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 ...

Photo by VOISHMEL/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by VOISHMEL/AFP/Getty Images

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.

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