Forbes: 27 December 2016
We know about North Korea as Asia’s most hardcore police state. The government enslaves and kills people who dispute the policies of leader Kim Jong-un.
Laos looks free and happy by contrast. Travelers can walk across the quiet, uncluttered capital Vientiane’s commercial-tourist district in an hour if that. A string of cafes near the riverside make French coffee. Slow-moving, smiling vendors are more likely to miscount change in your favor than cheat. The warm orange hues of Buddhist monks and temples radiate from streetsides. Westerners can get visas on arrival at the Vientiane airport. The idea of a police state would seldom occur to the interloper in Laos, though it’s a one-party Communist country.
Now try being a Laotian citizen with gripes about how things are run. Authorities in the country with a population of 7 million make some of Asia’s most chilling grabs of dissenters. Laos is better known for “disappearances” compared to putting people on trial after detention periods as practiced in communist China and Vietnam. And you never know when you might say something that disappears you, a deterrent to speaking out.
“Beyond the smiles and the easy-going pace of Laos that attracts the tourists, the Lao government is still a very secretive, authoritarian state that tolerates no challenges, real or perceived, to its authority,” says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director with New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch. “There is a high intimidation factor, because the Lao government also doesn’t clearly mark where the political red lines are that will prompt them to act, so self-censorship in words and actions is increasingly the norm.”
The best known case is that of Sombath Somphone, a U.S.-educated agricultural development and civil society activist. He hasn’t been seen since Dec. 15, 2012, when his jeep was stopped at a police checkpoint, Radio Free Asia reports. The report says videos of the abduction show Sombath being “forced into a white truck and taken away.” His wife started a campaign to make the government give information, and in 2013 the disappearance caught the attention of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
Sombath’s case is just one being tracked by overseas human rights groups. At least 12 other people have disappeared since 1999, Paris-headquartered International Federation for Human Rights said. Most were organizing pro-democracy events, and one had criticized Chinese-sponsored agricultural projects. (Some projects denude forests.) The federation also has documented four police or court cases involving dissidents over the past two years, many involving anti-government content on Facebook.
The ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party is corrupt, Robertson says. Party elites take natural resources and work with foreign interests to make money, hurting the rural poor, he says. That dynamic may spark pleas to consider ethnic minority rights, environmental protection or the livelihood of displaced rural households. The disappeared are presumed to be in the Lao criminal justice system somewhere.
“Having been to both countries, I would say that in Asia Laos is the closest thing to North Korea,” says Andrea Giorgetta, director of the federation’s Asia Desk. “Non-existent space for civil society, severe restrictions on the whole gamut of civil and political rights, rampant corruption, and economic mismanagement are common traits between these two repressive dictatorships.”