In October, the capital city of Vientiane, Laos played host to the 9th Asia-Europe People’s Forum, a biannual gathering of grassroots campaigners, NGO workers and other members of what’s known in development circles as “civil society”.
Xu Nan, the deputy editor of chinadialogue’s Beijing office, and I were among 1,000 attendees circulating between sessions in the Lao National Cultural Hall, a titanic conference centre with a gilded exterior gifted by China in the late 1990s. Since the conference’s conclusion on October 19, some exceptionally troubling developments have emerged.
Across the workshops, attendees noticed a strange phenomenon: the presence of a dour-faced cadre of government employees in the back of every room, studiously noting speakers’ names and comments and at times videotaping the proceedings. In some sessions, men who happened to be dressed very much like those bureaucrats – an unofficial uniform of khaki trousers and button-down shirt – used the discussion period to offer lengthy tributes to various policies of the Lao government.
The interference seemed nearly comical in its ham-handedness, particularly the occasions in which these khaki-clad speakers identified themselves as “fishermen” or “villagers”. But there is nothing at all funny at what has since occurred.
According to a recent article by Fred Pearce in Yale’s environmental magazine, Lao government officials reportedly harassed citizens who spoke out on land rights and resource use, even going to their home villages to further intimidate them. Two of the forum’s organisers – Sombath Somphone, a well-known Lao activist who focuses on farmers and resource use, and Anne-Sophie Gindroz, the Laos director of the Swiss agriculture NGO Helvetas – complained to the government about their intrusion on the forum and the subsequent harassment of participants.
Pearce describes what happened next:
The angry reaction of the events’ organizers evidently embarrassed the government at a time when the world was watching. The official response was to escalate the dispute. On Dec. 7, Gindroz herself was accused of conducting an “anti-government campaign” and given 48 hours to leave the country. Then eight days later, Sombath disappeared.
On December 15, during what at first seemed a routine traffic stop, Sombath Somphone stepped out of his vehicle on the outskirts of Vientiane. As he spoke to police, a man on a motorbike pulled up, got behind the wheel of his jeep, and drove it away. Shortly after, two men hustled the 60-year-old community leader into a waiting truck and drove away. The kidnapping was filmed on CCTV. The police did nothing. Sombath Somphone has not been seen or heard from since.
State authorities say the kidnapping had nothing to do with them, and they know nothing about Sombath’s fate. But people who have seen the CCTV footage say it is hard to understand why the police did not intervene unless they were under orders not to. They believe the authorities must have been involved. And they believe the reason for sudden official antipathy to the gentle Buddhist community leader lies in a high-profile meeting (AEPF9) that he co-chaired two months earlier. . . .
Since then, other activists have fled Laos, fearing for their safety. Farmers and villagers who participated in the forum “are being investigated still to this day,” Gindroz says. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department, fellow recipients of the Magsaysay award [a prize for social activists that Somphone received in 2005], and many others have pleaded with the Lao government to hunt for Sombath.
Pearce mentioned the Laos case in the context of a broader discussion about the intensifying risks environmentalists face. As the global supply of land and natural resources dwindle and competition for the remainder becomes fiercer, protecting nature and the communities who live there is an increasingly dangerous job – even a deadly one.
As Global Witness reported in June, environmentalists around the world have been killed at a rate of one per week over the last decade in connection with their work. Activists from Brazil to India to Cambodia have been assassinated in cold blood for daring to speak out on behalf of local communities whose lives are threatened by the depletion of natural resources.
More than three months have passed without word of Sombath Somphone’s fate. His case is a painful reminder that peaking publicly about environmental issues and resource use remains, in many parts of the world, an extremely high-stakes gamble. As Gindroz told Pearce:
If Sombath is still alive, then she believes international pressure is vital to ensuring his release. Right now, she says, “I have no clue on his whereabouts and whether he is safe or not. I only have grave concerns, and strong hopes."