Dear Sombath…from Bridgette See

Dear Sombath,

This is a letter that has been written many times in my mind. It’s a hard letter to write – I would much prefer to say it to you in person. I cannot remember the first time we met, but I remember we bonded over too much coffee on the balcony of Shui Meng’ sea-facing abode in Dili. There, you shared your wisdom with me, telling me about PADETC and the work it had done. Your serene smile – that classic Sombath look of equanimity – captured the gentle but determined way you viewed life. As sea breeze brought salt to our lips, you sketched out your idea of happiness: the roof of happiness must stand upon the pillars of heart, econoFour Pillarsmy, culture, and environment while supported by the foundation of education. This drove you to devote decades of your life to your fellow Lao, despite the opportunities you had been offered. You are a man of the Earth. This, the Timorese could recognise whenever you visited us in Dili. I was a privileged disciple, whose ears and mind were, thankfully, open.

Later, the one month I spent in Laos – documenting PADETC’s work – was a chance to deeply understand your philosophy. Local knowledge, you exhorted, is what will help any community develop sustainably. I saw how your face lit up with pride when you introduced your young staff and youth volunteers. These are the ones whom you have envisioned would make Laos a better place.

But it wasn’t always work you talked about. On the old swing facing the Mekong River, as we watched your neighbour trawl for fish against the setting sun, you told me about the siblings you helped to bring up. You spoke of your days at the East West Centre – where I, too, had studied briefly. There, you had met your Shui Meng, and fallen in love. Whenever the two of you were together, I would be tickled by how you two – both grey in the head – would still tease one another incessantly. Shui Meng’s chidings were often infused with more love than she realised she was showing. When my son met the two of you at Labrador Park in Singapore, he called you “Uncle Zombat” and her, “Auntie Water”. We ended our excursion with ice-cream – dry ice swirled fancily about – and promised to meet again. That still stands. We pray that our Uncle Zombat comes home so that Auntie Water will no longer cry. We love you, Sombath.

Yours most sincerely,

Bridgette, Norman & Val

Chronology of Complacency

Question MarkIn the over 600 days since Sombath’s abduction, there have been virtually no results from the official investigation.

Almost immediately, authorities concluded they were not responsible.

Since that time, reports have consisted largely of irrelevant details, denials, and claims that efforts continue with the utmost seriousness and urgency.

A draft chronology of major events to date is available here. Updates will be added when they become available.

Concerned friends, colleagues and organisations from across the world continue to hope for more results, and less rhetoric.


Contravention of International Obligations

ICJ-Legal Memorandum on SBThe Government of Lao PDR has also publicly refused to accept the assistance of foreign experts to technically enhance the CCTV footage taken during the time Sombath Somphone “disappeared”, despite the fact that it had earlier admitted that it did not possess the technical capacity to enhance the footage so that the persons and vehicles shown there may be properly identified. This refusal by the Government of Lao PDR to cooperate with experts to look into evidence may be construed as an act impeding the investigation, in contravention of its obligations under the ICCPR, the CAT and the standards of the Convention and the Declaration.

International Commission of Jurists, in “Legal Memorandum on the case of Sombath Somphone.” A related press release can be seen here.

Dear Sombath…from Mary Aileen Bacalso

Dear Sombath,

AFAD ConferenceI heard about your enforced disappearance six days before the passing into law of the Philippine Anti-Enforced Disappearance Act of 2012, the first ever anti-enforced disappearance law in Asia. I have worked on the issue of enforced disappearance for a couple of decades. Each case means a life stolen from the disappeared and his or her family. It means that a part of society has been forcibly taken from it, thus tearing apart its very fabric and causing devastating consequences to the disappeared that you are, your loved ones and the society where you belong. When the most-awaited enactment of the then draft anti-disappearance law came after more than 16 years of struggle for it to see the light of day, I had the ambivalent feeling of joy that we finally have this law in the Philippines, but mixed with pain because the list of desaparecidos of the world was lengthened further by your enforced disappearance.

afad-logoA few weeks before the 2013 International Day of the Disappeared, I wrote to your wife, Shui Meng about our campaign for your return, which she readily responded with an open heart.   We demonstrated in front of the Department of Foreign Affairs of the country that bestowed upon you the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award. We conducted a signature campaign and personally gave the signatures to the Lao Embassy in Manila. We wrote statements demanding for your return.  We sent messages to the Permanent Missions of Laos to the UN in Geneva and New York.  We heard a deafening silence. Continue reading

Dear Sombath…from Shui Meng

My dearest Sombath,

Angkhana, Shuimeng & EditaI am writing you to let you know that I recently participated in the “Third International Conference on Psychosocial Support in the Search for Truth and Justice for Victims of Enforced Disappearance, Torture and Extrajudicial Execution” organized by AFAD in Manila.

I had at first hesitated about participating at this conference. Some of your friends and relatives advised me that I should not attend and not speak about your disappearance because they are worried that it might harm you more, or it would make it more difficult for you to be returned safely.

However, I decided to attend the conference anyway because I believe that I am not doing anything wrong. Also I want to meet other victims and family members from Asia and Latin American who have also suffered the disappearances of their loved ones.

Sombath, at the conference, when I spoke about my feelings of pain, helplessness and despair over the last 19 months since you disappeared, I learned that these are the same feelings other victims faced. Some have to bear the pain for many more years than I have. At the conference, I also met some very brave women, for example, Edith (Edita) Burgos of the Philippines and Angkana Neelapaijit of Thailand. Edith’s son, Jonas, was disappeared 7 years ago, and Angkana’s husband, Somchai, was forcedly taken 10 years ago.

Sombath, you have been disappeared 19 months, and I already could not bear it anymore. So I asked Edith and Angkana how do they cope; how do they go on? Both women advised me that I should never give in to despair. Edith told me to take pride and be comforted that the people who are disappeared are always those who are doing good for their community and for their country, just like you, Jonas, and Somchai. It’s the people who ordered and conducted the enforced disappearances who are the bad people and the criminals. The bad people are always afraid of the good people, and they use enforced disappearance as a tool to intimidate and keep people silent. Angkana also told me her husband’s disappearance made her even stronger to work for other women who suffered the same fate. She founded the “Justice for Peace Foundation” to continue her struggle to get to the truth of what happened to Somchai and to the husbands and sons of other poor women in Thailand. Lastly Edith also reminded me we must find peace from inside us, and believe that there is a higher justice that we should place our trust in, whether we call it the justice of “God”, “Allah” or “Karma”.

So Sombath, I am writing you to let you know that thanks to Edith, Angkana and all the participants I met at the AFAD Conference in Manila, I no longer feel so isolated or desperate anymore. I share a strong sense of solidarity with all of them, and I promise you that I will continue the struggle to seek your safe return.

Sombath, please be strong and stay safe.

Love, Shui Meng