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”

An open letter to the 2016 Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM)

AEPF-2016-06On the occasion of the eleventh Asia-Europe People’s Forum in Ulan Bator, Mongolia, we are reminded of the ninth AEPF held in Vientiane, the capital of the Lao PDR, in 2012.

As the first international civil society forum held in the country, and building on widespread public consultations in every province, AEPF9 was hailed as a milestone for Lao civil society.

But there have been no more such events in the Lao PDR in the subsequent four years.

Soon after AEPF9, Sombath Somphone, the forum’s co-chairperson, was following up on intimidation of participants by authorities both during and after the forum. On December 15, he was stopped at a police check post and then taken away in full view of CCTV cameras.
Continue reading “An open letter to the 2016 Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM)”

Disappearance Casts a Pall Over Laos as ASEAN Conference Looms

Radio Free Asia: 07 July 2016

A 2005 photo of Sombath Somphone in the Philippines. AFP/Somphone family

Sombath Somphone’s shadow continues to hang over Laos, with the rural development expert’s disappearance in 2012 still haunting the country as it prepares to host the annual meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Sombath’s abduction remains unsolved even though there is video footage of Sombath’s Jeep being stopped at a police checkpoint that also shows Sombath being herded into a white truck and taken away. In the video, a man dressed in white returns and drives off in his Jeep.

Though police promised to investigate, Lao authorities soon backtracked saying they could no longer confirm whether the man in the video footage was actually Sombath.

And that’s the way the case has remained despite international calls to solve it. Continue reading “Disappearance Casts a Pall Over Laos as ASEAN Conference Looms”

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?”

Update: Lack of funding now main reason ASEAN People’s Forum not held in Laos

ACSC-APF 2016 LogoAt the 2nd Regional Consultation Meeting for the ACSC/APF held in Vientiane on 10-11 May, Dr. Maydom Chanthanasinh, Chair of Lao CSOs, said that lack of finances was the main reason the Asean People’s Forum will not be held in Laos this year.

However, it was earlier reported the decision not to hold the event in Laos was taken by CSOs themselves in a meeting convened by the Ministry of Home Affairs in late September, 2015.

At the same Regional Consultation Meeting, Dr. Yong Chanthalangsy, Director General of the Institute of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, assured participants that there are no restrictions on human rights CSOs in the Lao PDR.

Asean civil society meet dodges Laos for E Timor

Bangkok Post: 25 April 2016

In the second decade of the Asean civil society and people’s forum, the civic groups will meet not in the host country for the first time, but in non-Asean member East Timor instead. Every year before the Asean Summit, a conference known as the Asean Civil Society Conference/Asean People’s Forum (ACSC/APF), where hundreds of civil society activists from the Asean region gather to represent the voice of civil society, is held parallel to the official Asean Summit.

This year the theme of the conference, to be held in in August, is “Expanding People’s Solidarity for a Just and Inclusive Asean Community”. It will be held in East Timor’s Dili, according to Atnike Sigiro, a steering committee member of the Asean NGO mechanism created in 2005.

“It’s an effort by Asean civil society to reach out to people in Timor Leste, which soon will join Asean. The title also represents an expansion of solidarity among the people in the Asean region,” said Ms Sigiro from Forum-Asia. Continue reading “Asean civil society meet dodges Laos for E Timor”

Une dictature pas très dérangeante

Le Courrier: 18 avril 2016

Sombath & Youth-006
Sombath Somphone était la figure la plus visible de la société civile laotienne. Il avait 60 ans lorsqu’il a disparu après avoir été arrêté par la police laotienne en 2012. Son amie suisse Anne-Sophie Gindroz (médaillon) raconte.

La république populaire du Laos ne tolère aucune protestation face à ses projets de barrages ou miniers . La coopérante Anne-Sophie Gindroz en a fait les frais en 2012. Elle signe un livre poignant.

Géographiquement pris en sandwich entre la Thaïlande et le Vietnam, le Laos est un pays qui fait peu parler de lui. Cette discrétion sur le plan international semble convenir au régime autoritaire en place qui continue à réprimer toute opposition impunément – notamment par des disparitions forcées.

Les simulacres d’élections législatives du 20 mars dernier n’ont trompé personne mais n’ont guère suscité de protestations de la part de la communauté internationale. Une situation qui a le don d’irriter Anne-Sophie Gindroz, ex-coopérante de l’œuvre d’entraide suisse Helvetas, qui a été expulsée du Laos en 2012. Un peu plus de trois ans après les faits, elle publie un livre1 qui retrace son travail sur place auprès des communautés locales chassées de leurs terres par le gouvernement «communiste» et relate les circonstances de son éviction. Continue reading “Une dictature pas très dérangeante”

Is Laos’ ASEAN Chairmanship a Threat to Southeast Asian Regionalism?

The Diplomat: 15 April 2016

Sombath Somphone (d.) en compagnie de l'archevêque sud-africain Desmund Tutu en 2006. Wikimedia Commons / Shui-Meng Ng
Sombath Somphone, seen in 2006 with Desmond Tutu. Wikimedia Commons

Laos is a country that is usually described in accordance with one of two narratives.

The first portrays a Buddhist Shangri-La — the ‘real,’ ‘hidden,’ and ‘untouched’ Indochina dreamed of in Western backpacker fantasies — while the second depicts a highly impoverished country in desperate need of foreign aid and technical assistance.

Both depictions have some merit. Laos is rich in Buddhist history and it is predominantly an agrarian-based society where the average life expectancy is just 66 years and Gross National Income per capita is under $5,000. But there is much more to Laos than Buddhism and poverty.

In a recent article by The Diplomat, for example, Luke Hunt highlighted how the coupling of Laos’ draconian media monitoring laws with the country’s current role as the 2016 ASEAN Chair has the potential to constrain international reporting on important transnational issues discussed at ASEAN meetings and conferences. Continue reading “Is Laos’ ASEAN Chairmanship a Threat to Southeast Asian Regionalism?”

BertelsmannStiftung Foundation’s 2016 Report

BertelsmannStiftung Foundation: 2016

Bertelsmann Stiftung-logoParty leaders furthermore urged tighter control over civil society organizations in the face of alleged but unsubstantiated efforts to undermine the party. In the wake of community leader Sombath Somphone’s unexplained disappearance in late 2012, the deplorable investigation of which attracted condemnation from around the world, increased pressure on civil society organizations produced levels of fear and self-censorship reminiscent of a more oppressive past. In this context, leaders’ ongoing claims to be strengthening the rule of law – another rhetorical theme in Laos – continued to fall flat.

From the 2016 BertelsmannStiflung Foundation’s Laos Country Report.  On its Political Transformation Indexthe foundation ranked the Lao PDR 120th out of 127 countries. Only North Korea ranked lower among Asian nations.