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Asia Today ISSN 1861-4604 Tuesday, January 23, 2018

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The World Today: Sombath Somphone of Laos

Local environmental activists shocked

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Sombath Somphone was snatched on a busy street in Laos' capital Vientiane last December, while police officers looked on. The 60-year-old was stopped by police in his 4x4, but two people in plain clothes bundled him into another vehicle and he has not been seen or heard of since. The police and other government authorities state they had no part in his abduction and do not know where he is.

The nature of Sombath's disappearance has shocked local environmental activists and non-governmental organisations. He is a highly respected community worker and green campaigner, and worked for more than 30 years on grassroots community activity including consulting for Unicef, where his wife also worked.

He founded the Participatory Development Training Centre, which educates rural Laotians in everything from fish farming to rice milling and microcredit to recycling household waste. In 2005, he won the Ramon Magsaysay award for social activists, often called the Asian Nobel prize. Colleagues in the NGO community fear that his abduction represents the beginning of a state crackdown on dissenting voices.

His wife, Shui-meng Ng said: "I believe that he is still alive but I do not know in what condition. He is in need of daily medication for prostate cancer. He has not received his medication since his disappearance."

She remembers the day of his disappearance. "We normally go out in the same car, but that Saturday I had to go first. I took the car, and Sombath took the jeep." They met later to go home for dinner. "I drove my car in front, and he drove behind me." So far, so normal.

They became separated when Sombath was stopped at a police checkpoint.

"After that, I did not see his car. I thought nothing about it. I went home. When he did not return, I called his phone, but it was switched off. I thought it had run out of battery. By around midnight, I started to worry. We went out looking for him. We went to the hospitals. Next morning, we reported to the police."

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