Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday broadsheet newspaper on 15 December 2013
My friend Sombath Somphone has been a gentle, generous and soft-spoken man as long as I have known him, which is over 15 years. Beneath that beaming face, however, is a sharp intellect, caring heart and quiet resolve.
He knows social change takes time, effort and comes in small steps. Especially in conservative societies and tight political systems like those in his country – Laos, one of the world’s five remaining socialist states (along with China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam).
Sombath isn’t a politician. Nor is he an activist, although some have given him that label. The Sombath I know is a sensitive thinker who pauses to reflect on where his country and the world are headed. He is also a teacher and mentor who has helped thousands of young Lao nationals to improve skills and find their own voice.
Sombath has been missing for exactly one year. He was last seen in the Lao capital Vientiane on the evening of 15 December 2012. He was driving home after work that evening.
Soon, murky video footage from a street-side close circuit TV (CCTV) camera emerged showing how he had stopped at a police checkpoint. He is seen being escorted to a roadside police building. Shortly afterwards, a motorcyclist arrives, fires a gunshot into the air and drives off in Sombath’s vehicle. A truck with flashing lights then turns up, and two unidentified men force Sombath into it.
He has never been seen since.
Sombath didn’t have any enemies. The Lao government has repeatedly denied any involvement in his disappearance. Police investigations have drawn a blank.
That CCTV footage, uploaded to YouTube five days later, has been seen over 37,000 times and generated dozens of comments. The incident has been covered in many of the world’s top newspapers and TV news channels.
One year on, Sombath’s whereabouts remain completely unknown. For that entire time, deeply concerned family, friends and admirers across Asia and worldwide have been calling for his safe return. Among those who expressed solidarity are prominent Asian civil society leaders, former Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Hillary Clinton and the European Parliament.
Why did the disappearance of a small man from a small, landlocked country create such international ripples?
Sombath’s story is uncommon for several reasons.
He was born in a farming family in Khammouane Province as the eldest of eight siblings. In the early 1970s, he won a scholarship to study at the University of Hawaii where he received a bachelor’s degree in education and masters in agriculture.
Sombath could have stayed on, pursuing a career in academia, research or international development. But he returned home in 1980 and initially promoted low-cost methods of improving farm production and food security, and also pioneered the use of participatory rural appraisal techniques in Laos.
In 1996, he founded Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC), a grassroots development and education organization. It provided training for youth and local government officials in community-based development.
“Young people are really the key, communication is the tool they should use, and education is the channel or the structure for change,” he once summed up his approach.
While PADETC operated mostly at community level, Sombath ensured that national and global perspectives shaped their work. He searched for – and experimented with – inclusive development models before that term became fashionable.
In an interview he filmed in 2008 for a TV series I produced, Sombath said: “…people want some alternative…the only thing that I see available is ‘Gross National Happiness’ philosophy (of Bhutan) and the ‘sufficiency economy’ of the Thai King. But…every culture will have to find its own adjustment…The prevailing pattern of development is not sustainable…that’s recognized.”
At the same time, he didn’t get trapped – as many do — in ideological dogma or activist shrill. Development is good, he assured his co-workers, but for development to be healthy, it “must come from within”.
“We must tame media and digital technologies for greater good!”
– Sombath Somphone in 2008 video interview
As he noted in an earlier interview in 2002: “It’s not possible to retain all traditional values in the face of globalisation. Since we cannot stop globalisation, we must do everything we can to minimise its negative impacts, and try to ensure that disadvantaged communities gain some benefits.”
PADETC mobilized both its staff and volunteers to promote appropriate concepts and technologies such as healthy eating, garbage recycling, organic farming, micro enterprises and preventing drug abuse. Participatory communication was the key delivery method.
Sombath was an early adopter of digital communications technologies and the web. He felt educators and development professionals ‘were not using these tools as much as entertainers or commercial people’. He wanted young Laotians to change from being passive victims of media to active content creators and users.
I saw this philosophy at work during a brief visit to Vientiane a decade ago. PADETC’s young men and women were confident with video and computer technologies. The average age of the team, excluding Sombath, must have been around 23. They were creative, energetic and well organised.
Recognition came after many years of persistence. In August 2005, Sombath received the Ramon Magsaysay Award – often called Asia’s Nobel Prize – for his efforts to promote sustainable development in Laos “by training and motivating its young people to become a generation of leaders”.
Accepting the award in Manila, Sombath said: “We have to chart our own development pathway and balance our development strategies to strengthen self-reliance and avoid the mistakes that mire so many developing societies in debt, social disintegration, disease and environmental degradation.”
Meeting of minds
It is to these ideals that Sombath has dedicated his life, and which he has gently advocated at both policy and practice levels. In recent years, these have come under pressure as Laos partly opened up its economy, invited foreign investors and embarked on rapid modernization.
Sombath looked for models that help ensure no one gets left behind in such fast-tracked development. In early 2004, when he visited Colombo to join a small meeting that I organised, Sombath was keen to know more about Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest development organisation. I arranged a visit to its Moratuwa headquarters, where he had a long chat with Sarvodaya founder Dr A T Ariyaratne.
Every time we met afterwards, Sombath kept thanking me for that inspiring afternoon, when Lanka’s first Magsaysay winner (1969) engaged who was soon-to-be first laureate of Laos. They both won in the category of community leadership.
But Sombath realized that the local circumstances were very different in his own country. He knew the art of the possible and had the temperament to ‘make haste slowly’.
Over the years, I have noticed how low key and consultative Sombath’s style is: always collaborating with officials, academics and community leaders, while generously sharing credit all around.
So how could such a mild person possibly pose a threat to anyone?
This has puzzled his friends from the time he went missing. Speculations in the media and by various advocacy groups remain just that. These are collated on a website dedicated to his safe return: http://sombath.org
Meanwhile, his wife Ng Chui Meng has asked the media to stop idolizing him. “When you read what has been written in the press over the past 12 months, Mr Sombath is made to be like a super-Laotian,” she said in Bangkok last week. “He’s not.”
For us, his friends and fellow travellers, it’s hard to refer to Sombath in the past tense. We must live with the mystery until we hear some news.
We can only hope it won’t be too long.
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Watch TVE Asia Pacific’s 2009 short film about PADETC’s work in Laos on education for sustainable development: