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
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