Hillary Clinton wants to know what happened to Sombath Somphone. She sent out a formal inquiry a few years ago, when she was Secretary of State. John Kerry wants to know. He made a formal request for information two years ago. And to this day, there is silence about Somphone’s health and whereabouts.
So, who is Sombath Somphone?
If you were in Laos, you would know him. Sombath Somphone is a local hero in Southeast Asia. He is a man, it is said, many people trust.
Concerned with the environment, Samphone promoted eco- friendly technologies in his country, which included fuel efficiency and recycling. He was concerned for the well-being of the rural poor, because he was born into a rural farming family. In his view “Gross National Happiness” was as important as the Gross National Product.
As a young man, Somphone won a scholarship to the University of Hawaii. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Education and a Masters Degree in Agriculture from the University, with the intention of retuning to Laos to help his people.
And he did. In 2001, Somphone received the Human Resource Development Award for empowering the rural poor in Laos from the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.
In 2005, Somphone received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership. If anyone could explain the world to the Laotian people, it was Somphone. If any one could work out a compromise between industrialists and environmentalists, it might be Somphone.
Somphone’s wife says that he has never been antagonistic or confrontational, and that every project and activity he carried out was with the approval of the relevant government sector and in cooperation with government officials.
In 2012, he was named “one of the most respected and influential voices for sustainable people-centered and just economic and social development in Laos.”
On the evening of December 12, 2012, in the City of Vientiane, Laos, Sombath Somphone was stopped in his jeep by the police and taken away in a pick-up truck.
The entire confrontation was videoed by closed circuit security television cameras. The video shows the police stopping him –and the police putting him in a truck and taking him away. No one has seen or heard from him since.
But why? Could there be something happening in Laos that Samphone might interfere with?
Well, perhaps. The great Mekong River flows through Laos, as is has for eons, creating a diverse ecosystem around the river.
The Mekong is nearly 3,000 miles long and, according to the World Wildlife Association, it provides 25% of the world’s fresh water catch. It provides a livelihood for over 560 million people, mostly poor people. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world. But the old lifestyle, bound in tradition, is one that certain people believe needs economic development. Translation: non-agrarian industry.
Plans are afoot to build a series of dams on the Mekong River in Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand for the purpose of generating electricity. Local people are fearful that their way of life may be coming to an end. New factories may arise on farmland.
The Lao People’s Democratic Republic Central Government has been rebuked by regional governments for ignoring their regional concerns. In the face of local opposition, the government plans to dam the major waterway within the mainstream of the river and build a 260 MW hydroelectric power station. As a result, real estate prices are rising, anticipating the availability of power for industry.
In Laos, however, it is not wise to criticize the ruling Marxist Communist Government. Some people are guessing that the disappearance of Sombath Somphone is an example of what can happen to those, who are critical of government actions.
Last fall, Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong approved legislation, which would ban the spreading of “false” information aimed at discrediting the central government. The governments of Vietnam and Thailand are also taking action against those who would criticize them.
I discovered the story of Sombath Samphone while I was producing a short video to promote our audiobook “Camps and Trails in Old China,” by Roy Chapman
Andrews and Yvette Burrup Andrews. Almost a hundred years ago, the Andrews Caravan travelled along the shore of the Mekong River.
The Yen Ping revolution began in China during those years, and Roy and Yvette Andrews found themselves in the middle of an attack by Brigands as they were considering a search for the elusive Blue tiger. In those days, each area was under the
control of a local mandarin – a public official. The mandarin also had ties to local soldiers, just in case he had to use force to win an argument. (Free sample link: https://listen2read.com/camps-trails-old-china/)
The days of that revolution are long over and there have been some wars in between, including America’s tragic Vietnam War. Today, the Laos government is firm in its central power, governed by a single political party, dominated by military Generals.
Last December, on the second anniversary of Sombath Samphone’s disappearance, a group of concerned human rights groups wrote the Laotian government to determine what happened to him.
John Kerry, the United States Secretary of State, wrote: “We join with countless organizations, governments, journalists and concerned citizens around the world demanding answers to Mr. Sombath Samphone’s disappearance and urging his immediate return home.”
So far, there is no answer from the Laotion Government and its generals….or perhaps, no answer is an answer.