereabouts, Shui Meng Ng, Somphone’s wife, created a documentary in 2018 about his disappearance, entitled “The Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone: A documentary.” The documentary contains excerpts of Somphone’s past interviews, where he shed light on important, yet overlooked topics in Laos, such as poverty of rural workers. In response to being questioned what poverty means to Somphone, he said, “the international definition of poverty is too limited. If less than two dollars per day, it is defined as poor. For me, poverty means poverty of the body, the heart, and wisdom. If our development can help people rid themselves of all three elements, and achieve a balance, we will have happiness which is lasting. A culture that is stable, and which development is sustainable,” clearly emphasizing some of Somphone and PADETC’s values of Buddhism, sustainability and peace (4:44-5:31). Throughout the documentary, scholars of South and Southeast Asian politics praise Somphone’s efforts as a civil society leader, and the detrimental effects of Communism on democracy for Lao people. In the YouTube description of the documentary, Shui Meng Ng states her intentions behind making the documentary, which were, “to tell the world what happened to Sombath, what kind of a person Sombath is…and how he used his skills and knowledge to improve the lives of poor rural families and communities.” Clearly, the issue of enforced disappearance was not foreign to Ng, as she also noted that she “dedicated [the documentary] to all the Disappeared and their families. Enforced Disappearance is a terrible crime and injustice, and one of the worst human rights violations against the rights and dignity of the victims. I want to give voice to all victims and end Enforced Disappearance in our society and community.” Similarly, human rights groups, like Amnesty International, expressed their disgust at the unfair treatment of the LSMD democracy activists. Amnesty International’s Researcher on Laos, Rupert Abbott, declared in 2012 that “it is shameful that these men arrested as students have been behind bars for 13 years for simply exercising their right to freedom of expression” and urged the international community to pressure the Lao government to free them immediately.
The disappearance of the LSMD student activists and Sombath Somphone highlight the horrific reality that voicing one’s opinion in Laos can amount to a death sentence. Unfortunately, human rights abuses regarding freedom of speech has been a prevalent issue among South and Southeast Asian countries for decades now. The Khmer Rouge used enforced disappearances and violence to carry out nationwide crusades on censorship. The Khmer Rouge were the group of those who belonged to the Communist Party in Cambodia under Pol Pot, and wielded power starting in the 1960s but formally reigned from 1975-1979. They sought to eliminate all artists and intellectuals by burning and getting rid of musical albums and records, and also executed many famous young artists due to their desire to strip Cambodians of power and stop Westernization and Modernization from permeating into Cambodian society. Notably, Sin Sisamouth and Ros Serey Sothea, singers who were loved by the Cambodian youth disappeared mysteriously, yet are presumed to have been executed by Communist officials.
More recently in Myanmar, a coup has been launched since February by the Myanmar military, who have also detailed Burmese civilian leader of the National League for Democracy Party, Aung San Suu Kyi, a patron for nonviolent resistance. As a result of this coup, the Burmese people have been suffering, and have little communication with those outside of Burma. The Myanmar military has been using lethal force against protestors, and have killed 18 individuals and injured 30. The coup is not the first time that the Burmese military has violated basic human rights in Laos. The Union Solidarity and Development Party, the Burmese military’s proxy party, has also been accused of voter fraud in the 2015 elections, as well as genocide of the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority in Burma. Wanchalearm Satsaksit, a prominent Thai democracy activist, also went missing in June 2020 while in Cambodia, being part of the right Thai exiled activists who have been subject to enforced disappearance since Thai’s 2014 coup, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
Clearly, freedom of speech and the rights of activists is highly limited in Southeast Asian countries. However, Southeast Asia is home to a myriad of social activist groups groups like Lao National Unity, The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and United League for Democracy in Laos. The message is clear: The Southeast Asian people, in countries like Laos, Thailand and Cambodia will continue to fight for their human rights, and the return of innocent activists. However, their governments simply won’t comply and protect dissidents. The deadly nature of speaking one’s voice in Southeast Asia needs to be an issue that is the forefront of every news source. Thus, the United Nation, NGOs, non-profit organizations, and influential countries like the United States, need to come together to stand with Southeast Asian countries, whose leaders are failing them everyday.