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Missing Laos activist highlights government repression

BANGKOK -- A year ago, Ng Shui-Meng watched a closed-circuit police video in disbelief as it revealed the moment her husband, the most prominent civil rights advocate in Laos, disappeared.

It shows Sombath Somphone being stopped by traffic police on his way home around 6 p.m. on Dec. 15, 2012. A man in a black windbreaker emerges from the police post and drives his car away. Two other men then escort the 61-year-old activist into a pickup truck.

His wife, who obtained the video a day after his disappearance, still doesn't know what happened next.

The apparent abduction has sent a chilling message to the country's already fragile civil society, and exposed Laos as one of Asia's most repressive societies rather than the languid land of smiles of backpacker blogs and tourism boosters.

Laos' media is under total state control, security watchdogs operate down to the grassroots and foreign human-rights organizations are banned. The communist government responds to even the small and peaceful public protests which periodically surface with swift suppression and arrests.

The landlocked Southeast Asian country of 6.5 million is not known to have gulags or a large number of political prisoners. Dissidents and rights activists say quiet but sharp injections of fear impose silence and self-censorship on a largely apolitical population.

“Every repressive regime has its own way of dealing with dissidents. In Laos, they disappear people without a trace,” said Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia.

Laos, one of five single-party communist governments left in the world, has maintained a wall of silence around what it says is an ongoing investigation into Sombath's disappearance, despite appeals from Western governments.

It is among the world's poorest nations and is heavily dependent on billions of dollars in international aid, but donors have shied away from using that aid to press for democratic reform. Foreign aid groups working in Laos have been largely silent: A network of 70 of them did not even mention Sombath at a high-level meeting with the government last month.

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Lao school children play in Buddha park, 25 kilometers south-east of the capital Vientiane Laos on Thursday, Dec. 12. (AP)

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