Still no word on missing Magsaysay Awardee in Laos

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In this Aug. 31, 2005 file photo, Sombath Somphone of Laos, the winner of Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 2005, poses with the bust of the late Philippine president prior to receiving his award in ceremony at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in Manila. The respected social activist has gone missing in Laos, and a colleague involved in the search for him said that he saw evidence that police had taken him into custody. AP/Bullit Marquez, File

Six days after he was reported missing in Laos, there is still no news as to the whereabouts of Magsaysay laureate and Laotian social activist Sombath Somphone.

Mr. Sombath was reportedly last seen when he was whisked away in a vehicle from a police station in the capital city of Vientianne where he was brought by policeman after he was stopped on his way home at 6 p.m.

Until recently, Mr. Sombath was director of the Participatory Development Training Centre (PADETC) in Vientianne which he founded in 1996 to promote education and leadership skills among the Laotian youth. He is also involved in a small enterprise selling village handicrafts. His colleagues in the region describe him as a kind and gentle community worker who deeply loves his country and his people.

Concerned about his plight, 61 Thai nongovernmental organizations immediately sent a letter to senior officials in Laos and embassies of foreign countries there saying they “look forward to hearing that all immediate and necessary efforts are made to search his whereabouts and investigate the cause of his disappearance.”

More than 30 Ramon Magsaysay Awardees, together with trustees, officers and staff of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, have urged the Government of the Lao PDR and all relevant authorities in the country to” immediately, and with urgency, investigate Mr. Sombath Somphone’s disappearance; and to take all steps possible to ensure his safety and well-being. His family should be informed as soon as possible after his whereabouts and his situation are known.”

Sombath Somphone, 60, received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, in 2005. He was recognized for his “hopeful efforts to promote sustainable development in Laos by training and motivating its young people to become a generation of leaders.”

The Award’s board of trustees noted that much of the work of Sombath’s organization is carried out by teams of young volunteers and trainees who exemplify his commitment to participatory learning. “In any given week, these volunteers-cum-trainees reach as many as nine thousand people. As they do so, Sombath makes certain that they are also learning to think, plan, act, and lead.”

The Associated Press reported on December 18 that Laos has an authoritarian government with little tolerance for dissent, but that his friends and associates said Sombath’s work was not directly political. AP quoted Suntaree Hathi Sengging of the Thai NGO Coordinating Committee on Development as saying that “He (Sombath) deals with business and education. His work isn’t the type that would have created enemies.”

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