Reflections on Lao Civil Society

The decree [115/PM] reflects the view of the Lao government that civil society has a role to play in the country’s development, but civil society should play this role under the government’s control and in line with government policies and goals.

…The government accepts that CSOs have a role in service delivery in close collaboration with the state. The presence of CSOs on the ground is recognized, and the government expects efficient and inclusive service delivery, but also the downward accountability of CSOs.

…Donors (both INGOs and bilateral donors) expect Lao civil society to take up a broader and more diversified role beyond service delivery. Their general rationale for supporting civil society is the need for an improvement in governance and the promotion of a plurality of voices in Lao society.

…Cases of threat and harassment also happened to a number of other activists. People were put into insecurity and fear and Lao civil society in effect relapsed to an even worse state than prior to AEPF. The trust between government and civil society receded.

…In the past two years, the government has enforced more restriction and control on the participation of civil society in Round Table Meetings and other venues. The registration of non- profit associations (NPAs) has been more difficult with a very few new successful registrations since.

…Meanwhile, the AEPF incidents have left Lao civil society in trauma. Critical CSOs emerging during the period leading to the AEPF have either closed down or significantly diluted their work. Civil society workers now feel insecure when they speak of issues that differ from or critical of the government.

Excerpts from “Reflections on Lao Civil Society,” KEPA, March, 2015.

Monks and young people

Monk’s chanting is not very interesting to the young people. But at the same time the young monks are very active and they want to do something. So I think linking these dynamic monks with young people is important so that the young people can learn about cultural and spiritual aspects though actually doing the work.

Sombath Somphone, Towards Global Transformation: Making Change Happen, at the 3rd International Conference on Gross National Happiness, November 2007, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand.

FIDH-LMHR submission to UN HR Council

The space for civil society to conduct human rights activities remains non-existent in the Lao PDR, in breach of Article 22 of the ICCPR. Political groups other than the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party-backed organizations are banned. The government has routinely used its influence to manipulate the membership of civil society organizations’ boards and has forced some organizations to change their names to remove certain words, such as “rights.”

…Lao authorities continue to arbitrarily arrest and detain government critics and charge them under provisions of the Criminal Code. In many cases, little or no information is provided to those arrested on the reason for the deprivation of their liberty or the charges they face. Lao activists have been detained incommunicado without access to legal assistance, and held in prolonged pre-trial detention. This amounts to a clear violation of Article 9 of the ICCPR [see also below, Article 14].

…The government has continued to refuse to adequately and effectively address the issue of enforced disappearance in the country. To this day, the fate and whereabouts of at least 13 activists remain unknown. In the most emblematic case, the government has failed to conduct a thorough, credible, and impartial investigation into the enforced disappearance of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who disappeared after being last seen at a police checkpoint on a busy street in Vientiane on 15 December 2012.

Excerpts from the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) submission to the List of Issues for the 121st session of the UN Human Rights Committee. The full submission is available here, and the Lao government report and other documentation here.

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Australia promises continued pressure

Australia continues to raise concern with Laos about the disappearance of Mr Sombath Somphone, and the case continues to figure prominently in bilateral discussions with Laos.

…Australia further pressed Laos to conclude an urgent and credible investigation intoMr Sombath’s disappearance, emphasising pressure will remain on Laos unless the case is transparently and credibly solved.

From a letter regarding the 2015 Lao-Australia Human Rights Dialogue from Richard Andrews, Assistant First Secretary, Southeast Asia Mainland and Regional Division, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

The next such dialogue will take place in Vientiane on July 18th, and be led by the head of DFAT’s human rights division. The Lao government has not released any information on the case in in over four years: The need for continued pressure remains undiminished.

Those wishing to provide inputs for this dialogue may send them to Ms. Sophie Wilkinson, Second Secretary at the Australian Embassy in Vientiane: sophie.wilkinson@dfat.gov.au

“NGOs generally exercised self-censorship…”

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally exercised self-censorship, which civil society considered was a direct result of Sombath Somphone’s disappearance. The chilling effect of the disappearance of an internationally respected civil society advocate caused lesser-known local activists to believe they had little hope of avoiding a similar fate if they were too outspoken.

From US State Department 2016 Human Rights Report on Laos.