MayZine Subscription

Global Human Rights Issues

Shui-Meng Ng (Singapore/Laos)

Shui-Meng Ng is a Singapore National and holds a MA in Sociology from the University of Michigan in 1973, and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Hawaii in 1979.

Over the span of more than 40 years, Shui-Meng Ng accumulated a broad range of experience working in different countries and in different fields.

After completing her studies, Shui-Meng Ng first worked in the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies based in Singapore as Senior Research Fellow focusing on research in population studies, gender and development, and politics and social change in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

In 1986, Shui-Meng Ng, left Singapore and moved to join her husband, Sombath Somphone, a Laotian agronomist and development specialist, to whom she married in 1983. After moving to Laos, Shui-Meng Ng worked mainly in the development field with several development agencies focusing on women’s development and improvement of livelihoods.

From 1989 onwards, she joined UNICEF, first working at the UNICEF Office in Laos as its Education Programme Officer. From 1996-2000 she was posted to UNICEF-China and tasked with developing women-focused poverty alleviation programs using micro-credit. She returned to UNICEF-Laos in 2000 as the Deputy Representative. From 2004 to 2008, she was assigned as UNICEF Representative in UNICEF Timor-Leste where she worked until her retirement from UNICEF at the end of 2008.

After retiring from UNICEF, Shui-Meng Ng continued to be active in the development field, working as a specialist consultant in Myanmar and Laos.

In 2012, her husband, Sombath Somphone, a respected and well-known development leader, was disappeared in Vientiane, right in front of a police post. The entire sequence of Sombath Somphone’s abduction was recorded by the Lao Police CCTV. Since her husband’s disappearance, Shui-Meng Ng mounted a relentless campaign, inside and outside Laos, to get Sombath Somphone released and returned safely to her and her family.

She has made countless appeals to the Lao Government authorities to investigate the case and to find her husband. She also gave numerous press and media interviews, and public speeches in various international and regional fora to publicize the case of her husband’s disappearance.

In the past 7 years, she also travelled the globe tirelessly to meet with the UN agencies, Human Rights groups, and Foreign Offices of Australia, US, Switzerland, Sweden, Italy, Korea, Japan, and Singapore, to highlight the case of Sombath Somphone’s enforced disappearance, hoping that they would urge the Lao Government to expedite the investigation of what happened to her husband.

Drawing Inspiration from the Gwangju May 18 Democratic Uprising

My own personal journey of activism for social justice, human rights and peace-building cannot be separated from that of my husband, Sombath Somphone’s journey of engagement and lifework of improving the livelihoods of poor rural communities in Laos, education and empowerment of Lao youth, and the strengthening of Lao civil society. But unfortunately, he became a victim of Enforced Disappearance in December 2012 (more than 7 years ago).

Student Activism and political awakening in the 1970s/80s

This year, 2020, marks the 40th year of the Gwangju May 18 Democratic Uprising. In the decade leading up to the Gwangju Uprising, young people throughout the countries of Asia and Southeast Asia were all struggling under various types of authoritarian regimes, with many countries in Indochina having just emerged from the grips of the Vietnam War in 1975, and other countries in the region using the “communist scare” to accept authoritarian governments which ruled with an iron fist to control its people to quash their aspirations for greater democracy and workers’ rights. Both Sunbath’s and my own maturing years were very much shaped by these historical and political events and struggles.

In 1980, I had just completed my PhD in Sociology from the University of Hawaii where I had met my husband Sombath Somphone, who is from Laos. Sombath and I were students at the University of Hawaii in the mid-1970s. Like students everywhere we were quite active in participating in campus activities and debates on the role of young people in building a better and more peaceful and equal world for all. We participated in peace marches against the Vietnam War; we demonstrated against the military crackdown of students at the Thammasaat University in 1976; we were abhorred by the news of the killing fields of Cambodia, and the large numbers of refugees escaping Communist rule in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia soon after the Vietnam victory against the US. And the 1980 Gwangju May 18 Democratic Uprising became another important milestone in our political and social awakening. To a large extent, such social and political awakening shaped our future life choices.

In 1980, I returned to Singapore while Sombath continued his studies in Hawaii. Sombath, despite the large numbers of his compatriots leaving Laos as refugees, was determined to go back to Laos to work for his country’s post-war reconstruction. Sombath had come from a poor farming family, and through hard work he won an USAID scholarship to study in the US. He chose to study agronomy knowing that such knowledge and skills would be useful to help improve the livelihoods of poor farmers in the Lao countryside – farmers like his parents and his family.

Working in Laos for social justice for the rural poor through improved livelihoods and poverty reduction

Sombath went back to Laos in the early 1980s. He was the only Lao among his Laotian fellow students who returned to Laos; the others remained in the United States – too afraid and unsure how the Communist Government of Laos would treat them if they had returned.

I supported Sunbath’s decision and went to Laos to join him in 1985. In deciding to return to Laos, Sombath and I knew that we must take on a different type of activism. Given Laos communist system of governance and single-party state control, very similar to that of North Korea, the struggle for “freedom”, “democracy”, and “human rights” must take a more cautious and low-key note. It would be foolish for anyone wanting positive change in Laos to use confrontational tactics, or protests as a form of struggle against injustice and violation of people’s rights. Instead we focused on the issues of Laos’ high incidence of food insecurity and poverty, and struggle for peace after years of war and violence as a rallying point for our work. We also knew that we must use the Lao Communist Party and Government’s slogans to promote equality for the masses, especially for farmers and workers, and development through education for the poor to frame the way we work.

Our work evolved around “freedom from hunger”, “freedom from poverty” and “freedom from ignorance” and drew inspiration from the international human rights framework of “right to survival”; “right to education”; “right to sustainable livelihoods”, which were all theoretically endorsed within the “Socialist Ideology” of the Lao Government.

Working humbly, quietly, but effectively, Sombath used his knowledge and skills to help rural communities improve food production and hygiene and sanitation; development of small rural enterprises to promote local foods and handcrafts for local markets; promotion of organic agriculture and sustainable forestry, etc. He also started youth development programs to engage the young to enrich their school-based education with practical life-skills education and use of interactive media to reach out to other young people through youth-run radio programs, drama and community exchange. All these were done in a way to empower the poor and the young to shape the development of their own communities and their own future in a practical and meaningful way.

Even though Sombath tried to work under the political radar screen, Sombath’s quiet work for more than 30 years gained regional and international recognition. In 2005 he won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community and Youth Empowerment. The Ramon Magsaysay Award was commonly hailed as Asia’s Nobel Prize. As a result, Sombath became more and more well-known as Laos’ community development worker championing the rights of the rural poor and was recognized as Laos’ leading a civil society leader.

The Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone – Transforming Fear to Action

Unfortunately, Sunbath’s recognition was not appreciated by the Lao Communist Leadership who viewed Sunbath’s could becoming a rallying point to mobilize people against its one-party authoritarian rule. On 15 December 2012, Sombath was “disappeared” right in front of a police post. His capture by the police was filmed by the police own CCTV. Despite the clear evidence of how Sombath was abducted, the Lao Government has to date denied its involvement and insisted that Sombath could have been kidnapped for reasons of “business” and “personal conflicts”.

The injustice of Sunbath’s Enforced Disappearance shocked me to the core. To see the most important person in my life who spent his entire career working to improve the livelihoods of the rural poor and developing the capacities of the young people of the country disappeared by state agents in such a blatant manner; and to watch how the state authorities denying their involvement despite all the proof presented, demonstrated clearly the audacity of state impunity and the severity of its violation of Sunbath’s and my rights.

I studied the issue of Enforced Disappearance and came to understand how it is the worst form of human rights violation and torture, and how the act of Enforced Disappearance actually removed the victim outside the protection of the law, and left the family and community devastated by uncertainty and fear. I understood how repressive regimes use it as a tactic of intimidation to strike fear in the heart of the entire community and society. I became aware that Asia still has the largest number of cases of Enforced Disappearance, and that Enforced Disappearance can happen to anybody – young or old, men or women, and how it is used most regularly to silent political critics, civil society activists, academics, journalists, and even ordinary people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is used in times of war as well as in times of peace. And once disappeared, the victim may never be returned and the families are left wondering for years whether their loved ones are alive or dead and depriving the family of having any closure! Such is the cruelty of Enforced Disappearance.

Initially, I was afraid to do anything other than appeal to the government authorities and cooperated fully with the police in the hope that they would investigate what happened to Sombath. I also sought the help of influential people in the diplomatic community to plead with the Lao Government to release Sombath. I was adviced by friends and neighbours that I should not be critical of the government and to keep silent as that would be the best way to get Sombath to return safely. But the weeks dragged on into months with little sign that the government authorities or the police were sincere in finding or releasing Sombath. In fact it was clear that they were hiding the truth from me and from everybody.

As the days passed, my fear turned to despair. But as news of Sunbath’s disappearance spread, I was contacted by many wives and family members of the disappeared, and from the human rights organizations. They expressed solidarity and support and gave me courage by advising me on how to deal with the situation. They encouraged me to speak up, to give interviews and to talk about what happened to Sombath. They encouraged me to use social media and other forms of communication to tell the world what happened to Sombath. They told me that in all cases of Enforced Disappearances, it is the state’s intention to silence the victims by disappearing them, and then use fear to intimidate the family members and friends of the disappeared so keep them from talking and seeking truth and justice for the loved ones. They advised that the best way to get truth and justice is to use all avenues – the United Nations and its special procedures, and human rights reporting mechanisms; the international community; human right organizations; and the media to highlight the case and to pressure the government, and to hold it accountable to tell the truth and resolve the case.

I took this advice and I overcame my fear and despair. I transformed myself from a victim to become a human rights activist and a human rights defender, especially on the issue of Enforced Disappearance.

Drawing inspiration from the May 18 Uprising and the Gwangju Human Rights Award.

Sombath and I had followed the May 18 Gwangju Uprising 40 years ago when we were students. We had admired the courage of the students and workers who stood up against the dictatorial military regime of Chun Doo Hwan and had sacrificed their lives for freedom and democracy in Korea.

In 2008, we had the opportunity to visit Gwangju for the first time. The first place we went was to visit the National Cemetery for the May 18th Democratic Uprising. We walked around the cemetery and visited the memorial hall to remember the events of that period. The visit was a very important reminder to us of the spirit of the May 18 Democratic Uprising. After the visit, we continued to talk about the Gwangju May 18 Uprising and about how struggles for democracy, social justice and peace is a continuous process. It also reminded us that we needed symbols of democratic uprisings like the Gwangju May 18 event to remind people everywhere that they must never take freedom or justice for granted. Upon our return to Laos, Sombath often talked about the Gwangju Uprising and the role young people played in their struggle to his young volunteers as a way of inspiring them that in whatever circumstances and situations, the young people are the ones who must lead change.

Then on 18 May 2015, Sombath Somphone was awarded the Gwangju Special Award for Human Rights. The award is an honor for Sombath; it also demonstrated that the May 18 Foundation wanted to use its prize to acknowledge the contribution of Sunbath’s tireless work for his people - his strong sense of service and social justice; his honesty and integrity, and his courage and vision. And like Sombath, I also strongly believe that people’s aspirations for a better life, a better society, and a better world could not be obliterated by intimidation and subjugation forever. The sparks of hope and the human desire for justice, freedom, democracy and peace would ignite and spread, as history has repeatedly shown; as the heroes of Gwangju have demonstrated.

The May 18 Gwangju award has boosted my courage and confidence to speak truth to power and to advocate for justice for the victims of human rights violations. Over the past few years, and especially after the Gwangju Human Rights, I have traveled the world and spoken out openly and tireless at numerous human rights forum/meetings, at press conferences, and TV and radio interviews. In my personal capacity and also as a member of AFAD (Asia Federation Against Enforced Disappearances), I have gone to meet with high-level officials in almost all major countries to let them know about the case of Sombath, and the human rights situation in Laos. I have also spoken on behalf of other victims of human rights violations, especially victims of Enforced Disappearance. I urged countries, including Korea, to rectify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. I have also continued to use the website: www. Sombath.org to document all the efforts made in my search for justice for Sombath and other victims of Enforced Disappearance. I also made a film “The Enforced Disappearance of Sombath Somphone” and showed it in major film festivals and human rights film events and uploaded it on you-tube for public viewing.

I believe that the 40th Anniversary of the May 18 Democratic Uprising is once more a very important marker for to all freedom and democratic loving people all over the world to remember the heroes of the May 18 Uprising and to draw renewed energy and strength to continue their struggle wherever they are.

And to sustain my journey going forward, I will continue to draw inspiration from all the other victims of human rights violations and from Human Rights and Democracy Movements like the May 18 Democratic Uprising to fight even harder for justice, human rights, peace and democracy for all.