A Lao man working in Thailand has disappeared after criticizing his country’s government online and in public protests, Laotian sources said.
Od Sayavong, 34, vanished on Aug. 26 after telling a roommate that he would be home for dinner, Od’s roommate told Radio Free Asia’s Lao Service on Friday, speaking on condition of anonymity. Radio Free Asia (RFA) is a sister entity of BenarNews.
“At around 6 p.m., he sent me a text message telling me to cook rice for dinner, and that he would buy some other food on his way home, as he didn’t want to eat the food left in the refrigerator,” Od’s friend said.
“We waited for him until 11 p.m., and then till midnight, but he never showed up,” he said, adding, “Another roommate of ours called Tiger tried many times to reach him on the phone, but the calls didn’t connect, so we finally decided to eat without him.”
Also speaking to RFA, another friend who lives in the same building in Thailand’s capital Bangkok said he had seen Od briefly on the morning of the day he went missing.
“I saw him go off to work wearing his work uniform. I didn’t talk to him or ask him anything,” he said.
Od’s involvement in politics was the likely reason for his disappearance, the friend said.
“He had come out to protest against the [Lao] government, and most recently he had posted a video clip online criticizing the Lao government during the time of the ASEAN meetings in Thailand,” he said.
Democracy, human rights
Part of a group of Lao dissidents living in Bangkok, Od had taken part in a June 16 protest in the city calling for political freedoms and human rights in Laos, especially for the victims of government land grabs and dam collapses that have left hundreds stuck in poor housing without a way to earn a living.
Kongcheep Tantravanich, a spokesman for the Thai defense ministry, denied knowledge of Od's case and said Thailand does not have a policy to “suppress political refugees” from other countries, Channel News Asia quoted him as saying.
Od had also called for the release of three Lao workers given long prison terms in April 2017 for criticizing their government while working in Thailand, and for a U.N. investigation into the disappearance of rural development expert Sombath Somphone.
Sombath disappeared on Dec. 15, 2012, when police stopped him in his vehicle at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Vientiane. He was then transferred to another vehicle, according to a police surveillance video, and has not been heard from since.
Before his abduction, Sombath had challenged massive land deals negotiated by the government that had left thousands of rural Lao villagers homeless with little paid in compensation. The deals sparked rare popular protests in Laos, where political speech is tightly controlled.
Rights groups call for Thai probe
In a Sept. 6 statement, the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights and its member organization, the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR), called on Thai authorities to immediately investigate the activist’s disappearance.
“Od sought refuge in Thailand but the country has become increasingly unsafe for asylum seekers,” the rights group wrote.
“Thai authorities must immediately determine Od’s fate or whereabouts and the government must adopt measures that guarantee the rights of asylum seekers in accordance with international standards.”
Speaking to RFA on Friday, LMHR president Vanida Thepsouvanh said that Od’s case reminds her of the three Lao workers jailed in 2017 who had been kidnapped on their return from Thailand to Laos and then vanished in custody until their trial and sentencing.
“This appears to be a forced disappearance,” she said.
Early on Saturday (Thai time), Human Rights joined the calls demanding that Thailand probe the disappearance of Od, whom the New York-based rights watchdog described as a refugee from Laos.
“The Thai government should immediately provide information on the whereabouts of outspoken Lao activist Od Sayavong,” Brad Adams, the group’s Asia director, said in a press release.
“Bangkok’s streets should be safe from abductions and wrongful arrests.”
According to Human Rights Watch, “Thai authorities have frequently collaborated with foreign governments to harass, arbitrarily arrest, and forcibly return exiled dissidents in violation of international law.”
“The Thai government’s deference to abusive neighbors has once again appeared to have taken priority over its legal obligations,” Adams said. “Thailand needs to reestablish itself as a place where refugees are safe and stop assisting abusive countries by returning their dissidents.”