Abduction of Sombat Somphone has aid workers 'terrified'
The abduction in Laos of one of Asia's most respected activists has sent a wave of fear through the aid-worker community, forcing some to flee the country.
Laotian national Sombat Somphone is still missing more than two weeks after apparently being detained at a police check point in the capital, Vientiane.
Video footage obtained by Ng Shui Meng, Sombat's Singaporean wife, showed the abduction was a highly co-ordinated job. First traffic police stopped him, ostensibly to check his documents. Soon after, he was taken to a jeep with flashing lights and driven away.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs' only response has been to speculate that "business conflicts" could be behind the disappearance. Colleagues have rejected this argument, pointing out he had no business interests or personal enemies.
At least one analyst has linked the disappearance to Sombat's role in conducting a recent nationwide survey of attitudes towards governance.
Sombat, the quietly spoken founder of the non-profit Participatory Development Training Centre, was a pioneer of participatory development and supporting the enforcement of land rights for poor farmers. He was also featured in the BBC TV documentary about the environment and development in Laos.
He is a past winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, named after a former Philippine president, but is not considered a political dissident among his peers.
Sombat's disappearance follows the sudden expulsion of the country director of Swiss non-governmental organisation Helvetas, Anne-Sophie Gindroz, in early December. She was ordered to leave after being accused of "taking up a position of anti-governmental propaganda", Helvetas said.
Several Lao and foreign non-government organisation workers have left in fear during the past two weeks.
[The Sombat case] smacks of sending a very strong message to an increasingly restive nation," a foreign observer said. "Taking the highest profile man in Laos is the best way of subduing people. It worked. Now everyone is terrified."
Although Laos is still tightly controlled by the ruling communist party, last year will be remembered for this small poverty-stricken nation's entry into the WTO and its hosting of its first major summit, the Asia-Europe Meeting, in November, which was seen as a coming-out party for Laos.
"Laos has been opening itself up economically. This has created an illusion of Laos being more liberal," said Pavin Chachavalpongpun, as South East Asia specialist at Kyoto University.
"In reality, in terms of freedom of expression, there is no room for critics."
Sombat had a prominent role in conducting a nationwide survey of public sentiment, ahead of an NGO summit that ran in parallel to the Asia-Europe meeting.
The survey, conducted in all 16 provinces with the co-operation of the UN Development Programme, was considered ground-breaking in Laos and was endorsed by some ministries and party cadres.
It concluded the Lao people wanted good governance from their leaders, and more consultation about development projects.
"The people have spoken. We encourage the government to make a substantive response, so that this becomes a true national dialogue on common development concerns and interests as Laos moves forward," the survey said.
Dr Pavin suggested that Sombat's disappearance may be linked to his pivotal role in the survey.
"The only message to civil society is that freedom of expression is limited, and that self-censorship is a preferred method, when it comes to debating about any government's policies," he said.
"Instead of fixing the lack of accountability, the government has chosen to intimidate."