This is a written version of comments I made at the International Conference on Lao Studies on April 19th. The views are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the conference organizers or the institutions that sponsored the conference. The full citation Sombath received at the time of his Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2005, which I quote in part, can be found at http://sombath.org/work/.
It has now been 125 days, more than four months, since Sombath Somphone disappeared from the streets of Vientiane, almost certainly abducted by elements within the Lao government. This is a great tragedy, not only for Sombath, his family, friends and colleagues but also for the Lao people and the country as a whole.
Given his unique background and accomplishments, Sombath was already, even before this incident, well on the path to being recognized as an important modern historical figure in Laos. As such, his case is very worthy of consideration at an academic conference such as this. There is also a local connection. Sombath lived in Glenbeulah, Wisconsin–a small town between Fond du Lac and Sheboygan only about 75 miles from here–as a high school exchange student back in the early 1970s. He has returned to Wisconsin several times, most recently less than a year ago, in the summer of 2012, for visits with the family with whom he lived and the friends he made here.
Who is Sombath? I would first like to quote in part from the Citation presented to Sombath when he was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005:
The small landlocked nation of Laos is one of the world’s poorest. Not so long ago, wars and revolution drained away many of its educated people. Even now, thirty years after the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975, infrastructure, industry, and public services remain rudimentary. More than half of the country’s population is under twenty. For these three million young people there are few opportunities. Social problems are on the rise and many look for better lives abroad. Yet these young people are the country’s best hope, says Sombath Somphone. As executive director of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Vientiane, he is preparing them to build a better future for Laos.
Sombath Somphone’s early life took place amidst uncertainty and turbulence as Laos was swept into the Indochina War. He eventually escaped this by winning a scholarship to the University of Hawaii, where he earned degrees in education and agriculture. By 1980, he was home again. That same year Sombath helped launch the Rice-Based Integrated Farm System Project, to help Laotian farmers achieve food security. The ensuing years exposed him intimately to the world of rural Laos and to the complex obstacles awaiting development workers in its remote scattered villages.
Drawing on these lessons, Sombath founded PADETC in 1996 to foster sustainable, equitable, and self-reliant development in Laos…. Although Sombath heads a full-time staff of forty-three, much of this work is carried out by teams of young volunteers and trainees who exemplify his commitment to participatory learning. In any given week, these volunteers-cum-trainees reach as many as nine thousand people. As they do so, Sombath makes certain that they are also learning to think, plan, act, and lead…
… Sombath presides unobtrusively yet restlessly over PADETC’s many projects. His hopes rest with the young. He urges them to remain mindful of their country’s traditional values even as global forces grow stronger. Development is good, he assures them, but for development to be healthy, it “must come from within.”
I met Sombath in 1990 when I came to work in Laos with the American Friends Service Committee–the Quakers. At that time Sombath’s RIFS project was operating under the umbrella of AFSC. Over time he became a close friend and colleague and, eventually, a a neighbor, his home is just a few doors down from the one I would stay in along the banks of the Mekong River in Vientiane in the late 1990s.
Much that could be said about what has made Sombath such a key influential figure. Several points stand out:
1.Sombath was in the US studying on a scholarship at the University of Hawaii at the time of the change of government in 1975. He could have taken the easy path and stayed in the US. But, inspired by a commitment to help in the development of his country, he instead chose to return home. Almost no other Lao students in the US at that time took this risky path. As he continued on in graduate school and began making research trips back to Laos, some Lao refugees in the US labeled him a Communist. A number of Lao students in Hawaii even boycotted the ESL classes he was teaching. At the same time, he was also greeted with suspicion in Laos and assumed by some to by a CIA agent. But in reality, Sombath instead took a careful middle path, cultivating good relations with government officials at many levels and building relationships with people across a wide spectrum of Lao society.
2. These relationships, combined with increasingly widespread recognition of his approach to development work, left Sombath well-positioned when a new opportunity arose in 1996. While international NGOs were at the time expanding their work in Laos, the Lao government remained very resistant towards the idea of allowing local NGOs to register or operate. In 1996, however, the Ministry of Education first authorized the establishment of private schools. Sombath was able to strategically use this mechanism to register PADETC as a private non-profit training center. This was unprecedented and inspiring to many people in the country. For many years PADETC was the only registered local NGO in the country. Seventeen years later it is still the most prominent of such organizations in Laos.
3. Sombath’s approach to development has increasingly been rooted in a Buddhist rejection of modern materialism. He is a leading proponent in Laos of the idea that development must come from within, speaking in favor of ‘gross national happiness’ rather than a narrow definition of development as only involving gains in material wealth. He has been an articulate and prominent practitioner of this philosophy in Laos and has developed close ties with other leading proponents of Buddhist-based development throughout the region.
4. While at times frustrated with the difficulty in working with the Lao bureaucracy and the rigidity of some senior leaders in the country, Sombath has retained a strong faith in the potential of young people to shape a positive future for Laos. He has had a positive influence on countless numbers of young people. They are at the core of PADETC’s mission and are, in many ways, its strongest supporters.
In November of last year Laos hosted the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), a gathering of European and Asian government leaders. It was the first time for Laos to host such a large and prestigious international meeting. But it came with a catch–in order to qualify to host the official government gathering, Laos had to also agree to host a parallel civil society forum–the Asia Europe Peoples Forum (AEPF). This was a point of concern for a government that has done much to prohibit and restrict the growth of civil society. Sombath, now in his early 60s and having recently retired from PADETC, was asked to chair the APEF Lao organizing committee and to give the keynote address. Given his stature and respect, Sombath was a natural choice for this role. He told me earlier last year that he didn’t really want to be involved and thought it was going to be a big headache. But he felt obliged and so agreed to do it anyways.
The Lao leadership wanted a stage-managed civil society forum that would avoid any real criticism of government policy. However, it was unavoidable that the discussion would focus on land and natural resources, the central issue of concern facing rural and indigenous communities in the country. At the forum some villagers spoke up about the devastating impacts to their families, communities and the environment of the Lao government’s practice of confiscating lands and resources long used by local villagers and turning them over to foreign companies. The villagers’ willingness to speak out provoked a swift reaction. Threats were made directly at the conference, followed by visits by police to their families and villages. As co-chair of the forum, Sombath felt obligated to use his skills in quiet diplomacy to speak up for those villagers.
This is what I believe precipitated his disappearance. Huge amounts of money are being made by a very few people through questionable land deals and resource grabs in the country–all in the name of ‘development.’ Those benefiting do not want to see any criticism or questioning of these practices.
I believe this will end up being seen as a huge historical mistake on the part of those responsible for Sombath’s disappearance. In fact it has already led to a unprecedented amount of media attention and caused great harm to the Lao government’s reputation. Sombath is well known and respected among many thousands of Lao people–including, most importantly, the large numbers of young people who have participated in his programs. A government that alienates large numbers of educated and highly motivated young people committed to the future of the country does so at its own peril.
At this point we do not know of Sombath’s fate and remain hopeful for his safe return. His family, friends and colleagues remain active in the campaign to secure his release. We will be discussing Sombath’s life and this campaign further during a roundtable discussion later this afternoon. Sombath’s colleagues have also prepared a public statement of concern from attendees at this conference that I would encourage you all to sign. In part, that statement concerns issues of academic and intellectual freedom, something that should be of concern to all of us at this conference. The website www.sombath.org provides regular updates on the situation and has much more information about Sombath on it. Thank you.