The time is 18:03 on Than Deua Road and rush hour is in full flow. All of Vientiane appears to be returning home for the evening and the city is uncharacteristically abuzz. The date is December 15th. The traffic rushes along the busy street, commuters driving towards hot meals and the bosom of family and friends. But one car is going nowhere. Sombath Somphone has been pulled over at a police checkpoint, for reasons unknown. He switches off the engine and steps out onto the tarmac, intending to converse with an officer. Meanwhile a man on a motorcycle arrives at the scene. He enters Mr Somphone’s vehicle unimpeded, then drives off into the night. Soon after another police officer appears, followed by a truck not 45 seconds later. It is not known what is said, but Mr Somphone enters the truck without struggle, along with the officer and another couple of plainclothes men. The truck then pulls away, following the path of two motorcycles. One motorcyclist fires a gunshot into the air – perhaps a warning to witnesses: forget what you just saw.
This was the last time Mr Somphone was seen alive. Curiouser and curiouser, down the rabbit hole I fell.
A chill crept down my spine. I didn’t know one could in the height of a Vientiane dry season, but there it was, surging down my vertebrae. Straying outside the party line had done my sense of paranoia no good, that’s for sure. I put down The Bangkok Post and picked The Vientiane Times up from the quaint coffee shop table.
The state-controlled rag was, as ever, brimming with images of factory openings, prize givings and civil servant promotions. Red tape, oversized scissors and smiles that didn’t quite reach the eyes, front cover to back. On each page rotund PDR officials stared at the reader with a smile-come-grimace. Piped into Saville Row suits the fat spilled over their collars, their tie knots only half-exposed. Behind the knot you knew the top button of their shirts were bearing the brunt of lifelong gluttony, given the ghastly task of holding it all in – perhaps that explained the slightly pained look on their wearers faces. Their appearance was one of necessary excesses, required to appear civilised and erudite in our cold capitalistic world. They were bourgeois communists alright, corrupt through and through.
The articles were a safe bet: tightly scripted copywrite of progress and prosperity. They were also terribly, mind-cripplingly inane. The Laos PDR was written as if a child taking its tentative first footsteps into the free market; a virgin beacon of hope in a world beset with a maudlin preoccupation for existential stock market-based woe. All with that sinister smile. For that was the aim of the game after all, wasn’t it? The party of the people looked happy, thus the people should be too. Each minister was a pinstriped exemplar of public attitude, so best to smile and wave boys, smile and wave…
The state was tottering all the way to the bank, and the boon from its dealings wouldn’t see the light of day once the cash entered the officials’ silk-lined pockets. It was easy to get caught up into their socially-mobile, free market fantasy, but in reality the stories were as transparent as the shoddy paper on which they were printed.
Every headline extolled the virtues of a new government initiative, but came with it the faintest whisper of the true story, because each new assembly line, rubber farm or infrastructure development came so glaringly unrebuked by, well, everyone. According to the Times the public wanted it all! A road through their village, the uprooting and relocation of provincial capitals; a telephone mast in the back yard and a new dam upstream. All of it, right now, without hesitation or the necessary planning permission, if at all possible.
And therein lay the rub. Crops and houses were levelled, families relocated, but it was all explicitly for the greater good. The farmers had had a fine run; they were thankful for the halcyon days, but now the party was over – or rather, the party was all over their land. In a country where the state owned every square inch of terra firma, these people had no grounds to complain, even if their voices were heard. And they never were; much less recorded.
The Vientiane Times cried out that Laos would prosper, and everyone was behind her, hammer and sickle raised to the skies. The feeling was tsunami-like, gathering mass and momentum by capturing those in its path: increasingly irrefutable.
This was where The Bangkok Post stepped in.
If it wasn’t for that crumpled newspaper I wouldn’t have known about their plight, or that of one Sombath Somphone. I was reading Monday’s edition, March 25th, already outdated but still poignantly relevant. It had been 100 days since Somphone, Laos’ most eminent activist, had been ‘disappeared’ from the streets of the capital. As I write this the situation is much unchanged – only instead 411 days I have passed with neither sight nor sound of him.
It’s worth mentioning the nature of Somphone’s activism. He is not in the mould of a martyr, dealing in patriotic ultimatums, a Ghandi or a Suu Kyi, calling for instant radical upheaval. Somphone is a staunch believer in community, sustainability and self-improvement. He ran the only civil society organization in Laos, providing training for young people and local officials. His initiative, PADTEC, ran with the blessing of the Laos regime. He was picking up the state’s slack – something their apathy no doubt appreciated – but in doing so empowered countless citizens. This was something to be treated with caution by the plutocracy. But, most importantly, as an American-educated man of intellect and conscience, he was bracketed in with the foreign NGOs and could, at a whim, be branded an interferer in national affairs.
Between the 19th and 16th of October 2012 Somphone contributed significantly to the 9th Asia-Europe People’s Forum, held – unprecedentedly – in Vientiane. It opened up a discourse between activists from around the globe and provided a platform for their voices. More importantly, the backdrop Laos provided validated many of their claims. Addressing the Forum with its keynote speech could well have been – if it could be called one – Somphone’s fatal flaw:
We have to resolve the root causes of the problem to have real happiness and not have our societies working most of the time to reproduce the current system.
His tone had strayed towards that of revolutionary, albeit timidly. He’d criticised ‘the current system’. His voice had carried too far, had been heard by too many, and now it had to be silenced.
A free press bared its teeth on the far bank of the Mekong, but its bark carried farther than its bite. It could not affect the change it desired, rendered an agitated observer. Thailand lay a mere river’s width away, but the rift between the two nations’ attitudes seemed impassable. The Bangkok Post had courted controversy, satirizing controversial lèse-majesté laws in the past, and on the whole censorship was negligible. In Laos the government sat, not so much with scissors, cutting out the unmentionables, but at the typewriter itself. They constructed the news. The title mast ‘The Vientiane Times’ gave a thin veneer or creditability to the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, but it was in essence undiluted propaganda. Its editorial tone was, like the state itself, autocratic, whereas the Post was a forum for debate. The Times was entirely mimetic of Laos; it displayed a second-generation plutocracy born of autocracy, that ever so habitual perversion of communism. It outlined with bombast the cage in which Somphone had become trapped, polishing the bars in the hope the gleam would distract the world from the contents within.
But the ploy hasn’t worked and now the cat’s out of the bag. Counterproductively, Mr Somphone’s profile and his cause have been raised significantly. In a highly public turnaround Burma are releasing all political prisoners, whilst across the border Laos had began taking its own. In the international conscience the juxtaposition is far from flattering, and Somphone has become the model case, a new generation’s Suu Kyi. World leaders queue up to condemn the government’s investigative lethargy, but most stop short of accusing the state outright of having a hand in the act. Considering video evidence shows government officials orchestrating the ‘disappearance’, their response seems impotent, even calculatedly political in its reserve. In time, Amnesty International has done the job no nation could and filed a comprehensive report here.
As coffee breaks go it’d been a heavy one. Stepping out into the harsh daylight I realised I’d visited the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism the day before. I’d mistaken it for a post office. It was unassuming from the outside but rather adorned once one stepped through the threshold, a secret lair of wealth. Needless to say I soon found myself marched off the premises by an armed officer. Heavy-handed, I thought at the time; the scenario made a lot more sense now.
Vientiane always appeared an oddly perfunctory capital – Soviet architecture and cheap construction erected to house drab industry – and the nature of Sombath Somphone’s disappearance was strangely fitting: cold, impassive and ruthlessly efficient. The sheer mass of concrete rebuffed any revolutionary tendencies the people may have had. It was, like the government, unyielding.
On December 15th the gunshot in the night marked a blotted full stop, a crude attempt at closure by those involved. The kidnapping had to be wiped from the city’s memory before it ever had the chance to crystallise. This was no time for Laos to tend to the wounds of injustice and examine the hurt any deeper; it had to move on. Laos was going places and the citizens knew there was work to be done: every day the smiling officials from the newspaper told them so.