NGOs Say Proposed Guidelines Would Hamstring Lao Civil Society

Radio Free Asia: 02 October 2014

The authoritarian government in Laos is moving to restrict the operations of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) through a set of new measures, including requiring multiple and time-consuming approvals for community projects, according to the groups’ staff.

The measures are contained in proposed guidelines that would make a four-year-old decree regulating the activities of INGOs stricter in the one-party communist state, they said.

The June-proposed guidelines from the foreign ministry appear aimed at curbing their ability to work independent of the government, NGO staffers told RFA’s Lao Service ahead of an expected meeting with officials in October to discuss the proposal.

An INGO worker in Laos said on condition of anonymity that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) had invited feedback on its proposal from foreign embassies, donors and civil society groups, but said he feared that the suggestions would not be incorporated into the final draft.

“Even if MoFA took into account some proposed changes … there is still concern among INGOs that these guidelines are not addressing important issues, such as the increasing administrative burden … and the lack of predictability when implementing approved programs, or when requesting extension of activities or additional funding approval,” the staffer said.

“The conditions on which MoFA will grant or reject INGO applications (for getting operational permits, approval of MoUs, etc.) are not clearly defined,” he added.

Under the proposed guidelines, INGOs must annually obtain operating permits from the foreign ministry, which can take up to two months for approval.

MoFA would have to approve all INGO project proposals, foreign staff and the establishment of offices in Laos, according to the decree, which also states that INGOs are required to submit progress and financial reports for their projects at regular intervals.

Currently, operating permits are granted to INGOs on a case by case basis, depending on the projects approved through Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) negotiated with relevant government ministries. The MoUs also currently incorporate all approvals related to staffing and establishing offices. NGO staff believe permit applications based on the proposed guidelines would face tighter scrutiny.

Any INGOs or their staff who violate the guidelines “shall be warned, [or their] operation permit or project shall be suspended, depending on the nature of the transgression,” state the proposed guidelines, a copy of which was obtained by RFA.

Greater controls

A staff member from a local non-profit association (NPA) said that increased restrictions on INGOs would hurt the government’s efforts at reducing poverty in the country and could turn public opinion against it.

“I would like to see guidelines that allow more freedom for INGOs—for example, one that allows for a Lao country director, and simpler and faster procedures for approving MoUs. This would allow more foreign aid money to come to Laos, which would contribute to the government goal of poverty alleviation,” the NPA worker said.

“[These proposed guidelines] give me the feeling that the government wants to restrict the scope of INGOs. I think this because of their fear of opposition … [But] the restrictions they impose will have the effect that even more people will be dissatisfied with the government.”

The source said that additional restrictions would hinder the flow of foreign aid into Laos and cause donors to reduce their funding to the country, but admitted that the government was unlikely to be affected because “they have so many corporate investors knocking at their door to invest in land, mining and hydropower.”

An official from another NGO in Laos told RFA that greater controls would also make it more difficult for civil society groups to exchange ideas and work on their campaigns, as well as pressure them to refrain from opposing the government.

“If we are monitored, nobody will want to discuss the issues—[and it will be] hard to know how other organizations will operate,” he said.

“According to my observations, it’s likely nobody would dare to express their opinion. Foreign donors may also gradually cut funding to civil society organizations in Laos [because of the new restrictions].”

NPA decree

NGOs also expressed concerns over a government plan to amend a 2009 decree regulating the work of local NPAs by requiring them to notify or obtain permission from relevant ministries for funding they receive from foreign sources—regulations that currently do not exist.

A draft of the proposed amendment, obtained through local NGOs, requires NPAs to report foreign donations of more than 50 million kip (U.S. $6,215) to the Ministry of Finance and seek approval for those of more than 100 million kip (U.S. $12,430) from the Ministry of Finance, MoFA and the Ministry of Home Affairs.

It says that local non-profit groups should be limited to providing “support” in the fields of agriculture, education, public health, sport, science, and humanitarian benefits—a significantly narrower scope of issues than what both INGOs and NPAs currently focus on.

Any association or its members found in violation of the decree “or other relevant laws and regulations” faces warnings, suspensions, dissolution, or prosecution on a “case by case” basis.

A member of an INGO operating in Laos told RFA that the government had not offered to consult with civil society in the NPA decree revision process, which is being undertaken with the collaboration of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), or made its current draft public.

“The substance of the new decree … is likely to be even more restrictive on civil society organizations in terms of areas of work, [and] imposing additional controls and monitoring,” the source said.

He expressed concern that a consultant hired by the UNDP to work with the Lao government “seems to support some of the limitations,” adding that the UNDP should be working to “promote more openness and participation in the process.”

Targeting NGOs

Observers have suggested that the government is targeting both INGOs and NPAs with new curbs because many work in the field of development—a controversial topic in recent years in Laos, which is the least developed of all the member states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

According to the World Bank, Laos had a gross domestic product (GDP) of merely U.S. $11.14 billion in 2013, compared to neighbors Vietnam with U.S. $171.4 billion and Thailand with U.S. $387.3 billion.

Much of the country’s recent foreign investment has involved controversial land concessions for rubber plantations, mining, logging and hydroelectric dams—projects that have resulted in forced evictions, compensation disputes and environmental degradation.

NGO workers say that the government had changed its attitude towards their organizations after the country hosted the ninth Asia-Europe Forum in 2012, a meeting of heads of state from Asia and Europe.

The meeting was accompanied by a session of NGOs and civil society leaders—the Asia-Europe People’s Forum—which covered issues such as human rights and environmental justice that had not previously been discussed in such a public manner.

The forum was followed by the expulsion of one of its organizers, country director of Switzerland-based Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation Anne-Sophie Gindroz, in December 2012 for criticizing Laos in a letter to donors that said the regime stifles debate and creates a hostile environment for aid groups.

That same month, education and development campaigner Sombath Somphone—the country’s foremost civil society leader—went missing after he was stopped in his vehicle at a police checkpoint, in the capital Vientiane. He was seen in police surveillance video being transferred into another vehicle and has not been heard from since.

In January 2013, former president and chairman of the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party Khamtai Siphandon issued a series of orders to government officials and party members through the state media, urging them to “control the actions of nongovernmental organizations, social organizations [and] charitable foundations.”

“Intensely control and further check the reality that [these] opposition powers and groups of bad people … are acting to destroy and quickly change our country through non-violent means,” the order said.

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