Human rights under scrutiny in Laos ahead of ASEAN meet

Anadolu Agency: 31 August 2016

BANGKOK, THAILAND - AUGUST 31: An activist holds a protest in front of the Laos Embassy in Bangkok calling on the government to stop Human Rights violations.
BANGKOK, THAILAND – AUGUST 31: An activist holds a protest in front of the Laos Embassy in Bangkok calling on the government to stop Human Rights violations.

One week before Laos hosts a summit of Southeast Asian leaders, international rights groups are demanding that Thailand’s sleepy northern neighbor improve its human rights situation.

But while advocates have underscored the state of human rights in the country, the wife of a prominent civil society leader who disappeared after being arrested in Vientiane in December 2012 had more personal concerns Wednesday.

“I hope [Barack] Obama, [United Nations secretary-general] Ban Ki-moon and other leaders will ask directly Laos leaders on the case of Sombath Somphone,” Shui-Meng Ng told a press conference in Bangkok co-organized by several rights groups supporting the Sombath Initiative, a project established to find the truth about his disappearance and improve the human rights situation in Laos.
Both the U.S. president — the first to ever visit Laos — and Ban will be in Vientiane for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit.

“The government continues to say it is not involved in the disappearance and that the police continue to investigate. But I have not been contacted for any update for two years. It is going exactly in the way the abductors want, that is to say that the passing of time erases the memory of Sombath,” she said.

Other speakers at the event underscored what they considered to be the sorry state of the human rights situation in Laos, in almost every field.

“At the international level, while Laos has ratified seven core human rights convention, it has failed to keep up with its reporting obligations,” said Laurent Meillan, acting regional representative in Southeast Asia for the U.N. High Commission on Human rights.

“We also regret that Laos has not engaged in other important human rights mechanisms. For example, only two U.N. human rights experts have visited the country over the past 18 years,” he added.

Human Rights Watch Deputy-Director for Asia Phil Robertson emphasized that for the first time the ASEAN People’s Forum, a meeting of civil society organizations held in parallel with the ASEAN summit, could not take place in the host country.

“The Laos government said clearly that they were going to interfere and not allow some topics to be discussed [if the forum took place in Laos], not only about enforced disappearances, but also about the impact of mega-projects, about hydropower, rights of indigenous peoples and LGBT rights,” he said.

During the course of the conference, Somphone’s disappearance was seen as emblematic of a deteriorating human rights situation in the country of 7 million people.

Walden Bello, a former member of the Philippines’ congress and vice-chair of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights stated that the disappearance has had a tremendous bearing on the future of human rights and democracy in Laos.

“We cannot let it go,” he stated.

Earlier on Wednesday, two Lao migrant workers — who said they belonged to a group called the Lao Youth Movement for Human Rights — brought a letter to Laos’ embassy in Bangkok, emphasizing the human rights problems they said occurred in Laos.

They were quickly surrounded by around 30 Thai police officers, but were allowed to leave freely after delivering the letter, which they promised to also deliver to the U.N. regional office.

The heads of government and heads of state of the 10 ASEAN member countries will gather in Vientiane from Sept. 6 to Sept. 8.

Laos became an authoritarian communist state after the Pathet Lao guerilla movement took over the country in December 1975 after a 22-year civil war, during which the U.S. — while fighting in its eastern neighbor Vietnam — dropped an estimated two million tons of bombs on the country.

What became known as the “Secret war” left a dangerous and costly legacy, with about 30 percent of the ordnance failing to explode.
Since 1977, political and civil liberties have been strictly limited in the country, all local media is heavily controlled by the government, and foreign news agencies wishing to open a bureau are told they will only be allowed to do so if they agree to submit all stories to the foreign ministry for prior approval before publishing.

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