Missing People

The vanishing

In recent decades, thousands of people across Southeast Asia have disappeared, often at the hands of governments or their agents, and those seeking the return of a loved one often find themselves in an information black hole

Caroline Vernaillen
March 19, 2013
The vanishing
Photo by Romeo Ranoco/Reuters. Long goodbye: children place flowers on photos of victims of enforced disappearance, who are presumed dead but have no tombs, in the Philippines

Laotian development worker Sombath Somphone was driving home from dinner behind his wife’s car on December 15, 2012, when he was pulled over for a seemingly random police check. A glimpse in the rear-view mirror was the last time Ng Shui Meng saw her husband. When Sombath did not come home that night she sounded the alarm. Relatives contacted police and hospitals in the area, but Sombath was nowhere to be found. CCTV footage, which surfaced two days later, showed him being taken out of a police hut, put into a van and driven off into the night.

While the government says it knows nothing of his whereabouts, rights groups fear Sombath – a prominent campaigner – was abducted by elements associated with the Communist authorities. With little information forthcoming, Sombath’s missing person status prompted other NGO workers, fearing for their own safety, to flee. The spotlight had been cast, once again, on Southeast Asia’s dark relationship with enforced disappearance.

Since its inception in 1980, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) has recorded seven cases of unacknowledged detention in Laos. Yet disappearances in Laos are “not uncommon”, according to Vanida Thepsouvanh, president of the Lao Movement for Human Rights.

“Other disappearances have gone unknown, ignored by the media and denied by the Lao authorities. The list is long,” Vanida said. “The families of these arrested or disappeared ones do not like us to talk about the victims because the authorities would, in one way or another, harass the families. It’s a vicious system.”

It is also a system that stifles criticism and discourages dissent. “You rarely find people from inside Laos with their real name on Facebook, or petitioning in favour of Sombath Somphone. Do you find this normal?” asks Vanida, who, like many Laotians, fled to France when the Communist Party came to power in 1975.

Early last month, Laos realised its 15-year bid to become a part of the World Trade Organisation and it will not allow civil society to hamper its efforts to raise the country’s global profile further, said Vanida. “Laos does not tolerate any form of opposition and imprisons its dissidents. You cannot appeal for justice in cases of land grabbing, environment protection or democratic reforms without being arrested.”

Often used as a tool to silence criticism, enforced disappearances usually take place in highly militarised countries, or in nations with a culture of impunity and intimidation. In states that turn a blind eye to human rights abuses, perpetrators can be confident they will not be punished, said Thai national Angkhana Neelapaijit, chair of the Justice for Peace Foundation (JPF).

The lack of transparency in such a situation has led to rampant abuse, and under this system, 33 people have disappeared, according to JPF.

“Thailand has no independent experts, [nor a] committee to monitor investigations into enforced disappearance cases,” said Angkhana. “We have no effective witness protection programme. Actually, all the investigations are under the [jurisdiction of the] police, so when the police is the perpetrator it seems impossible for the victims to find truth or justice.”

The UNWGEID requests that governments investigate cases that have been brought to their attention, but the efforts made are often minimal. Lack of evidence coupled with scant motivation to prosecute means that cases reaching a full resolution remain strikingly rare.

Fearful of retribution, many relatives are reluctant to report disappearances, making it difficult to accurately gauge the number of cases in Southeast Asia. In Thailand, the number of reported enforced disappearances over the past 20 years clocks in at 93, while in Indonesia this figure jumps to about 900 since 1965.

While they account for a significant share of those figures, political activists are not the only targets of abductions across the region.

“In Thailand, people with close [working] relationships with dishonest officials are more vulnerable,” said Angkhana, adding that those who know of or aid illegal business practices have been known to ‘disappear’.

The history of involuntary disappearances in Thailand can be traced to specific government policies, such as the crackdown on the ethnic separatist insurgency in the country’s southern states. In 2004, martial law was declared in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, all of which are Muslim-majority. The law allowed authorities to hold a suspect without a warrant for up to seven days and without disclosing the location of the detention site. The lack of transparency in such a situation has led to rampant abuse, and under this system, 33 people have disappeared, according to JPF.

In northeastern Thailand, it is the war on drugs that has claimed numerous victims of forced disappearance. In 2003, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra introduced a quota system on drug seizures and arrests in the region. Under this scheme, financial rewards were given per unit of intercepted drugs. Officials who did not meet the quota were punished. Within three months, more than 1,500 people who had no proven links to drugs had been killed, according to a government survey. Research released by the JPF in May 2012 shows that at least ten people have disappeared since Thaksin started Thailand’s ‘war on drugs’.

While the target groups of involuntary disappearance might differ from one country to another, the modus operandi is much less variable. The perpetrator is usually linked to the police or military and is backed by latent or explicit government endorsement.

According to data from local NGO Families of Victims of Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance (Find), nearly 2,000 people have fallen victim to enforced disappearance in the Philippines since 1971.

In an interview with Philippine radio station DzBB last December, senator and former police chief Panfilo Lacson explained what motivates members of the Philippine armed forces to resort to abduction.

“Things like that happen with overeager law enforcement units and personalities, sometimes out of frustration, when they know that the person is really involved… but they cannot get enough evidence that would stand in court. Sometimes they know the mess that these people create,” said Lacson, who has been accused of human rights violations.

Victims of abduction are often held at improvised locations, which makes it extremely difficult for families to determine the whereabouts of their relatives – but occasionally information slips out.

In the Philippines in 2006, military elements illegally detained and tortured Raymond and Reynaldo Manalo – whose brother Bestre joined the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, a few years earlier – for 18 months. When their captors were drunk one evening, the brothers escaped and helped to identify other prisoners, providing vital leads for their families. Investigating their claims proved to be difficult, however, as the military abandoned and demolished the camp a month after their escape. A burned human bone was found at the campsite.

The culture of unacknowledged detentions in the Philippines dates back to the regime of Ferdinand Marcos: a 20-year era marked by violence and rampant enforced disappearances, as the military and police routinely rounded up activists and suspected communist rebels.

“[Enforced disappearances] have since taken root in the military,” said Carlos Conde, a Philippines specialist for Human Rights Watch.

However, in December last year President Benigno S. Aquino took a historic step towards ending the scourge of unacknowledged detentions by signing a new law that criminalises enforced disappearances – the first law of its kind in Asia.

“It is the most tangible acknowledgement by the government – which has for so long denied these atrocities – that enforced disappearances exist and that these are being perpetrated by state agents,” said Conde.

For victims of forced disappearances and their families, such measures are welcome but also come far too late. Just how late, however, we will likely never know.

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