We may not be familiar with enforced disappearances in Singapore but in recent years, several disappearances of people in ASEAN countries has brought this subject to our attention.
Seven years ago, in December 2012 Sombath Somphone, disappeared in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic. His Singaporean wife, Ng Shui Meng is still struggling to cope with his disappearance.
WHAT IS ENFORCED DISAPPEARANCE?
The crime of enforced disappearance dates back to Nazi Germany when Adolf Hitler issued the Nacht und Nebel Erlass Decree (Night and Fog Decree) on 7 December 1941. Its aim was and still is to spread terror and insecurity in society. Victims were spirited away by State agents or groups/individuals who act on behalf of the State. They literally disappeared into “the night and fog”.
After World War II, enforced disappearance continues to be used as a weapon of terror by the State to silence political opponents, labour activists, journalists, academics, students, lawyers and anyone who is critical of the government. In the 1970s, it was used especially by the dictatorial regimes in Latin America where thousands of men and women were disappeared, never to be heard of again.
In Asia, enforced disappearance was used as a terror tactic during the Suharto regime in Indonesia, the Marcos regime in the Philippines, and the civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamil in Sri-Lanka. Despite the end of these authoritarian regimes and the civil war in Sri Lanka, enforced disappearance still happen in these countries as well as in other countries like Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, China, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos.
The UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) see https://ijrcenter.org/…/working-group-on-enforced-or-invol…/ has since its inception recorded more than 50,000 cases worldwide, with Asia having the largest number.
INTERNATIONAL CONVENTION FOR THE PROTECTION OF ALL PERSONS FROM ENFORCED DISAPPEARANCE
The International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance 2010 https://www.humanrights.ch/…/sta…/un-treaties/disappearance/has been signed by 98 countries. Fifty-nine countries have ratified it. Singapore is not a signatory while the Lao People’s Democratic Republic signed the Convention in 2008 but has not ratified it.
“ENFORCED DISAPPEARANCE” is considered to be the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law. (Article 2)”.
Sombath Somphone, a Laotian sustainable development worker was abducted on the evening of 15 December 2012. Police CCTV footages showed him stopped by uniformed men at a police post in Vientiane and driven away in a white truck. That was the last time Sombath was seen.
The Lao Government has denied any involvement, even though the sequence of his capture was recorded by the police CCTV and is now available on You-tube. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSZzzk3Ay1M).
Since the night of Sombath Somphone’s disappearance, his family has unrelentingly tried to get answers of his whereabouts and his status. Despite repeated pleas from his family, as well as appeals from government leaders from many countries, as well as Singapore’s Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, all effort have been futile.
As a party to the Convention, the Lao Government is under a duty to investigate complaints and reports of enforced disappearances and bring those responsible to justice. To date, the government has not filed any report or inform Sombath Somphone’s family of what it has done.
DEVASTATING EFFECT OF ENFORCED DISAPPEARANCE
A disappearance is tormenting not only for the victim, but also members of the family and community. Being placed outside the protection of the law and left at the mercy of his captors, the disappeared is often tortured, tormented, and in constant fear for his life. Family members, ignorant of the fate of their loved ones, experience endless anguish with emotions seesawing between hope and despair, waiting for news that may never come. Attempts at finding the whereabouts of their loved ones, and seeking truth and justice end up against the wall. But they persevere.
“I have been stonewalled by the Lao police, the Lao Government officials, and the Lao court system”, Ng Shui Meng, wife of Sombath Somphone told Function 8. “The Lao Government publicly says that the investigation of Sombath’s abduction is continuing, but it’s nearly 7 years now and I have yet to be shown any report of the investigation”.
Enforced Disappearance strikes at the heart of the community, instilling it with deep fear and anxiety. Seeing friends and colleagues disappeared into the “night and fog” and not knowing their whereabouts and whether they are dead or alive, most people in the community resort to keeping their heads low, not daring to say anything or express their concern, for fear that they or someone in their family may suffer the same fate.
“Many people in the Lao Government that Sombath Somphone and I used to work with avoid me after Sombath disappeared. Even some close friends and colleagues distanced themselves from me and avoid looking me in the eye. Initially I was upset and felt betrayed. But now I understand their fear.”
As no charges were ever brought against the abductors, family members also have to deal with lies and rumours that spread in the community about the victim and the causes for the abduction. “Over the years, I have heard so many nasty lies and rumours about Sombath’s abduction. Some alleged that Sombath is not a Lao citizen, but an enemy agent working to destabilize the Lao State; others insinuated that he was involved in illegal business, and so on.
At first I was distressed and felt betrayed, but now I know that character assassination is standard practice used by state agents to confuse the public and to blame the victims for their disappearance”.
Function 8 stands by Ng Shui Meng in calling for truth and justice for Sombath Somphone. As a signatory to the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the Lao Government is obliged under the terms of the Treaty to investigate and reveal what happened to Sombath Somphone and to return him safely to Shui Meng and her family.