Final Declaration 9th Asia-Europe People’s Forum

This event is without a doubt the largest civil society event ever organized in the Lao PDR and regarded as the most successful AEPF to date. On that note, we Lao NPAs and iNGO civil society organizing partners of the AEPF9 are proud to share the AEPF9 Final Statement and look forward to cooperating with you in related follow up actions.

From the Final Declaration 9th Asia-Europe People’s Forum held in Vientiane, Lao PDR on 16-19 October, 2012.

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.

Will Laos ever have ‘another Sombath’?

Will other civil society leaders emerge who are able to see beyond the implementation of projects to a wider vision and analysis?

Given the silence within Laos following Sombath’s disappearance, might there be more cases?

Laos: No Progress on Rights

HRW: 17 July 2017

Australian officials should press the government of Laos to respect human rights at the Australian-Laos human rights dialogue, scheduled for July 18-19, 2017, in Vientiane, Human Rights Watch said today in a submission to the Australian government. Key areas of concern in Laos are freedom of speech, association, and assembly; enforced disappearances; abusive drug detention centers; and repression of minority religious groups.

“The Lao government’s suppression of political dissent and lack of accountability for abuses stand out in a human rights record that is dire in just about every respect,” said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. “As a major development partner of Laos, Australia can and should press for greater respect for basic rights.”

Restrictions on civil and political rights in Laos include draconian controls over freedom of speech, association, and peaceful assembly. The lack of fair trials of criminal suspects, widespread judicial corruption, and entrenched impunity for human rights violations are continuing problems, Human Rights Watch said. Continue reading “Laos: No Progress on Rights”

ASEAN MPs urge Australia to push for human rights improvements in Laos

APHR: 17 July 2017

JAKARTA — Southeast Asian lawmakers have called on Australian officials to press for improvements to the human rights situation in Laos when they meet with the Lao government for their fifth bilateral human rights dialogue tomorrow in Vientiane.

In a submission to the Australian government, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) urged members of the delegation to raise critical concerns about restrictions on civil society and fundamental freedoms with their Lao hosts, and called for further inquiry into the case of Lao civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who disappeared after being stopped at a police checkpoint in Vientiane in December 2012.

“The human rights situation in Laos continues to be abysmal. Since Sombath’s disappearance, the space for independent civil society in the country – already one of the most repressive in the region – has narrowed considerably. Meanwhile, the public as a whole remains deeply fearful of raising sensitive issues,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament, who has made multiple visits to Laos since 2012 to inquire about Sombath’s disappearance, as well as the broader situation for civil society. Continue reading “ASEAN MPs urge Australia to push for human rights improvements in Laos”

Where is Sombath? Where is the UPR?

The last Universal Periodic Review for the Lao PDR was held in January, 2015.

Seventy-two states made 203 recommendations, and the Lao government accepted 119 of them.

Ninety-three of those accepted recommendations called for a specific action, yet nearly two and one-half years later, and half-way until the next review, authorities have yet to release their plan for follow-up.

And while civil society organisations often play important roles in the follow-up and monitoring of the UPR implementation, those in Laos are apparently obliged to wait for the government plan.

 

Who will choose Lao ACSC/APF participants?

While the Lao PDR was not able to host the ASEAN Civil Society Conference/ASEAN People’s Forum last year, applications for participants from Laos to this year’s event in Manila are open.

Criteria include (unofficial English translation):

  1. ​ເປັນພົນລະເມືອງລາວທີ່ມາຈາກອົງການຈັດຕັ້ງຕ່າງໆ, ສະມາຄົມ ແລະ ມຸນນິທິ​ ທີ່ມີ​ຄວາມສົນໃຈກ່ຽວກັບວຽກງານພາກປະຊາຊົນ​ອາຊຽນ. Lao citizen from various organisations (associations and foundations) with an interest in ASEAN civil society work.
  2. ເປັນຜູ້ທີ່ມີຄວາມສາມາດໃນການສື່ສານ ແລະ ເຂົ້າໃຈພາສາອັງກິດດີສົມຄວນ. Reasonably able to communicate in and understand English.
  3. ເປັນຜູ້ທີ່ມີຄວາມເຂົ້າໃຈດີສົມຄວນ​ກ່ຽວກັບວຽກງານ​ຂອງອົງການຈັດຕັ້ງທາງສັງຄົມ ແລະ ວຽກງານເວທີ​ພາກປະຊາຊົນ​ອາຊຽນ. Appropriate knowledge of the work of social-sector organisations and ASEAN fora.
  4. ຜູ້ທີ່ມີປະສົບການຜ່ານຈາກກອງປະຊຸມ​ເວທີພາກປະຊາຊົນ​ອາຊຽນ ແລະ ເຂົ້າຮ່ວມກິດຈະກຳ​ພາກປະຊາຊົນ​ອາຊຽນ ຫລື ຢູຣົບ ແມ່ນຈະໄດ້ຮັບພິຈາລະນາພິເສດ. Those with past experience at the ACSC/APF and attendance at activities for ASEAN or European forums will be give special consideration.
  5. ເປັນຜູ້ທີ່ມີ​ເວລາເພື່ອເຂົ້າຮ່ວມ ແລະ ປະກອບສ່ວນເຂົ້າກິດຈະກຳຕ່າງໆຢູ່ພາຍໃນ ແລະວຽກ​ງານພາກປະຊາຊົນ​ອາຊຽນຢ່າງຫ້າວຫັນ. Sufficient time to attend and activitely participate in various internal and ASEAN civil society actvities.
  6. ເປັນຜູ້ທີ່ມີຄວາມສາມາດກຸ້ມຕົນເອງໃນການໃຊ້ຈ່າຍເຂົ້າຮ່ວມກອງປະຊຸມເວທີ​ພາກປະຊາຊົນ​ອາຊຽນ​ຍິ່ງເປັນການດີ. Abilty to pay own costs for attending the ACSC/APF.

Applicants can send a letter of interest to assi…@lao-cso-network.org  before 23 June.

Participants will be selected by the APF Committee, although the makeup of this committee is not specified.

Apparently, members of Lao civil society who are not selected will not be allowed to attend.

Rights Groups Condemn Harsh Prison Sentence Against Lao Worker

VOA: 18 May 2017

FILE – Laos’ President Bounnhang Vorachith speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping (not pictured) during a bilateral meeting at Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China.

Human rights groups have condemned harsh prison sentences and called for the release of three Lao migrant workers who posted critical comments on social media and joined a protest outside the Lao Embassy in Thailand.

The workers, Somphone Phimmasone, 30, Soukan Chaithad, 33, and Ms Lodkham Thammavong, were sentenced in early April to prison terms of between 12 and 20 years.

A harsh message on human rights

The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said the sentences sent a “chilling message across Lao civil society that the government is determined to crush the slightest sign of activism and opposition to its authoritarian rule.”

While in Thailand, the migrant workers posted messages on social media critical of the government, alleging corruption, deforestation, and human rights violations.

They also participated in a protest against the government outside the Lao Embassy in December, 2015.

They were arrested in March 2016 after returning to Laos to reapply for official documents before planning a return to Thailand.

Government accuses the 3 of ‘threatening national security’

Lao state-run television showed Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham, being held in custody at the police headquarters in Vientiane. Official reports accused the three of threatening national security and tarnishing the government’s reputation.

Andrea Giorgetta, FIDH Asia Desk director, said the arrests highlighted the government’s close monitoring of citizens abroad.

“The government of Laos went out of its way to persecute these three dissidents actually based in Thailand. It shows that the government is also stepping up on-line monitoring of its citizens because these three have expressed their opinions and criticisms of the government policy,” Giorgetta told VOA.

Laos classified as ‘not free’

The U.S.-based non-governmental organization Freedom House, in its assessment of the civil liberties and media rights, classifies Laos as ‘not free’, with low or zero ratings on political right and liberties.

In 2016, Freedom House noted Lao authorities were increasingly attentive to criticism on social media, detaining citizens for “contentious posts” ahead of Laos chairing meetings of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Thailand freedoms

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the migrant workers had taken “advantage of the relative freedom” they experienced in Thailand to criticize the Lao authorities.

“The criticisms should not be a crime,” he said, adding the three were held for several months in pre-trial detention. The sentencing highlighted the “shortcomings in the Lao judicial system,” he said. “There is a complete lack of transparency and accountability within the Lao judicial system, which you see when people don’t have access to lawyers, trials are conducted in secret, families are only informed well afterward of proceedings against their loved ones.”

No tolerance for criticism

The verdicts add to a list of arrests and forced disappearances of activists and protesters who have been critical of issues ranging from land disputes to allegations of corruption and abuse of power.

The high profile disappearance in December 2012 of well known civil society leader Sombath Somphone, after he was seen being arrested at a police checkpoint, remains unresolved amid calls for transparency in the case.

Shalmali Guttal, a spokesperson for “The Sombath Initiative”, said harsh sentencing by authorities in Lao has been on-going over several years as regional governments also look to tighten controls over social media.

A long history

“This is a trend in Lao for sure. It’s been going for a very long time of course because there is no critical discussion publicly about policy, about governance, about how the affairs of the state and society is conducted. So yes, that’s been going on. It is also part of this trend in the region,” Guttal said.

Other cases include the 2009 detention of a group of men and women planning to participate in pro-democracy demonstrations in Laos, while in 2007 an outspoken critic of Chinese sponsored agricultural projects also disappeared.

FIDH’s Giorgetta said with the existing media outlets tightly controlled, increasingly people and Lao civil society have turned to social media to express grievances.

“We have seen arbitrary arrests of activists who have exposed cases of corruption and bad governance,” he said.

Huge construction projects underway

Of key concern are major infrastructure projects, especially by Chinese and Vietnamese investors, including the China-led $6.0 billion, 415 kilometer rail line from northern Laos to the capital Vientiane.

“The infrastructure and development projects being implemented in Laos – but that merely results in massive human rights violations – like the case of the Lao China railway that just started [in construction],” he said.

Robertson’s Human Rights Watch says a major concern for the three migrant workers will be to survive the harsh prison conditions.

He said the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party has applied its “full force to basically ruin these people’s lives and throw them behind bars for long sentences, which given the very poor conditions in Lao prisons, for some of them could be a death sentence.”

Three government critics jailed for up to 20 years

FIDH: 16 May 2017

The harsh prison sentences handed down to three Lao government critics are a shocking reminder of Vientiane’s intolerance for any form of peaceful dissent, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today. FIDH and LMHR reiterate their call on the authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the three.

“By locking up dissidents for up to two decades, the Lao government has abandoned any pretense of compliance with the country’s international human rights obligations. It’s time for the international community to drop the diplomatic niceties and condemn the Lao government’s latest attack on civil society in the strongest possible terms.” Dimitris Christopoulos, FIDH President

According to information received by LMHR, in early April, Messrs. Somphone Phimmasone, 30, and Soukan Chaithad, 33, were sentenced to 20 and 18 years in prison respectively. Ms. Lodkham Thammavong, in her early 30s, received a 12-year prison sentence. The three are currently detained in Samkhe prison, on the eastern outskirts of Vientiane.

Due to the difficulty of obtaining and verifying information in Laos, it was not immediately clear on what exact day Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham had been sentenced and the charges for which they had been found guilty.

“The imprisonment of Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham sends a chilling message across Lao civil society that the government is determined to crush the slightest sign of activism and opposition to its authoritarian rule.” Vanida Thephsouvanh, LMHR President

The arrest of Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham was due to their repeated criticism of the Lao government while they were working in Thailand. The three had posted numerous messages on Facebook that criticized the government in relation to alleged corruption, deforestation, and human rights violations. On 2 December 2015, Lodkham, Somphone, and Soukan were among a group of about 30 people who protested against their government in front of the Lao embassy in Bangkok.

Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham were arrested in March 2016 after returning to Laos from Thailand on 18 February 2016 to apply for passports in order to re-enter Thailand and obtain the necessary documents to work legally. On 4 March 2016, police arrested Lodkham and Somphone at Lodkham’s family home in Ban Vang Tay Village, Nong Bok District, Khammuan Province. Soukan was arrested on 22 March 2016 at the Lao Ministry of Public Security head office (‘’Ko Po So“) in Savannakhet City.

On 25 May 2016, state-run TV showed Somphone, Soukan, and Lodkham in custody at police headquarters in Vientiane. The news report said the three had been arrested for threatening national security by using social media to tarnish the government’s reputation.