Laotian enigmas

The video has no sound, just several minutes of footage shot on a busy street in the sallow sulfur glow of Vientiane streetlights. Two blurry figures approach the passenger's side of a jeep stopped at the curb. A man gets out of the driver's side, walks around the jeep and onto the darkened sidewalk. Another man dressed in black arrives by motorbike, ducks into the shadows, then gets inside the jeep and drives away. Three minutes later a pickup truck stops, people get in, and the vehicle leaves. 

According to friends and relatives, the jeep in this video belongs to prominent Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who hasn't been seen since the incident, around 6 p.m. on December 15. The CCTV police footage has since been viewed around the world -- but it confirms almost nothing. Its most telling characteristic is its murk. 

Sombath is the well-known founder of the Participatory Development Training Centre, a Lao NGO that works for sustainable development, education, and farmers' rights. After he didn't return home, his wife contacted the Lao government. On December 19, the government-run KPL Lao News Agency made the opaque statement that traffic police had stopped Sombath's jeep in a routine check, and "it may be possible Mr. Sombath has been kidnapped" due to a personal or business dispute. 

The incident prompted outcries around the world, with a slew of leaders and organizations calling on the government to investigate. 

Seven weeks later, almost nothing more is known. But the disappearance of Sombath Somphone conveys a public message in a classic, enigmatic Lao way. To understand Laos, it is necessary to understand its stories: The way they are told, the way their meanings are perceived. It is necessary to understand the culture from which Sombath Somphone vanished. 

Laos (or, as it is known officially, the "Lao People's Democratic Republic,") is a landlocked Southeast Asian nation of 6.3 million people. It is a U.N.-designated "least developed country," with a third of the population living below the poverty line. Forty percent of all people have no access to improved sanitation, and almost half of all kids under five suffer from stunting. Although the Lao economy is growing at about 8 percent, its growth ranks below that of the region. In Laos, the average adult over 25 has less than five years of schooling

The government of this one-party communist republic largely keeps to itself. Its leader, Choummaly Sayasone, has little in common with the long-winded orator of neighboring Cambodia or the flashy high-flier of neighboring Thailand. And town-hall meetings aren't the style of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party. Analyzing the government is a bit like trying to decipher the doings of certain royal families -- you can't know what goes on inside the house unless you're of it. 

The people -- a diverse mix of lowland Lao Loum, midland Lao Theung, and highland Lao Sung ethnicities, with 50 or more groups in all -- are rooted in Buddhist and animist traditions. Many people believe in invisible spirits -- good, bad, happy or mad -- that dictate the outcomes of daily life. Nationwide, ceremonies are offered for good health, long life, ample rain and plentiful harvests. When Laotians embark on a journey or celebrate a significant life event, they wear the blessings of baci strings around their wrists for good luck and protection. Life is unpredictable; it's best to remain calm and keep the unseen spirits on your side. 

It can take days to travel from one province to another, or even to find flat land. Beyond the Mekong River plains, the landscape rises to high plateaus and craggy limestone mountains marked with caves -- places where entire villages hide unseen and the communist Pathet Lao leadership conducted business during war. Many of the nation's main highways trace the circuitous curves of mountains in endless passages of potholes. When the monsoons hit, June through November, villages can be cut off from the world. 

As an agrarian society, the seasons determine daily routines. Nature begets all life, but it can just as easily take it away. Malaria, dengue, or poisonous snakes are all normal hazards to the rural villager. Even unexploded ordnance, remaining since the U.S. war in Southeast Asia 40 years ago, regularly threatens life and limb. One day a farmer hoes his field without incident; the next day, he strikes a bomb. A person's luck, or lack of it, is often explained in terms of karma or the need to make amends with those invisible spirits. 

Many Laotians never read or watch the news, mainly because there is little to read or watch. Papers aren't distributed outside cities, and many families can't afford TVs. The country's media remain under tight control, with the government owning local outlets and journalists taking few risks in reporting on sensitive issues. Instead, communication happens largely through word of mouth with stories told in that old game of telephone. There is no exile press to keep the government on its toes (as happened with Burma before that country's political shift) or vocal opposition to challenge the status quo. 

Yet change is afoot in the republic, and the growing pains of global development are starting to show. On February 2, Laos officially joined the World Trade Organization. Last summer, several farmer-activists were arrested in an apparent land dispute with a Vietnamese rubber company. In December, Anne-Sophie Gindroz, director of the Swiss NGO Helvetas, was accused of spreading anti-government propaganda and expelled. Some speculate Sombath's disappearance could be linked to Gindroz and her activities surrounding the Asia-Europe People's Forum held in Vientiane last October. But no one knows for sure. 

Six years ago, Sompawn Khantisouk, the owner of a popular eco-tourism lodge in northern Laos, was forced into a car and never seen again. More than a year after his abduction, I met his business partner in Bangkok. The man was still shaken by the incident, and still without answers. Sompawn is still missing to this day. 

This week, the Lao Ministry of Public Security's preliminary report on Sombath's disappearance stated he has not been found, "the authority does not detain him," and there is no further evidence or information. 

Sombath's supporters have created a website in his name with the appeal, "Help us find our friend." The third letter from Sombath's wife, Ng Shui Meng, to the Lao government, was posted to the site this week. "[T]he lack of any concrete and credible information related to Sombath's disappearance after 45 days of investigation is very difficult to understand," the letter states. "The agony of not knowing anything after 45 days is even more difficult to bear." 

But in Laos, a country with limited news guarded by spirits one cannot see, an open question itself can be an answer. And the "how" and "why" are left for the masses to decipher in their own ways. 

Karen Coates, a freelance journalist, is a senior fellow at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism. She is also the author of Cambodia Now: Life in the Wake of War.

Photo by VOISHMEL/AFP/Getty Images


Can Santeria cure Hugo Chávez?

Years ago a group of us headed down from the Venezuelan capital, to visit a friend's ancestral home in the country's interior. Over aged rum and playing cards, one member of our group -- a very proper Caracas society girl -- headed into the kitchen to fetch more ice for the table: A scream. Shattered glass. When we found her she was deathly pale, and crossing herself. Upon a decorative silver platter, the decapitated head of a small goat had been positioned as if to stare up at one from the icebox. Its eyes had been gouged out. And a laurel crown had frozen fast to its head. 

Our host was mortified. "I am so sorry," he explained sheepishly. "You see I have an aunt who's a Santera and she sometimes uses the house for ceremonies. You know how it is. Every family has them." 

Folk religion has always held an important place in Venezuelan culture. As early as 1953, the Cult of Maria Lionza, a tradition which celebrates the country's European, African, and Indigenous roots was deemed important enough for a statue of her to be erected at a primary intersection of Caracas' main highway. From a tall pedestal the goddess looms proudly over speeding cars: Bare-breasted astride a tapir, as would-be worshipers dart dangerously through speeding traffic to lay wreathes and gifts upon her. 

Yet, Santeria itself -- like much else in today's Venezuela -- is a Cuban import. Although often lumped together with the homegrown folk religion by outsiders and even many Venezuelans, the practices are in fact quite different. Santeria is rooted in the traditions of Yoruba plantation slaves, whose practices and rituals were fused with the Roman Catholic beliefs and imagery of their masters. Unlike the Maria Lionza Cult, whose sacrifices tend to be material, Santeria shamans -- or babalawos -- conduct ritualistic animal sacrifices that can seem jarring or cruel to outsiders

Santeria has long been a part of Venezuelan life, and for many years it has been unremarkable to see santeros, clad head-to-toe in white, carrying beads or small statuary and congregating together. For all that, though, the specific practices involved have long been kept underground. Yet what was once an embarrassing family secret to folks like my friend has recently become more mainstream under the Chávez Regime. Nowadays, even high profile Venezuelan role models like Major League Baseball's 2012 Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera, can be unabashed about their side occupations as babalawos. In some circles the practices have grown so in vogue that ordinary Venezuelans pay thousands of dollars for the honor of being trained and inducted in its rites. 

El Comandante's highly vocal support for Indigenous and African cultural traditions within Venezuela, and his sometimes hostile relationship with the Roman Catholic Church, have done much to push the practice more into the mainstream, particularly among his supporters. And over the last several years, the arrival of numerous Cuban doctors and specialists, brought to Venezuela by the regime -- so as to replace Venezuela's own fleeing educated class -- has likewise been instrumental. 

Now, as a result of the distress caused to many by his illness, things have just gotten weird -- even by the standards of jaded Venezuelans acclimated to their country's seemingly unending supply of magical realism

On January 27 a captive ocelot was found mutilated [Warning: Graphic Image] in its cage at the El Pinar Zoo in Caracas, its front feet having been cut off presumably for ritualistic purposes. Its mate was also killed. (In the latest news on the incident, the ocelot, Felipe, seems to be recovering.) A week earlier, an arrested man in the State of Táchira explained to police that he had ritually sacrificed his own elderly mother because God had assured him that such a sacrifice would heal President Chávez. 

As for Chávez himself, while identifying as Roman Catholic, he has expressed support in the past for the Santeria movement during public speeches. Some of his opponents have likewise claimed that, in seeking to cure his cancer, the president secretly turned to Santeria or worse. Among the most conspiratorially minded, Chávez's 2010 exhumation of Simon Bolivar was deeply tied to Santeria, and the president has been a secret babalawo all along, the unholy fount of his dark power and charisma... 

The only thing that is certain is that the past years have been a time of deep fear and insecurity for Venezuelans. Crime is everywhere. And now a formerly over-communicative government has gone strangely silent. Under these stresses, individuals of all religious preferences and ideologies have been acting out. And such excesses among the Santero population, already misunderstood and distrusted by many, have been particularly visible symptoms.

We can hope that someday soon, a little certainty will return, and Venezuelans can rest a little easier. Ocelots as well.

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez is a fellow at the Comparative Constitutions Project and is a regular columnist for the Venezuelan daily newspaper El Universal. His Twitter handle is @Dlansberg.

Photo by STR/AFP/Getty Images