Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, is sharply critical of the situation facing civil society in the Lao PDR in a forward to the book Au Laos, la Répression Silencieuse by Anne-Sophie Gindroz. Excerpts include:
Laos is something of a void on the human rights map these days… A casual observer might take this to mean that things are all well.
But that is a horribly misguided assessment, of course, for Laos is like few countries I know.
I first began to understand few years back, when I had my first encounter with members of Laos’ civil society at an international conference. My overriding impression from these individuals was the profound and all-encompassing fear that engulfed them. Their lack of trust was palpable. They did not want to talk to me with others present. They did not even want to be seen with me.
I have never seen anything quite like it. These individuals were like islands– operating in apparent isolation, prevented from exercising their fundamental human right to connect with others who shared their concerns.
…And Sombath’s case seems to have only created more trepidation, which is a tragic irony. He dared to affirm his convictions, and his courage and dedication should be an inspiration. Instead, it is viewed as a warning. The culture of fear is that deep.
This culture, of course, is toxic to a thriving civil society movement. Activism is based on connections, relationships, discourse, and open discussion. None of this is possible when fear crushes people’s very ability to talk to one other.