Sombath Somphone was an internationally renowned development worker who disappeared nearly six years ago on the streets of Vientiane, Laos. CCTV footage suggests that the police snatched him. The case is still unsolved and the Lao police and government have continued to maintain their innocence in the matter.
The 2017 documentary film The Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone, directed by Rann Penn, will be screened at this year’s FreedomFilmFest, taking place in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia.
In the run up to the festival, which takes place between 29 September and 6 October, Southeast Asia Globe speaks with Shui Meng Ng, Sombath’s wife, to find out more about the man, the film and her quest for truth.
Can you tell us about Sombath’s life and the work that he did?
Sombath was born in 1952, the eldest son of a poor farmer in Thakhek. Sombath’s life as a farm boy was not easy. As the eldest in the family, he had to take on many of the family’s responsibilities. Living so close to nature and [being] so dependent on nature also helped Sombath learn very early that their lives depended a lot on the natural environment, to provide them with much of their food and their daily necessities. This understanding of the value of the natural environment would later shape much of his ideas on the need to promote sustainable development and environmental protection, especially for the many rural communities in Laos that continue to rely so much on the natural environment for their food security, material well-being and livelihoods.
Sombath also grew up at the time when Laos was in the midst of a civil war, a war between the American-allied government forces and the pro-Vietnam communist-revolutionary forces. His experience of the insecurity and the impact of war on the lives of ordinary and powerless people would also teach Sombath in his adult life to abhor conflict and always to pursue peaceful means to resolve differences.
Sombath is a trained educationist and agronomist. So he used his knowledge and skills in agronomy to work with poor rural farmers to improve their agriculture production and livelihoods. As an educator, he particularly stressed the importance of education for young people – especially focusing on getting the young to think critically and find solutions for their own problems in the family and community. He always said the current practice of learning just to get a certificate or a degree is the wrong kind of education. Education should focus on [the] holistic education of the “Head”, “Heart” and “Hands”.
What was he like as a person?
Sombath is a kind and caring person – he is a good son, a responsible eldest brother, and a loving husband. He was very much aware that he was fortunate to have had the opportunity to receive a scholarship to study in the US, a very rare opportunity among poor rural kids in Laos. For this reason, he always believed that it was up to him to use the knowledge and skills he had gained to give back to society and to help the other rural Laotian people who did not have the same opportunity as he.
Sombath was also very much influenced by Buddhism. Like most Laotians, Sombath was brought up as a Buddhist, but for Sombath, Buddhism was not just about going to temples and making offerings to gain merit. For Sombath, the practice of Buddhism is to adhere to the core Buddhist values of respect for all living things (human, animal, and nature), compassion, and loving kindness. He believed these values were the basis for achieving real spiritual peace, contentment and happiness.
Throughout his adult life he has tried to use these core Buddhist values in all aspects of his life and work, and in the way he dealt with other people.
In the days leading up to his disappearance, was Sombath threatened or warned?
As far as I know, Sombath had not received any threat or any warning that he could be enforcedly disappeared. As a community development leader and educator, Sombath was much respected among civil society actors in Laos. Sombath was also well known among the International Non-Governmental Organisation representatives and development partners in Laos and he was regularly sought out by the development community to give advice on the development situation in Laos and to comment on appropriate development strategies and approaches.
How involved were you in the process of creating the documentary? And what was it like for you, personally, to see it as a finished product?
I was involved throughout the process of creating the documentary and provided much of the information needed in the making of the documentary, including the life and work of Sombath; the details of his enforced disappearance, and the actions I have taken to get truth and justice for Sombath.
It has not been an easy journey for me for I needed to be reminded of the fact that Sombath has been disappeared, and to go through all the details again and again of what happened to him leading up to the time of his disappearance. It is like having to tear open a scab each time. But I needed to do this, as I need people of the world not to forget about the case.
What are your hopes for this documentary? Do you believe that it may lead to some answers?
I hope that this documentary will let people who do not know Sombath and what happened to him [find out] about his life, his work and his hopes and vision for better lives for his countrymen. I also want the world to know that “Enforced Disappearance” is one of the most heinous violations of human rights, and that it can happen to anybody. I want to dedicate this documentary to the many victims of “enforced disappearance”, especially to the families of those whose loved ones have been so unjustly taken away from them, leaving them with the unending suffering of uncertainty as to what happened to their loved ones.
I also hope that the documentary will raise awareness that such crimes against humanity continue to take place all around us, especially in Asia which has the highest number of people disappeared, either for their work, for their struggle for social justice, or for their religious beliefs.
I do not know when or whether I will ever get answers as to what happened to Sombath. But as Sombath’s wife, I still hang on to the hope that whoever [has] information of what happened to Sombath [will] see the documentary and be moved by it to come forward and to give me the information needed to find him.
The Freedom Film Network (FFN) is a not-for-profit body established to support and develop social documentary filmmaking within the context of freedom of expression and values contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Malaysia.
The FreedomFilmFest (FFF) was conceptualised and established in 2003 by Pusat KOMAS, a human rights organisation, as a creative platform to promote human rights and social filmmaking. In 2017, the organising of the festival was passed on to the FFN.
‘The Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone’ will be screened on the 29 September, 2018