WikiLeaks on Laos
Image Credit: R. M. Calamar

WikiLeaks on Laos

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The Laos files from WikiLeaks underscored the country’s underdevelopment, endemic corruption in the bureaucracy and the fragile state of its environment. But we already know that. What makes the cables interesting is the kind of frankness that we don’t often get to see or hear from diplomats’ public statements.

For example, here’s how the US Embassy in Vientiane described the poor and unequal economic conditions in the country:

‘Although GoL (Government of Laos) ministers and officials with salaries of less than S75 per month sport villas and cars worthy of Monte Carlo, GDP per capita is still officially less than $400…Unemployment is epidemic, underemployment is endemic, crime is rising, and the investment climate is among the least hospitable in the world.

‘There is almost no rule of law or basic human freedom in Laos, and education is in the hands of a corrupt and ideologically hidebound ministry that uses ADB money to build a grandiose but unnecessary new ministry building while rural children sit on logs and try to remember what a teacher looked like.’

One report even declared a ‘direct consequence of decades of abuse of power is that there is no public trust’ and that ‘government officials are presumed to be corrupt unless proven otherwise.’

These corrupt officials apparently approved the implementation of several development projects that are hurting the poor:

‘Intent on giving an open door to some foreign investors, the government has few compunctions about trampling on its own citizens, ignoring their traditional lands and livelihoods and utter dependence on their environment for their survival. In the near-absence of meaningful rule of law, those affected are at the mercy of sometimes venal, usually uncaring, bureaucrats administering the land use system.  As Laos’ reputation grows as an “easy” place for investors in sectors like hydropower, plantation forests and mining, more and more of Laos’ poorest citizens are likely to find themselves dispossessed of their traditional lands.’

It’s important to highlight that China, which shares land borders with Laos, is the biggest investor in northern Laos. It has cornered the big item land development projects which, according to WikiLeaks, have seriously damaged the environment. But would environmental preservation really still be a major concern if the investors were Americans and not Chinese?

Meanwhile, even the conduct of elections in Laos was indirectly criticized in the WikiLeaks cables

‘By-and-large, Lao citizens took the election seriously, as a matter of national pride. Voters were expected to show their regard for the electoral process. Women who showed up to polling stations wearing slacks or “improper” dress were sent home. In spite of the guarantee of a “secret” ballot, election officials were on hand to inspect each ballot to make sure the voters took their responsibility seriously and voted correctly.’

But there were also cable reports that recognized some achievements by the Laos government especially on its success in reducing opium cultivation in the country. From the late 1980’s until 2005, Laos was the third largest producer of opium poppy in the world. But the aggressive anti-opium drive of the local government, which received significant assistance from the US government, has effectively weakened the poppy cultivation industry in the country.

As far as Laos is concerned, WikiLeaks has no startling revelations to offer other than to confirm what we already know about this small, landlocked country in Southeast Asia. It must be emphasized, too, that the cables merely reflect what Washington considers important in deciding the future of its relationship with Laos. They don’t necessarily represent what Laotians really feel and think about their present and future.

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