Laos is a country that is usually described in accordance with one of two narratives.
The first portrays a Buddhist Shangri-La — the ‘real,’ ‘hidden,’ and ‘untouched’ Indochina dreamed of in Western backpacker fantasies — while the second depicts a highly impoverished country in desperate need of foreign aid and technical assistance.
Both depictions have some merit. Laos is rich in Buddhist history and it is predominantly an agrarian-based society where the average life expectancy is just 66 years and Gross National Income per capita is under $5,000. But there is much more to Laos than Buddhism and poverty.
In a recent article by The Diplomat, for example, Luke Hunt highlighted how the coupling of Laos’ draconian media monitoring laws with the country’s current role as the 2016 ASEAN Chair has the potential to constrain international reporting on important transnational issues discussed at ASEAN meetings and conferences.
While the Government of Laos has been quick to respond to this observation by publicly stating that “there will not be any problems” for foreign media to cover ASEAN events, the legislative restraints raise much larger questions around political oppression in Laos and the government’s willingness to facilitate the free and transparent dialogue that will be crucial to chairing ASEAN during this critical maiden year of both the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC).
The Worst of the Worst
Laos is a single-party state governed by an authoritarian regime that has ruled for more than 40 years without opposition.
On Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perception Index it is ranked 139 of 168 countries, on Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index it is 171 of 180 countries and, according to Freedom House, a highly credited independent watchdog on civil liberties, Laos is “less free” than both Vietnam and Myanmar. Unsurprisingly, such unmonitored oppression and corruption has come with wide ranging human rights abuses including unprovoked military attacks on ethnic Hmong communities, land seizures, and the arbitrary arrest of drug addicts, Christians, and political dissidents.
Indeed, given that organized political opposition and acts of public dissidence are almost non-existent in Laos, the government has arguably demonstrated a readiness for arbitrary detention that is unparalleled within Southeast Asia. Notable cases include the arrest of hundreds of peaceful protesters in October 1999 and again in November 2009; 12 and 15-year sentences for two Hmong men that served as guides for foreign journalists in 2003; and, most recently, the 2015 arrest of Polish-Lao citizen Bounthanh Thammavong for “disseminating propaganda against the government with the intention of undermining the state” on the social media platform Facebook.
Perhaps most disturbing of all efforts to curtail public debate in Laos, however, have been enforced disappearances – or the detention of persons by the state, followed by a refusal to reveal their fate or whereabouts.
Since its inception in 1980, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGEID) has recorded seven cases of unacknowledged detention in Laos, the most recent and widely recognized of which has been the December 2012 disappearance of the Ramon Magsaysay award-winning community development worker Sombath Somphone.
Given the seemingly irrefutable evidence of state involvement in Sombath’s abduction, which occurred at a police checkpoint in Vientiane, the case has led to widespread condemnation, including public press statements from Hilary Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, calls from the European Parliament for an ASEAN Human Rights Commission investigation and the 2015 rejection of Laos’ application for a seat on the United Nation Human Rights Council (UNHCR).
However, such condemnation has made little apparent impact in Laos, which rejected 80 of the UNHCR’s 196 Universal Periodic Review recommendations. Indeed, if anything, it seems that international pressure to improve transparency and protect human rights have only reinforced the government’s resolve to suppress public and political opposition.
In the same year that Sombath was abducted, a Swiss development worker who wrote a letter to donors requesting “frank dialogue and inclusive partnership” was given 48 hours to permanently exit Laos for “improper behavior” and an “unconstructive attitude” toward Laos. Around the same time, a highly popular call-in radio program that encouraged debate on a range of social issues was cancelled by the Ministry of Information, Culture, and Tourism without explanation. In January 2013 an article published in a Lao People’s Revolutionary Party magazine by then-Prime Minister Thongsing Thammavong explicitly called for government ministries to further regulate the actions of non-government organizations, while in September 2014 a new government decree (no. 327) was passed to curtail online freedom of expression by such means as preventing the use of pseudonyms and the sharing information that “tarnishes the dignity and rights of individuals, sectors, institutions, and organizations.”
Of particular concern to Laos’ chairing of ASEAN, its government has also made a number of attempts to stifle the voice of civil society organizations beyond its borders. At last year’s ASEAN Peoples Forum (APF) in Malaysia, for example, the Government of Laos pressed for a number of human rights issues (including Sombath’s abduction) to be omitted from discussion. This year, when the APF should be hosted in Vientiane alongside the ASEAN Summit, the government’s refusal to host the event has meant that it will instead take place in Timor-Leste. This marks the first time in the history of the APF that it will not be held in the same country as the ASEAN Summit.
From Authoritarian State to Authoritarian Region?
As the maiden year of both the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) and the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community (ASCC) there is widespread hope that 2016 will bring enhanced regional participation and dialogue across a range of transnational issues including trade partnerships, national security, cultural diplomacy, human rights, and climate change.
For Laos, serving as ASEAN chair at such a historically significant time represents a major opportunity to strengthen diplomatic partnerships, increase foreign investment, and stimulate economic development. However, such opportunities for growth and prosperity, in both Laos and the ASEAN region, will not be fully realized without open and transparent dialogue between member states, the private sector, civil society and the international media.
Whether the Government of Laos has the technical competence and political will to help foster an AEC that will allow for the free flow of capital, goods, services, investments, and labor across the region and an ASCC “that is people-oriented and socially responsible” remains to be seen.
Dr. Kearrin Sims is an adjunct fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University. His research examines issues surrounding regional connectivity and development in Southeast Asia.