BANGKOK — The government of Laos on Thursday disavowed responsibility for the disappearance of a respected social activist and suggested he had been kidnapped over a personal dispute. The statement did little to allay fears he is being held by government security forces.
Sombath Somphone, 60, is believed to be in state custody after police CCTV footage showed him being detained by police, his car driven away and then him being driven away separately in the company of two unidentified men. He has not been seen or heard from since the incident Saturday.
Sombath's Singaporean wife, Ng Shui Meng, in an appeal Wednesday to the Lao government, described the video footage that showed her husband's encounter at a police post in the Lao capital, Vientiane. What purports to be a copy of the video has now been posted on YouTube.
The statement of the Lao Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman, dated Wednesday and posted on the website of the state news agency KPL, acknowledged receiving appeals from Sombath's wife and a copy of the video.
It related many of the same details described by Sombath's wife. It said the men in the video could not be identified and there was no sign of them being forced to get into the vehicle.
"Following the preliminary assessment of the incidence from the CCTV footage, the authorities concerned viewed that it may be possible Mr. Sombath has been kidnapped perhaps because of a personal conflict or a conflict in business," the statement said.
It added that "authorities concerned are currently and seriously investigating."
Friends and colleagues of Sombath insist he has no known enemies.
Laos has an authoritarian government with little tolerance for dissent, but friends and associates said Sombath's work was neither directly political nor confrontational.
A close co-worker said he believed Sombath had been detained in connection with his participation in a regional meeting in Vientiane in October of civil society and non-governmental organizations.
The co-worker, who asked not be identified out of concern for his safety, said the government had misguidedly seen Sombath's participation as a political act.
As the senior NGO figure in Laos, Sombath had a high profile at the Asian-Europe People's Forum, which is held on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe Meeting of ministerial-level leaders from both continents. The people's forum highlighted the concerns of NGOs, whose priorities – such as safeguarding the environment and ensuring fair use of land for small farmers – are often at odds with those of the government, which emphasizes rapid economic growth.
The contradiction is found as well in neighboring countries, especially those also undergoing a transition from socialist economies: Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. Mega-projects fuelling economic growth, such as dams, also bring opportunities for official corruption.
Harassing Sombath would send a message to the NGO community not to challenge the government. In a similar fashion, Laos earlier this month expelled the head representative of the Swiss NGO Helvetas for criticizing the government.
Sombath, 60, received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, one of Asia's top civil honors, in 2005. He was director until five months ago of the Participatory Development Training Centre, which he founded in 1996 to promote education and leadership skills. He is also involved in a small enterprise selling village handicrafts.
The latest U.S. State Department human rights report, for 2011, described Laos as an authoritarian state under one-party communist rule, and said that arbitrary arrests and detentions persisted in Laos despite laws prohibiting them. It also said "prison conditions were harsh and at times life-threatening, and corruption in the police and judiciary persisted."
The United States has voiced concern about Sombath's disappearance.
The statement from the Lao government spokesman failed to satisfy those worried about Sombath's safety.
"The Lao government needs to immediately reveal Sombath's location and release him," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in statement issued Thursday.
"The Lao authorities should realize that the risk to their international reputation grows by leaps and bounds every day Sombath's whereabouts remain unknown," Adams said.
Associated Press reporters Elisa Mala and Vee Intarakratug in Bangkok, and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report