BY EMMA GOLDBERG:
On December 15th the U.N. human rights office reported that Laotian activist Sombath Somphone was kidnapped, presumably because of his work as a human rights advocate. The government has disavowed responsibility for Somphone’s disappearance, but international agencies have called on authorities to investigate his disappearance, concerned he might be experiencing physical abuse or torture. Given the Laotian government’s history of suppressing activists, were authorities to take an active role in rescuing Somphone they might signify an important shift in values to their population.
Somphone’s work has focused primarily on reducing poverty and promoting educational opportunities throughout Laos. Though his colleagues told the media that most of his work is not directly political, he was detained earlier this year for participating in meetings between non-government organizations and civil society. The Laotian government has historically been known for suppressing most forms of political dissent.
The government could make significant progress in mending relations between authority and civil society by demonstrating respect for one of the nation’s most important activists, one who has for decades devoted himself to promoting the public good. The Laotian government has tended to fear members of civil society who express bold opinions about poverty and education, but civil society activism can be critical in promoting the nation’s unity. By enabling ordinary civilians to take a stance on public affairs, activism can prevent citizens from feeling disempowered and growing resentful of authorities.
Peace-building expert Helen Hintjens noted that in Rwanda, government crackdown on civil society activism and free expression has made it difficult for the country to recover from the genocide and rebuild. She writes that in Rwanda, “open criticism of authority remains a taboo for most poor and ordinary people.” She explains that because civilians are fearful of authorities, they do not respond honestly when asked if they find it easier to live with one another than in the past, or how large of a role they feel that ethnicity plays in their lives today. “One cannot expect frank answers to such sensitive questions,” Hintjens writes, “Yet these are the questions that need to be asked.”
In Laos, decades of political turmoil and violence have resulted in authorities fearful of citizen activism and free expression, much like government officials in Rwanda. By taking a stance and expressing concern for Somphone, the government could begin mending its relations with the population it rules.
Emma Goldberg ’16 is in Saybrook College. She writes on post-conflict politics around the world. Contact her at email@example.com.