WASHINGTON – The United States called Wednesday for Laos to immediately resolve the case of prominent activist whose abduction three years ago sent a “chilling message” to civil society.
The State Department statement came as the top U.S. envoy for East Asia prepares to travel to communist-governed Laos, which next year will chair the Southeast Asian regional bloc, a key diplomatic partner for Washington.
The activist, Sombath Somphone, was abducted from a police checkpoint in the capital Vientiane on Dec. 15, 2012. Closed circuit television showed him being escorted by two men to a pickup truck and driven away.
Department spokesman John Kirby said the U.S. is troubled that no progress has been made in locating Somphone and called on the Laotian government to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation.
“The United States remains deeply concerned over his fate and the chilling message his abduction sends to members of civil society and the people of Laos more broadly,” Kirby said.
Laos has denied its security apparatus was behind the disappearance and says an investigation continues, but has provided little information about it despite repeated appeals from the U.S. and other Western nations.
Sombath championed young people’s participation in development and in 2005 won the Magsaysay Award, Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize. He was not considered overtly political but his advocacy for civil society may have been considered a threat by the authoritarian regime that has ruled since 1975.
Also Wednesday, Democratic Rep. Alan Lowenthal criticized suppression of labor rights, persecution of ethnic minorities like the Hmong and detention of political prisoners in Laos.
“As Laos prepares to chair the ASEAN next year and the U.S. and Laos seek greater ties, we must make sure that human rights are a priority for the United States in developing this relationship,” he said, referring to the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He was speaking at a human rights seminar on Capitol Hill.
President Barack Obama is expected to visit Laos next fall when it hosts a summit of East Asian leaders. Obama would be the first U.S. president to visit the country, which was heavily bombed by the U.S. during the Vietnam War.
Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel will meet with government and party officials in Vientiane this week.
T. Kumar, international advocacy director for Amnesty International USA, said that an annual gathering of international and regional nongovernment organizations usually held in the country that chairs ASEAN will be held elsewhere to protest Somphone’s disappearance.