What is Laos Hiding?

Dr. Ng Shui-Meng in Washington DC, April 2014

Claudia Vandermade
Chair, AIUSA Southeast Asia Coordination Group

It’s always in the eyes.  When we meet with the families of the disappeared there are a range of messages in the eyes from fear to loss to sorrow but also an occasional flicker of hope.  Dr. Ng Shui-Meng came to Washington DC recently and expressed all these feelings plus one other – determination. 

Ng Shui–Meng is demanding an explanation for the 15 December 2012 disappearance of her husband, Sombath Somphone, from a police checkpoint in the Laotian capital of Vientiane.   She was able to obtain poor-quality video footage of the checkpoint which shows Sombath Somphone reluctantly getting out of his Jeep which is then driven off by someone else.  A short time later we see Sombath and two others get into a truck that rapidly leaves the scene.   

Amnesty International’s report, Laos: Caught on Camera, shows that Sombath Somphone is an unlikely target for the “kidnapping” suggested by the Lao government.  As an active member of civil society, Sombath founded the Participatory Development Training Centre in 1996 to promote education, leadership skills and sustainable development in Laos. In 2005, he received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership. 

Shui-Meng, a former senior UNICEF official, described her 63-year-old husband as well known and respected by both local and national government officials.  Often referred to in Laos as “Uncle Sombath,” he works with authorities for the people’s right to livelihood, health, education and a clean environment.  With no threats or indications of trouble, Shui-Meng still appears shocked at her husband’s disappearance. 

Shui Meng recently wrote a letter to Sombath with sad news:  his mother died a few weeks ago. “I am…saddened by the fact that your kind and gentle mother who had never caused any harm to anybody, had to suffer the pain of you, her most beloved son, being taken away from her side when she most wanted you to be with her during the last days of her life.”

Shui-Meng reports that there seems to be a “wall of silence” that has fallen inside the country as a result of Sombath’s disappearance.  “It’s clear that civil society’s space has narrowed. They try to continue their work, but the space has been limited.”

Amnesty USA is part of a campaign to return Sombath Somphone to his family.  You can work with us by contributing a photo to our Flickr campaign, Where is Sombath?.


Shi'a Muslims at risk of attack in Indonesia

Rather than protecting Shi'a villagers, security forces filmed the attack on mobile phones
     Hundreds of Indonesian Shi'a Muslims have been living in a temporary shelter after their village was attacked by anti-Shi’a groups at the end of December. On 12 January, they were forced back to their village, despite an ongoing risk of further attacks.
     On 28 December 2011, Shi’a religious leaders from Nangkrenang village in Sampang district, Madura Island were warned by the Omben sub-district police that their community would be attacked by anti-Shi’a groups. Despite requests for police protection, only one police and one military officer were present on the morning of 29 December when a mob of around 500 hundred people, some carrying sharp weapons, entered the village. According to local sources, the officers did not intervene but instead recorded the attacks on their mobile phones. The mob set fire to a place of worship, boarding school and various homes in the vicinity. Although 25 Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) officers arrived at the scene an hour later, no steps were taken to prevent the attacks or protect the community. One person arrested for the attack has since been released.
     Following the attacks, around 335 villagers, including at least 107 children, were evacuated to a temporary shelter at a sports complex in Sampang. Many of the children were afraid to go back to their homes and schools. Conditions in the shelter were reported to be inadequate, with limited access to clean water and sanitation.
     On 4 January 2011 the Sampang district authorities and police began to pressure community members to return to their homes. Water supplies to the shelter were reduced and the authorities threatened to evict some community members from the shelter. The community refused to leave the shelter until they received adequate protection from the police and the perpetrators of the attack were brought to justice. In spite of this request, they were forced onto trucks by the local government authorities on the evening of 12 January, and taken back to their village. However, the authorities told four community members that they could not return.

     The Shi’a community in Sampang, East Java have faced intimidation and attacks in the past, including in 2006 and 2011. They have also reportedly been pressured by anti-Shi’a groups to convert to Sunni Islam.
     Amnesty International has documented numerous cases of intimidation and violence against religious minorities by radical Islamist groups in various parts of Indonesia. These include attacks and burning of places of worship and homes, at times leading to their displacement. In most cases, those who commit acts of violence are not punished.

Borei Keila Evictions, Cambodia

     The United Nations defines forced evictions as “the involuntary removal of persons from their homes or land, directly or indirectly attributable to the State” and are prohibited under international law.  Amnesty International has been dismayed by continuing forced evictions across Cambodia, together with repressive actions taken against those who oppose these evictions.  Most recently, 24 women and 6 children forcibly evicted from the Borei Keila area of Phnom Penh were arrested on 11 January during a peaceful protest. They are being arbitrarily detained, and are at risk of ill-treatment.  Another 8 (possibly more) were arrested the previous week during the course of the eviction itself.
     The 30 women and children were among a group protesting peacefully in Phnom Penh against the detention of around eight people arrested during the forced eviction of Borei Keila on 3 January 2012. The women and children were arrested and taken to Prey Speu Social Affairs Center in Phnom Penh. The Center is used by the authorities to arbitrarily detain homeless people, drug users, and sex workers rounded up from the streets. Human rights NGOs have previously reported that detainees there have been subjected to abuses including rape, murder, and threats of violence. No human rights monitors have been able to visit the 30 women and children in the Center.
      On 3 January, the homes of around 300 families living in Borei Keila were destroyed by workers from a construction company which had acquired some of the land in 2003. Human rights monitors and media reported that security forces who were present used tear gas and rubber bullets against the residents, and rocks, logs and bottles were thrown during clashes. More than 64 people were reportedly injured. At least eight of the residents were arrested, and remain in detention. The charges against them are not known. Most of those evicted have been moved to two separate sites. Conditions at one site, Srah Po, 45 kilometres from Phnom Penh, are reportedly poor, with no adequate sanitation or housing. Some families have only received a plot of land and are living under tarpaulins, others have not been given anything. Many lost their possessions when their homes were destroyed.
      Forced evictions can have catastrophic effects for people who already live in poverty. In Cambodia and elsewhere, they result not only in people losing their homes, neighborhoods and personal possessions, but also their social networks and the break-up of communities.  People are often left homeless or relocated to remote areas. In both these situations, people may also no longer be able to access sources of clean drinking water, food, sanitation, work, health, and education.
     Amnesty International urges the government of Cambodia to take steps to ensure that legal rights are upheld for the residents of Borei Keila and other contested properties.  In particular, we ask that the government take steps to:
  •            Immediately release the 30 peaceful women and children protesters who were detained on 11 January and are now being detained at Prey Speu Social Affairs Center;
  •            Conduct a full and independent investigation into the forced eviction of some 300 families living at Borei Keila, Phnom Penh on 3 January, including into why the eviction took place, and the apparent excessive use of force by security forces;
  •            Release the (at least) eight villagers who were arrested on 3 January, pending further investigations;
  •            Suspend and prosecute those members of the security forces responsible for excessive use of force in the eviction of Borei Keila;
  •            Ensure adequate compensation and suitable alternative accommodation that meets international standards for all those forcibly evicted to be provided with for adequate housing.
  •            Prevent further forced evictions in Cambodia, in accordance with international law.  
What can you do?  

Use the points listed above to write to:

Prime Minister Hun Sen
Prime Minister’s Office
Phnom Penh
Fax: + 855 23 212 490/+855 23 880 624

Click here for the most current Urgent Action on these evictions.


Should you travel to Myanmar?

Migrant workers from Myanmar return home after being expelled from Thailand -- far from those sunny beaches
     Well, in case you wondered, we have now found Alison Mager's button -- the sunny beaches of Myanmar.  Alison reacted to a recent article in the New York Times by saying that "the article strains my commitment to non-violence." And in the best of Amnesty style and passion, a lively discussion has ensued on the Myanmar listserv.
     The article listed 45 places to go in 2012, and in the number three spot was Myanmar, a destination with "renowned cultural treasures, world-class boutique hotels and deserted beaches."   The listserv discussion has focused on the pros and cons of travel to the area:  the extent to which tourism enriches the government or may benefit the people with exposure and cash.
     Until late 2010, the National League for Democracy (NLD) had called for a travel boycott to Myanmar.  However, U Win Tin, leader of the NLD announced a revision of the policy by saying "We want people to come to Burma, not to help the junta, but to help the people by understanding the situation: political, economic, moral – everything." But he added: "To have a very big cruise ship with hundreds of tourists coming in – that's a lot of money for the regime, and so we don't like such big business."
     Where does Amnesty stand on travel to Myanmar?  Andrea Wolper pointed out that "Amnesty does not endorse or call for boycotts so in that sense there's no Amnesty perspective."  Country Specialist Jim Roberts agreed, adding:   "We all know that tourism income benefits the government, but that is outside our area of direct concern.  However, we can use the issue of travel to Myanmar, as the NYC Myanmar Action Team has done, to encourage travelers and travel companies to inform themselves about human rights conditions."
     Speaking of the NYC Myanmar Action Team -- check out the wonderful website they developed called Human Rights and Travel.  Jim has suggested that we respond to the NY Times article by referring readers to this website.
     I feel this little post must end with Alison, however -- in her words:  "Land of 'boutique hotels'   OH PLEASSSSSE."


Zarganar Coming to the U.S.

     Many AIUSA groups know about the Burmese prisoner, Zarganar.  Several local groups across the country adopted him and worked tirelessly for his freedom. On October 12th he was released, along with around 200 others, from his latest stint in prison.
     The 50-year-old comedian had been serving a 35-year sentence spurred by his criticism of Myanmar's decision to block foreign aid in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.  
     We are excited to learn that Zarganar is on his way to the U.S.  He will arrive at the end of January to spend three months working with the Clinton Foundation.  Our country specialists will be working to learn more details about his visit -- where he'll be, and definitely, how Amnesty members might be able to meet him.  
     Stay tuned...and wishing you all a Happy New Year!


Commemoration of Maguindanao Massacre in San Francisco

AIUSA Philippine Country Specialist Vener (Nerve) Macaspac organized and led a spirited action on November 22d at the San Francisco Public Library, to commemorate the 57 victims of the Maguindanao Massacre.  The event was sponsored by AIUSA in collaboration with the CA-NV United Methodist Church Philippines Solidarity Task Force. Approximately 25 people attended the event which included a video screening, a brief open forum, a Write-A-Thon, and the offering of prayers inside the Library.  The group then proceeded outside to light candles in front of a BART station which offered great traffic for canvassing.

The focus of the letter-writing was solidarity with the victim's families.  Nerve is cooperating with the Amnesty office in the Philippines to make sure the letters are delivered to the families.

For anyone who has organized an event, you know how much planning and anxiety goes into the process. Nerve is a relatively new country specialist, and this was his first foray into this form of activism -- what a great initiation!  Thanks to Nerve, and also to the AIUSA Western Regional Office for their help.


Two Years and Still No Justice

The site of the massacre, photo by Hazel Galang

     Hazel Galang, Amnesty's Southeast Asia Campaigner from London, is currently in the Philippines on this second anniversary of the Maguindanao massacre.  She reports:

I have come back from the massacre site a few hours ago.  Personally, it was quite a harrowing experience to go to the site where a senseless politically-motivated killing of at least 57 people happened.  I went with some civil society representatives and we had to go with some military escorts as the security threat was a bit high.  Two bombs were found in the massacre site and the dirt road that lead to it this morning.  They were detonated by the soldiers.  Another grenade was confiscated in a public market close to the site.

     Fifty-seven people, 32 of them jouralists, were killed in the Maguindanao massacre on November 23, 2009.  The victims were brutally killed and dumped in a mass grave on a hillside in the town of Ampatuan in the southern Philippine province of Maguindanao.
     Those killed were on their way to witness the filing of candidacy for a local politician when they were stopped by an estimated 100 armed men. Leaders of the powerful Ampatuan clan have been charged in connection with the killings but no prosecutions have been concluded.
     Amnesty International groups around the world have held public events and memorials commemorating the second anniversary of the massacre.  In the US, Philippine Country Specialist Nerve Macaspac organized a program at the San Francisco Public Library on the 22nd.  
Photo by Hazel Galang