Obama urged to press Laos on human rights at regional summit

Reuters: 31 August 2016

Activists have called on U.S. President Barack Obama to press Laos on its human rights record on issues such as illegal land concessions and forced evictions, when he visits the Communist country next week.

Obama is due to attend a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the capital Vientiane, becoming the first U.S. president to visit Laos.

Campaigners urged Obama to use a bilateral meeting with Laos President Bounnhang Vorachith to discuss issues ranging from environmental contamination to the fate of prominent Lao human rights activist Sombath Somphone, who disappeared in 2012.

“We see this visit to Laos as a human rights test for President Obama and his administration,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division.

“Are they prepared to come to Southeast Asia and speak publicly about the disappearance of such a prominent person as Sombath Somphone and talk about the ongoing rights violations that are taking place in Laos?” Robertson asked.

Sombath, a U.S.-educated activist focusing on rural development, went missing in Vientiane on Dec. 15, 2012. A video previously released by the authorities shows him being stopped at a police checkpoint before being led into a pickup truck.

Laos maintains the state is not involved in Sombath’s disappearance and police are still investigating, said Sombath’s wife Shui Meng Ng, adding that she has not had an update from police in more than two years.

Sombath’s disappearance and harassment of civil society members has had a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression, with many self-censoring over fears they will be punished, said Laurent Meillan, the acting regional representative of the U.N. Office for the High Commission of Human Rights.

Meillan also expressed concern about large scale development projects and land concessions impacting the rights of local communities.

According to HRW’s Robertson, the Lao government told civil society groups ahead of the ASEAN meeting that it would not permit various subjects to be discussed.

These include Sombath’s disappearance, hydropower projects, land issues or the rights of indigenous and LGBT people, he said.

Varias ONGs piden a Laos un mayor compromiso con los derechos humanos

El Diario: 31 Agosto 2016

Varias ONGs pidieron hoy a Laos un mayor compromiso con los derechos humanos e instaron a los países donantes que aborden el tema en la Cumbre de la Asociación de Naciones del Sudeste Asiático (ASEAN) que se celebra en Vientián la próxima semana con la asistencia del presidente de EEUU, Barack Obama.

Entre las vulneraciones, las organizaciones garantes de derechos humanos destacaron las desapariciones forzadas de activistas, la confiscación de tierras, la discriminación de las minorías, el control de los medios de comunicación, y la nula libertad de prensa y las detenciones arbitrarias.

En diciembre del 2012, el activista laosiano Sombath Somphone fue secuestrado en una de las principales avenidas de la capital de Laos tras recibir el alto en un control de tráfico, según se puede apreciar en imágenes registradas por cámaras de seguridad que logró la mujer del activista, Shui Meng. Continue reading “Varias ONGs piden a Laos un mayor compromiso con los derechos humanos”

Tackle Human Rights Abuses in Laos

ASEAN Meeting Should Highlight Disappeared Leader Sombath Somphone, Denial of Liberties 

(Bangkok, August 31, 2016) – On the eve of the annual ASEAN leaders summit in Vientiane, human rights and advocacy groups called upon the Lao PDR Government to commit to address its widespread violations of human rights, including instances of enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention. Visiting world leaders have a unique opportunity to publicly raise human rights concerns during the ASEAN summit in Vientiane from September 6-8. They should press the Lao government to cease the abuses that have consistently placed Laos at the bottom of rig hts and development indexes measuring rights, press freedom, democracy, religious freedom, and economic transparency.

ALogo-Sombath Initiativet the press conference organized today by The Sombath Initiative at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand in Bangkok, the groups released briefing papers on forcibly disappeared civil society leader Sombath Somphone, Laos’ restrictions on democracy and human rights, lack freedom of expression, failure to meet human rights obligations, and impacts of foreign aid and investment. Continue reading “Tackle Human Rights Abuses in Laos”

Repression in Laos Goes Under the Spotlight

TheNewsLens: 29 August 2016

TheNewsLens-2016Human rights and democracy advocates are using next week’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Vientiane, Laos, to draw attention to the country’s authoritarian regime.

Charles Santiago is a Malaysian Member of Parliament and Chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).

In an op-ed published in the Bangkok Post, Santiago slams Laos’ communist government for being a “regional leader” in repression. Continue reading “Repression in Laos Goes Under the Spotlight”

Laos leads region, but only in repression

Bangkok Post: 27 August 2016, By Charles Santiago

Lao Embassy in Bangkok-2013
In this photo taken in December 2012, activists hold a large banner featuring a poster of the missing civil society leader Sombath Somphone during a demonstation in Bangkok. Chanat Katanyu

On Sept 6, heads of state from around the world will gather in Vientiane, Laos, for the year’s only Asean Summit. The high-profile meeting should be a chance for the Lao government, as hosts, to showcase its regional leadership potential. But don’t expect a spectacle of economic, social or environmental innovation. The only thing on display will be the communist government’s unflinching commitment to authoritarianism at all costs — something that neighbouring governments seem ever eager to emulate.

Despite being the titular head of the regional bloc in 2016, Laos leads the region in few respects. Its economic output, in both overall and per capita terms, remains among the lowest in Asean, and its presence on the world stage is minimal.

But there is one particular area in which the Lao government has been a consistent regional leader: repression. Continue reading “Laos leads region, but only in repression”

ASEAN in Laos: Challenges of Leadership, Human Rights and Democracy

ASEAN logo 2016Press conference at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Thailand

11am, Wednesday 31 August, 2016, Bangkok 

At a time when ASEAN is witnessing an alarming increase in human rights abuses, restrictions on civil liberties, and a shrinking of democratic space in a number of its member states, what kind of example does this year’s ASEAN Chair, Laos, set for the regional bloc?

The enforced disappearance of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone in December 2012, ongoing arbitrary detentions, and extremely tight controls on the media and civil society have instilled an environment of fear, silence, and repression in Laos. Little news about the serious human rights abuses occurring in the country ever comes out in the media, allowing the continued violation of basic liberties.

Despite this repressive environment, foreign aid and investment continue to flow into Laos. Continue reading “ASEAN in Laos: Challenges of Leadership, Human Rights and Democracy”

Lao Government Muted Representatives to ASEAN People’s Forum

Radio Free Asia: 09 August 2016

Laos Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith (C) delivers the opening speech at the planary session of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' (ASEAN) 49th annual ministerial meeting in Vientiane, July 24, 2016.
Laos Foreign Minister Saleumxay Kommasith (C) delivers the opening speech at the planary session of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN) 49th annual ministerial meeting in Vientiane, July 24, 2016.

Laos’ representatives attending a meeting of civil society organizations that is held each year during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit said little about human rights issues inside their own authoritarian country because they were selected by the government in Vientiane, sources tell RFA.

While the ASEAN People’s Forum is designed to highlight human-rights issues in the 10 countries that make up ASEAN, the Lao government made sure that rights criticisms of that country were kept to a minimum by hand-picking the Lao civil society representatives attending the forum, according to the sources. Continue reading “Lao Government Muted Representatives to ASEAN People’s Forum”

ASEAN’s shame: Where is Sombath Somphone?

ASEAN Today: 26 July 2016

Photo: The Sombath Initiative/Facebook

By Sarah Caroline Bell

The sun had set on a warm Saturday evening in Vientiane. For most, December 15 2012 was just another weekend, but for Sombath Somphone, it marked the last time he was seen.

Shortly after 6pm, security camera footage captured the police stopping his vehicle a short distance away from the Australian Embassy Recreation Club. It is hard to see, but the footage shows Sombath being escorted into the Thadeua Police Post. His jeep is taken away by a motorcyclist, a truck appears outside the police post and Sombath is taken away. That was his last reported sighting.

In 2015, fresh new evidence was unearthed by the family which shows Sombath’s jeep being driven south. The government of Laos has stalled at every possible opportunity to investigate the disappearance and deny any knowledge of it. How can that be possible when his last contact was with multiple members of authority; the police? Continue reading “ASEAN’s shame: Where is Sombath Somphone?”

Radio silence

The Economist23 July 2016

As Barack Obama prepares for his first visit to Laos, its civil society struggles

Sombath is Missing

A HIGHLIGHT of Ounkeo Souksavanh’s years as a radio host in Vientiane, the capital of Laos, came in late 2011 when he hosted an episode of Wao Kao (“News Talk”) on land disputes in the south of the country. Near the end of the programme, Mr Ounkeo says, a listener called in and criticised the son of a Politburo member for allegedly grabbing land from farmers for a property-development project. In mid-2012 the Lao government appeared to show sympathy with such complaints: it said it would suspend the granting of permits to take over farmland for rubber plantations, a big cause of farmers’ gripes.

But there was no on-air celebration. The government had shut down the radio programme, one of the country’s only public outlets for grievance. In December 2012 Sombath Somphone, a campaigner for farmers’ rights who had publicly challenged the granting of rural land-use concessions to businesses, was stopped at a police post and put into the back of a pickup truck. He has not been heard from since. His supporters put up notices about his disappearance, like the one pictured on the next page. Officials told them to stop. Mr Ounkeo felt that he was in danger, too. He eventually left for America. He now works there for Radio Free Asia, a station funded by America’s Congress. Continue reading “Radio silence”

Is the Upcoming ACSC/APF a Safe Space for Independent Lao CSOs?

Focus on the Global South: 30 June 2016

ACSC-APF 2016 Logo“Laos’ CSOs have lost face because of Sombath Somphone. We have lost the financial sources from donors because of him,” said Mr. Cher Her, vice chair of Laos’ ASCS/APF NOC.

Chrek Sophea blogs on current issues confronting the ACSC/APF, reflecting on what have transpired in recent preparatory meetings and on the challenges that affect the future of this regional civil society formation, including Sombath Somphone’s enforced disappearance which continues to be a major issue.

In the two recently held preparatory meetings of the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (ACSC/APF) in March and May respectively, there have been no indications that the upcoming ACSC/APF, to be held in Dili, Timor-Leste in August 2016, can provide a safe space for Laos’ progressive and independent civil society organizations (CSOs)—a space where they can critique, raise concerns, and voice dissenting opinions on various issues, including human rights violations, enforced disappearance, and the negative impact of infrastructure development projects, agri-business, mega power investment projects, extractive industries, etc. on ordinary peoples’ lives. By safe, I mean that even in the presence of government-sponsored NGO representatives, the voices of these members of independent CSOs shall be heard. That they shall be allowed to organize and conduct their own panels and wouldn’t feel threatened or intimidated. Continue reading “Is the Upcoming ACSC/APF a Safe Space for Independent Lao CSOs?”