Shifting boundaries of development and activism: the case of Sombath Somphone

Sims, Kearrin (2022) Shifting boundaries of development and activism: the case of Sombath Somphone. In: Barrow, Amy, and Fuller, Sara, (eds.) Activism and Authoritarian Governance in Asia. Politics in Asia . Routledge, London, UK, pp. 42-55.

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Abstract

In December 2012, Sombath Somphone was abducted at a police checkpoint in Vientiane, Laos. The cause for Sombath’s enforced disappearance may never be confirmed, but many believe it lies in his co-convening of the 2012 Asia–Europe Meeting People’s Forum (AEPF). During this event, citizens shared stories with the international community of forced displacement and loss of livelihoods resulting from large-scale land concessions to foreign investors. As co-convenor of the Forum, Sombath may have been considered as orchestrating an event that was deemed to have brought embarrassment to Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) and threatened elite capture.

Enforced disappearances – when a person is abducted by or with the acquiescence of a state and there is a refusal to acknowledge the person’s whereabouts – are not uncommon in Southeast Asia. What makes Sombath’s disappearance particularly significant, however, is that he had always sought to work with, rather than in opposition to, the state. As a community development worker that had many close colleagues within the Government of Laos (GoL), his disappearance raises important questions about authoritarian states and where the boundaries lie between community development work and activism. Focusing on development work that “thinks and works politically”, this chapter considers such boundaries in the context of Laos. In addition, it explores how political–economic shifts or particular events can see individuals and organisations who are working with authoritarian governments quickly “recategorised” as oppositional activists. Finally, it explores the precarious spaces that community development organisations (and workers) in Laos inhabit, and the “acceptable” and “unacceptable” actions that such organisations may undertake in the pursuit of more open and democratic societies.

Item ID: 76303
Item Type: Book Chapter (Research - B1)
ISBN: 9781032152097
Copyright Information: © 2023
Date Deposited: 18 Oct 2022 00:08
FoR Codes: 44 HUMAN SOCIETY > 4404 Development studies > 440404 Political economy and social change @ 100%
SEO Codes: 23 LAW, POLITICS AND COMMUNITY SERVICES > 2399 Other law, politics and community services > 239999 Other law, politics and community services not elsewhere classified @ 100%
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