Laos 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.
…At the end of 2012 the Lao authorities kidnapped one of the countries most prominent NGO leaders, Sombath Somphone, without a murmur in Laos, and without any sense that they should be accountable. Since then the NGO sector has been frozen with fear.
…In a society of hyper-politicization one becomes apolitical, and that includes foreigners too.
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”
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”
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.
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.
Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, included Sombath in his presentation at the High Level Event on Supporting Civil Society at the United Nations in New York on 23 September. The video clip is below. The entire video can be seen here, and the transcript of the speech here.
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemöller, speaking about the inaction of intellectuals during the Nazis’ rise to power.
According to Wikipedia, a Culture [or Conspiracy] of Silence“…relates to a condition or matter which is known to exist, but by tacit communal unspoken consensus is not talked about or acknowledged…[including]…Breaches of human rights, such as vanishing persons…”
Officials of one-party state almost certainly behind abduction even though Sombath Somphone took care to never challenge the government
BY JONATHAN MANTHORPE
It’s hard to guess when Sombath Somphone crossed the line from being an accepted and cherished champion of rural development in Laos, to becoming a perceived threat to the one-party Communist state.
But that’s what happened.
Early in the evening of Dec. 15 as Sombath was driving home in his Jeep from his office in the Lao capital Vientiane he was stopped at a police checkpoint on Thadeua Road, which runs by the Mekong River.
A few minutes later a man rode up on a motorcycle, parked it and drove off in Sombath’s jeep.
Then a pickup truck arrived at the checkpoint, Sombath got in, the truck drove off and he has not been seen or heard from since.
Sombath Somphone was snatched on a busy street in Laos’ capital Vientiane last December, while police officers looked on. The 60-year-old was stopped by police in his 4×4, but two people in plain clothes bundled him into another vehicle and he has not been seen or heard of since. The police and other government authorities state they had no part in his abduction and do not know where he is.
The nature of Sombath’s disappearance has shocked local environmental activists and non-governmental organisations. He is a highly respected community worker and green campaigner, and worked for more than 30 years on grassroots community activity including consulting for Unicef, where his wife also worked.
He founded the Participatory Development Training Centre, which educates rural Laotians in everything from fish farming to rice milling and microcredit to recycling household waste. In 2005, he won the Ramon Magsaysay award for social activists, often called the Asian Nobel prize. Colleagues in the NGO community fear that his abduction represents the beginning of a state crackdown on dissenting voices.
His wife, Shui-meng Ng said: “I believe that he is still alive but I do not know in what condition. He is in need of daily medication for prostate cancer. He has not received his medication since his disappearance.”
She remembers the day of his disappearance . “We normally go out in the same car, but that Saturday I had to go first. I took the car, and Sombath took the jeep.” They met later to go home for dinner. “I drove my car in front, and he drove behind me.” So far, so normal.
They became separated when Sombath was stopped at a police checkpoint.
“After that, I did not see his car. I thought nothing about it. I went home. When he did not return, I called his phone, but it was switched off. I thought it had run out of battery. By around midnight, I started to worry. We went out looking for him. We went to the hospitals. Next morning, we reported to the police.”
Then she had an idea that led to evidence which threatens to undermine Laos’s attempts to portray itself as a Communist country undergoing political reform.
They sent her CCTV footage whichcan be viewed online. It shows Sombath being stopped, a motorcyclist turning up and taking his vehicle, and then Sombath being abducted and driven away in a white 4×4 with flashing lights. Complicit or perhaps fearful, the police do not intervene.
Shui-meng said: “We never suspected anything like this. But Vientiane is very small, and if people want to follow us or find out where we are, it is easy.”
Despite the disturbing evidence of the CCTV footage, state authorities blame “business rivals”, even though he has no business.
His friends in Laos’ international community believe his trouble began when he organised a high-profile meeting of Laos community leaders. The Asia-Europe People’s Forum took place just before Laos played host to a summit of heads of state from Europe and Asia – an outward sign that Laos was throwing off years of isolation and socialist dogma.
The forum had official approval. It was opened by the deputy prime minister, Thongloun Sisoulith, widely regarded as a liberal. Sombath encouraged delegates to speak freely. One working group discussed land grabbing, a hot topic in the country. According to foreign observers at the meeting, one woman said her ethnic group did not want to be turned into labourers on a rubber plantation. But then the facade of state liberalism seemed to crack.
The woman, who activists have requested is not named for her own safety, was attacked by government officials who were filming speakers and taking notes. Days later, officials visited her home village. In an atmosphere of intimidation, Sombath approached his government counterparts in organising the meeting to solve the crisis.
Anne-Sophie Gindroz, the Laos director of Helvetas, a Swiss-based agricultural development NGO who had organised the land workshop, wrote to foreign donors underlining the “serious constraints on freedom of expression” in a country where “there is little space for meaningful democratic debate”.
The government read her letter and, on 7 December, the ministry of foreign affairs wrote to her boss in Zurich accusing her of waging an “anti-government campaign”. She was given 48 hours to leave the country.
Eight days later, after returning from Burma, Sombath disappeared. The US state department, UN human rights commission, fellow recipients of the Magsaysay award and many others have pleaded with the Laos government to find and release Sombath. But so far there is no sign.
Supporters fear the police, while supposedly trying to find Sombath, are trying to dig up dirt on him. Shui-meng said they had visited his village, asking about his drinking and whether or not he holds an American passport .He does not, although he was educated in the US and has many foreign friends.
Shui-meng said: “I do not fear any threat to my own safety. I plan to stay until I get Sombath back safely. We have worked together for 30 years to improve Laos people’s wellbeing and livelihoods. We have done nothing wrong. We have done everything openly and in full public view, and have abided by the law of the land.”