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Laos pressured to find missing UH, East West Center alumnus

By Associated Press & Star-Advertiser staff

LAST UPDATED: 3:53 p.m. HST, Feb 26, 2013

BANGKOK >> An international human rights group is urging Southeast Asian nations to pressure Laos to provide information about a prominent East-West Center and University of Hawaii alumnus who has not been seen since he was apparently detained more than two months ago by state security forces.

Human Rights Watch said that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should intervene with Lao authorities, who deny knowledge of Sombath Somphone's fate even though he was last seen in police custody.

Sombath graduated from the University of Hawaii through an East West Center program with degrees in education and agriculture before returning to Laos in 1980. He won one of Asia's top civil awards, the Magsaysay Award, sometimes called Asia’s Nobel Prize, in 2005 for his work reducing poverty and promoting education at a training center he founded.

The East West Center featured him as one of its top 50 graduates in a book last year that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Honolulu educational institute.

Sombath disappeared on Dec. 15 after he was stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane. A few days later, the Lao Foreign Ministry said he may have "been kidnapped perhaps because of a personal conflict or a conflict in business." It said "authorities concerned are currently and seriously investigating." Accounts from Sombath's wife and supporters, however, suggest that any investigation has been slipshod at best.

Sombath's wife, Singaporean native Ng Shui Meng, has been campaigning for her husband's freedom in Laos and on the Internet.

"The Lao government's long silence about Sombath Somphone's whereabouts increase our concerns for his safety," Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last week. "The authorities seem more focused on deflecting international criticism than genuinely investigating Sombath's disappearance."

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said it sent a letter to the human rights commission of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, pointing out that it has the right to obtain information from member states on human rights protection.

The latest U.S. State Department human rights report, for 2011, described Laos as an authoritarian state under one-party Communist rule, and that arbitrary arrests and detentions persist despite laws prohibiting them.

The case has put a rare spotlight on politics in the landlocked nation, which remains one of the most politically repressive nations in Asia, even as it is making a transition from Communism to a more open market economy.

Laos' government is intolerant of dissent, but associates say Sombath's work was neither directly political nor confrontational. 

In January, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Sombath worked tirelessly to promote sustainable development. She called on the government to do everything in its power to bring about his "immediate and safe return home."

The U.N. human rights office and the European Union have also voiced deep concern.

Similar cases of disappearances and killings in Laos have gone largely unsolved.

"Sombath's disappearance is a major test for ASEAN and its human rights commission," Adams said. "ASEAN's silence in Sombath's case reflects a deeply rooted lack of credibility in protecting the basic rights of people in Southeast Asia."

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