The Dark Side Of Laos, As An Activist Vanishes Without A Trace

Sombath Somphone disappeared on Dec. 15, 2012
Sombath Somphone disappeared on Dec. 15, 2012
Bruno Philip

Police are monitoring traffic from a small wooden gatehouse in eastern Vientiane, on the outskirts of the Laotian capital. It was here nearly one year ago, opposite the Indian embassy, that 62-year-old Sombath Somphone mysteriously disappeared. The rural development promoter and farmers' rights activist hasn't been heard from since.

On Dec. 15, 2012, Somphone was driving behind his wife’s car in his Jeep. He was stopped by a traffic officer for an identity check. The policeman spoke with him through the car door. Somphone then stepped out and walked towards the gatehouse. Soon after, a man got off his motorcycle and climbed into Somphone’s Jeep and drove off.

A white pickup then parked on the side of the road, warning lights flashing, before two men — one of whom was Somphone — climbed in. That was the last sign of the popular activist.

CCTV footage — available on the website — has allowed his family to reconstruct the scenario. Since Somphone vanished, the police investigation that Laotian authorities claim to have conducted has been fruitless. What is clear is that his disappearance has all the markings of an abduction committed right before police eyes at rush hour.

“I have no idea who could be behind his abduction, or why it happened,” says Somphone’s Singaporian wife Ng Shui Meng by phone. “All I can say is that the police say that they don’t know who kidnapped him.”

The official version, repeated over and over again by the authorities and state media — the only authorized news agencies authorized in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic — is that Somphone may have been the victim of a “settling of personal accounts.” Deputy head of the police, Phengsavanh Thipphavongxay, has said that nothing proves Somphone was actually the one seen in the CCTV footage, but the missing man’s relatives have no doubt.

Theories abound

Many of his friends and NGO members within Vientiane’s foreign community think Somphone may have been abducted by a “parallel police” force or elements that are more or less controlled by a regime whose ideas with regards to development are starkly different from Somphone’s.

“Sombath claimed that the Laotian people weren’t ready for the brutal arrival of globalization,” one of his friends explains. But no one can provide evidence that the government was involved in his abduction. And his disappearance, which is still discussed endlessly within the NGO community, has allowed a climate of mistrust and fear to take hold in Vientiane.

“If one of the reasons he was abducted was to send a message to NGOs so they don’t cross any red line on issues that involve politics, then the operation has been a success,” one NGPO member says.

Everyone we spoke to for this story requested that their name and organization remain anonymous, which illustrates the atmosphere in Vientiane almost a year after Somphone’s disappearance.

The affair caused a stir. Somphone was not necessarily well-known across the whole country, beyond the reputation he built through his Participatory Development Training Center (PADETC) that helps farmers with training and education. But he was a well-recognized figure on an international level. In 2005, this former University of Hawaii agronomy and education student received the Ramon Magsaysay Award — the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize — for his work in rural areas.

The world has noticed

His abduction prompted international reaction, including a direct intervention from the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. “The U.S. share the serious concerns of the international community on Mr. Sombath Somphone’s situation,” he said March 24. “We ask the Laotian government to do all it can to provide a full account of Sombath Somphone’s disappearance without further delay.”

And on Oct. 28, while visiting Vientiane, the president of a European Parliament delegation for Southeast Asia, Werner Langen, was critical of Laotian authorities for not providing “any satisfying answers” to questions about Somphone’s disappearance.

Sombath Somphone with Desmond Tutu in 2006 — Photo: Shui-Meng Ng

“It seems hard to believe that the decision leading to his abduction was taken at a high level, given the amateur way those who took him away acted,” a diplomat said.

The kidnappers perhaps did not anticipate that Sombath Somphone’s family would signal his disappearance to the police the next day, and that they would then, without hesitating, show the CCTV footage to his sister and his wife. Since then, the blurry footage, which his family recorded on a cellphone, has been carefully guarded by police, who refuse to release the original video. “The Laotian authorities have refused every foreign offer of technical assistance to decipher the footage,” the same diplomat says.

Certain contextual elements could explain the efforts to silence Somphone. In early November 2012, the Asia–Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Vientiane gathered European and Asian representatives. Traditionally, the ASEM is preceded by an Asia-Europe People's Forum, which gathers NGOs and international civil societies’ spokespeople. As co-president of the organizing committee, Somphone directed the preparation of a report, “The Lao People’s Vision,” a summary of interviews with people in rural communities. During the forum, some farmers had complained about the increasing land confiscations for the benefit of Vietnamese and Chinese companies cultivating rubber trees or mining.

In his report, Somphone noted that “the expectations of a major part of the Laotian people” had not been met, “especially in terms of improving their well-being and the living conditions of the rural Laotians, who represent the majority of the population.” It was a judgment that, though not a direct attack against the regime, may have upset certain figures in power.

Ng Shui Meng cannot believe that her husband’s disappearance may be linked to this remark. She also rejects the fact that he was an “activist” or a “militant.” “He often worked in good cooperation with people from the government,” she says. “Some of them even sent me expressions of their sympathy.”

The dark underbelly of Laos

Somphone’s abduction could illustrate, for some, the evolution of a regime where the emergence of managers linked to the party are combined with operating permits granted thanks to the sponsorship of wealthy families that resulted from former “revolutionary” circles — a Chinese-like evolution that combines strict political control, market economy … and corruption.

This evolution has had a fair amount of success: a growth rate of 8.3% in 2012, a GDP per capita and per year of $1,200 (it was $300 only 10 years ago). Laos has left the category of poor countries to be among the “medium- to low-income” countries. But who benefits from this development? “Growth, growth! Government people only know that word,” a foreigner living in Vientiane says angrily. “But what does that mean when disparities are getting bigger between those who got wealthy with the system, and farmers?”

“On the surface, Laos is a radiant and happy country, a haven for tourists in need of tropical exoticism,” one Laotian intellectual from Vientiane says. “But underneath, it’s very different, a place where it's getting much harder to live.”

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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