Australia-Laos rights dialogue: More than just rhetoric needed

The Interpreter: 13 March 2015

For many Australians, Laos is a scenic, off-the-beaten path, holiday destination for adventurous travellers.

Lao Embassy-Bangkok-2013-01

Relatively few know that it’s also a repressive one-party state with a long record of restricting basic rights, and imprisoning or forcibly disappearing critics or citizens who dare to form groups or hold protests without government permission.

Last week, Australia had a chance to throw light on Laos’ darker side when on 5 March, Canberra hosted officials from Vientiane for the fourth bilateral human rights dialogue. The dialogue, held in Australia for the first time, is part of Canberra’s assistance to the Lao Government, intended to improve its human rights record. However, given the intensifying crackdown on fundamental rights, the Lao Government’s commitment to reform appears dubious at best.

To ensure that this dialogue doesn’t become an exercise in empty rhetoric, the Australian Government should work with its Lao counterparts to set concrete measurable benchmarks for reform, and publicly commit to them. Continue reading “Australia-Laos rights dialogue: More than just rhetoric needed”

UPR Recommendations on Civil Society

UN LogoIn addition to the numerous recommendations on Sombath’s disappearance made during the Universal Periodic Review for the Lao PDR on January 20th, a number of recommendations were also given regarding civil society:

5.75. Extend, before the end of 2016, a standing invitation to the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression as well as to the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (Norway);

5.129. Ensure de jure and de facto protection of fundamental freedoms in order to be in conformity with the ICCPR that has been ratified by Laos. Regarding freedom of expression; lift the restrictions to freedom of press, ensure the independence and pluralism of media, and a safe environment for the work of journalists. Regarding freedom of association; facilitate unhindered action for human rights defenders and NGOs, notably through a reform of their registration system (France);

5.138. Guarantee freedom of expression, the press, assembly and association, as well as freedom of religion and belief in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Uruguay);

5.146. Guarantee the effective exercise of freedom of expression, assembly and association by reforming its legislation particularly in order not to undermine the legitimate work of NGOs and human rights defenders (Luxembourg); Continue reading “UPR Recommendations on Civil Society”

AEPF9: Expectations and Realities

the-9th-asia-europe-peoples-forum-concludes-576353-aepf9The AEPF9 aims to enable a secure environment that encourages learning and reflection and provides space for open, respectful, diverse and constructive debate. We support harmony, compassion and understanding, whilst recognizing the strength of diversity and solidarity for peaceful and sustainable development.

From materials presented at the 9th Asia-Europe People’s Forum held in Vientiane on 16-19 October, 2012.

…due to these Post-AEPF9 events in Laos, the IOC of the AEPF is compelled to state that the legacy of the AEPF9 in Laos is in great jeopardy. The lived reality for many people in Laos today is in sharp contrast to the rhetoric of the Vientiane Declaration on Strengthening Partnership for Peace and Development agreed at the end of ASEM9.

There does not appear to be a secure environment that encourages learning and reflection, or one that provides space for open, respectful, diverse and constructive debate.

From AEPF9–Reflections and Lesson Learning, the International Organising Committee of the Asia-Europe People’s Forum.

aepf10logoThe 10th Asia-Europe People’s Forum begins today in Milan, Italy, with the theme: Towards a Just and Inclusive Asia and Europe – Building States of Citizens for Citizens

NGOs Say Proposed Guidelines Would Hamstring Lao Civil Society

Radio Free Asia: 02 October 2014

The authoritarian government in Laos is moving to restrict the operations of international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) through a set of new measures, including requiring multiple and time-consuming approvals for community projects, according to the groups’ staff.

The measures are contained in proposed guidelines that would make a four-year-old decree regulating the activities of INGOs stricter in the one-party communist state, they said.

The June-proposed guidelines from the foreign ministry appear aimed at curbing their ability to work independent of the government, NGO staffers told RFA’s Lao Service ahead of an expected meeting with officials in October to discuss the proposal.

An INGO worker in Laos said on condition of anonymity that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) had invited feedback on its proposal from foreign embassies, donors and civil society groups, but said he feared that the suggestions would not be incorporated into the final draft.

“Even if MoFA took into account some proposed changes … there is still concern among INGOs that these guidelines are not addressing important issues, such as the increasing administrative burden … and the lack of predictability when implementing approved programs, or when requesting extension of activities or additional funding approval,” the staffer said. Continue reading “NGOs Say Proposed Guidelines Would Hamstring Lao Civil Society”

Laos stands out…

Sombath-magsaysay-smallLaos stands out in contrast to neighbours like Myanmar, which despite its long-time rule by the military managed to develop an independent civil society, according to John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director of the Washington-based Human Rights Watch.

“If a human rights defender like Aung Sang Suu Kyi were to stand up in Laos and speak out against authoritarian rule, she would be immediately arrested. And unlike Aung Sang Suu Kyi, having the luxury of living under house arrest, you would just be taken off to prison and never seen again,” he said.

“Laos NGO restrictions threaten development, say non-profit groups,” South China Morning Post, 17 September 2014

Laos: Crony scheme in control of press and civil society

Index on Censorship: 12 May 2014

By Helen Clark

demotix_laos_3046576
The Laotian president, Choummaly Sayasone, made a five day official visit to France in October 2013 — the first such visit in 60 years. (Photo: Serge Mouraret / Demotix)

When travellers and writers talk about Laos, they mention how peaceful it is, and how Buddhist. The people, says Lonely Planet, are some of the most chilled out in the world. People forget, as they rarely do with Vietnam or China, that it is still a communist state.

The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) has absolute control over the press and civil society. Professor Martin Stuart-Fox, a Laos expert with the University of Queensland, has written widely on the country’s history and government and has said that the party is little more than a crony scheme, with many of those in power now descended from the old Lao aristocracy. It is necessary to have a powerful patron, almost always in the party or closely connected to it, for success. Information is difficult to get hold of and even local journalists, who often have close ties to the government, complain publicly, if respectfully, about the impenetrability of government departments.

Freedom House writes: “Press freedom in Laos remains highly restricted. Despite advances in telecommunications infrastructure, government control of all print and broadcast news prevents the development of a vibrant, independent press.”

These media restrictions are part of a wider pattern of suppression of information, lack of transparency in business dealings, prevention of protests and cultural and religious oversight by the government and party.

However the most noticeable event of the past 18 months has been the disappearance of Sombath Somphone. At the end of 2012 the Lao development expert went missing and many of his colleagues quietly believe the government may be responsible. Little but the bare facts have been written in the local, state-owned press. Continue reading “Laos: Crony scheme in control of press and civil society”

Kidnapping In Laos Affects Civil Society

The Eugene Weekly: 17 April 2014

By Camilla Mortensen

Sombath Somphone is “one of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic’s most respected civil society figures,” according  to a December 2013 press statement from Secretary of State John Kerry on the one year anniversary of Sombath’s disappearance. Sombath was kidnapped from a police checkpoint in Laos and has not been heard from since. Sombath’s wife, Ng Shui-Meng, will be speaking about her husband’s disappearance and the challenges to free speech and human rights in Laos and in the rest of Southeast Asia while in Eugene on Monday, April 21.

“Laos has taken steps in recent years to become a responsible partner in the community of nations,” Kerry writes. “Sombath’s abduction threatens to undermine those efforts.”

Ng Shui-Meng says that while some have called Sombath the “Nelson Mandela of Laos,” her husband was never involved in politics. He worked in nonviolence and consensus building, she says, and always worked with the approval of government officials. Sombath established the Participatory Development Training Center in Laos, which works to train young people and local government officials in community-based development. Continue reading “Kidnapping In Laos Affects Civil Society”

Year-long silence on Sombath deafening

Bangkok Post: 14 December 2013

A year ago, Ng Shui-Meng watched a closed-circuit police video in disbelief as it revealed the moment her husband, the most prominent civil rights advocate in Laos, disappeared.

It shows Sombath Somphone being stopped by traffic police on his way home around 6pm on Dec 15, 2012. A man in a black windbreaker emerges from the police post and drives his car away. Two other men then escort the 61-year-old activist into a pickup truck.

Sombath Somphone and his wife Shui-Meng pose for a photograph during a holiday trip in Bali in 2005.

His wife, who obtained the video a day after his disappearance, still doesn’t know what happened next.

The apparent abduction has sent a chilling message to the country’s already fragile civil society, and exposed Laos as one of Asia’s most repressive societies rather than the languid land of smiles of backpacker blogs and tourism boosters.

The media in Laos are under total state control, security watchdogs operate down to the grassroots and foreign human-rights organisations are banned. The communist government responds to even the small and peaceful public protests which periodically surface with swift suppression and arrests.

The country of 6.5 million is not known to have gulags or a large number of political prisoners. Dissidents and rights activists say quiet but sharp injections of fear impose silence and self-censorship on a largely apolitical population.

“Every repressive regime has its own way of dealing with dissidents. In Laos, they disappear people without a trace,” said Phil Robertson, the Bangkok-based deputy director of Human Rights Watch Asia. Continue reading “Year-long silence on Sombath deafening”