Old Relationships Strengthened, New Relationships Formed: AFAD’s First Council Meeting of 2015
By Michele Park Sonen, NKHR Program Officer
Seventeen human rights activists sat around a conference table listening to the words of a 12-year-old girl from Indonesia. She spoke shyly of her father, Munir Said Thalib: “I don’t remember my dad because I was only two when he died, but my brother says he was really fun.” Ten years ago, Munir—a well-known human rights lawyer and activist— was assassinated for defending human rights in Indonesia. On a flight from Jakarta to Amsterdam, Munir was served a lethal dose of arsenic. Members of Indonesia’s intelligence service were allegedly behind the murder. Munir’s daughter was two years old; his son, six.
Fast-forward eight years and Sombath Somphone is forcibly disappeared in Laos. He was last seen being taken by Lao police for unknown reasons. Sombath was a hero in his home county Laos. He pioneered rural development initiatives that empowered local communities through sustainable agriculture and food security, as well as programs focused on youth development. Over two years have passed since his disappearance, but the Lao government refuses to provide any information about his fate or whereabouts. Sombath’s wife, Shui Meng, was among the seventeen human rights advocates listening to Munir’s young daughter.
The victims of enforced disappearance and their families are what have brought the seventeen human rights defenders together. We are all council members of the Asian Federation Against Enforced Disappearances (AFAD), and from February 7 to 9, 2015, in Bangkok, Thailand, we attended AFAD’s first council meeting of 2015. NKHR has been a member organization of AFAD since 2012. Council members from all over Asia participated, from Timor Leste to Nepal, to Laos, to Bangladesh.
Like all council meetings, the agenda focused on administrative issues and planning. An AFAD project of particular interest is currently being coordinated between Timor-Leste and Indonesia. Three member organizations will soon begin reuniting disappeared Timorese children with their families. These children were abducted to Indonesia years ago during the brutal Indonesian occupation of Timor-Leste. This project could serve as an important model for reuniting families during Korean unification.
Perhaps more significant than the administrative discussions, however, was the strengthening of solidarity among AFAD’s members. NKHR heard about the personal attacks on AFAD members in Bangladesh, and the continued repression and violence against the people of India-occupied Kashmir. Many of the council members seated around that table risked their lives every day to defend their communities’ human rights. Shui Meng, the wife of Sombath, is one example. She has led a largely one-woman crusade demanding answers from the Lao government, winning the support of numerous governments and international NGOs. These human rights defenders are an inspiration.
The council meeting reaffirmed all member organizations’ commitments to ending enforced disappearances, and to one another. Old relationships were strengthened, while new relationships were formed. The support shown by the AFAD members for North Korean human rights, and specifically for the victims of enforced disappearance and their families, was truly heartening. NKHR looks forward to continued advocacy with AFAD, to obtain answers and justice for the victims, and for South Korea to sign the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.
Munir Said Thalib’s daughter speaking to AFAD Council Members
NKHR Program Officer Michele Park Sonen with Shui Meng, wife of Sombath Somphone