Laos ranks near bottom of Forbes’ “Best Countries for Business” list

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Laos’ ranking in Forbes 2017 “Best Countries for Business List.”

Note: This is the first in a series of posts on “Laos by the numbers.”

Feedback and suggestions are welcome.

Forbes has rated Laos near the very bottom in its Best Countries for Business ranking for 2017. Only Venezuela, Yemen, Haiti, Gambia, Chad, rank lower. Neighbouring Cambodia ranks 123rd, China 102nd, Vietnam 98th, and Thailand 67th. Sweden, New Zealand and Hong Kong top the list.

Laos also ranked very low on the sub-indicators of Trade Freedom (124th), Technology (120th), Red Tape (123rd), Investor Protection (127th), Corruption (127th), and Personal Freedom (128th). It’s highest ranking is in Market Performance, at 87th.

The accompanying country profile reads:

The government of Laos, one of the few remaining one-party communist states, began decentralizing control and encouraging private enterprise in 1986. Economic growth averaged 6% per year from 1988-2008 except during the short-lived drop caused by the Asian financial crisis that began in 1997. Laos’ growth has more recently been amongst the fastest in Asia and averaged nearly 8% per year for the last decade. Nevertheless, Laos remains a country with an underdeveloped infrastructure, particularly in rural areas. It has a basic, but improving, road system, and limited external and internal land-line telecommunications. Electricity is available to 83% of the population. Agriculture, dominated by rice cultivation in lowland areas, accounts for about 25% of GDP and 73% of total employment. Laos’ economy is heavily dependent on capital-intensive natural resource exports. The economy has benefited from high-profile foreign direct investment in hydropower dams along the Mekong River, copper and gold mining, logging, and construction, although some projects in these industries have drawn criticism for their environmental impacts. Laos gained Normal Trade Relations status with the US in 2004 and applied for Generalized System of Preferences trade benefits in 2013 after being admitted to the World Trade Organization earlier in the year. Laos began a one-year chairmanship of ASEAN in January 2016. Laos is in the process of implementing a value-added tax system. The government appears committed to raising the country’s profile among foreign investors and has developed special economic zones replete with generous tax incentives, but a small labor pool remains an impediment to investment. Laos also has ongoing problems with the business environment, including onerous registration requirements, a gap between legislation and implementation, and unclear or conflicting regulations.

FIDH-LMHR submission to UN HR Council

The space for civil society to conduct human rights activities remains non-existent in the Lao PDR, in breach of Article 22 of the ICCPR. Political groups other than the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party-backed organizations are banned. The government has routinely used its influence to manipulate the membership of civil society organizations’ boards and has forced some organizations to change their names to remove certain words, such as “rights.”

…Lao authorities continue to arbitrarily arrest and detain government critics and charge them under provisions of the Criminal Code. In many cases, little or no information is provided to those arrested on the reason for the deprivation of their liberty or the charges they face. Lao activists have been detained incommunicado without access to legal assistance, and held in prolonged pre-trial detention. This amounts to a clear violation of Article 9 of the ICCPR [see also below, Article 14].

…The government has continued to refuse to adequately and effectively address the issue of enforced disappearance in the country. To this day, the fate and whereabouts of at least 13 activists remain unknown. In the most emblematic case, the government has failed to conduct a thorough, credible, and impartial investigation into the enforced disappearance of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who disappeared after being last seen at a police checkpoint on a busy street in Vientiane on 15 December 2012.

Excerpts from the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) submission to the List of Issues for the 121st session of the UN Human Rights Committee. The full submission is available here, and the Lao government report and other documentation here.

Continue reading “FIDH-LMHR submission to UN HR Council”

Rights Groups Call for International Community to Press Laos on Jailed Activists

Voice of America: 26 June 2017

BANGKOK-Human rights groups say the international community, including the United Nations, needs to press Lao authorities on human rights issues.

The calls come amid a string of harsh jail terms handed down by Lao courts against critics of the Communist government.

Rights groups point to Laos’ failures in taking “significant steps to remedy” a poor human rights record and tough restrictions on freedom of speech, association and assembly.

Three Lao migrant workers were recently sentenced to jail terms of between 12 and 20 years for comments posted on social media while in Thailand and because they attended a protest outside the Lao Embassy in Bangkok.

The three — two men, Somphone Phimmasone, Soukan Chaithad and a woman, Lodkham Thammavorg — were arrested when they returned to Laos after posting the messages critical of the Laos government on social media in Thailand. Continue reading “Rights Groups Call for International Community to Press Laos on Jailed Activists”

See Who’s Asia’s No. 2 Police State After North Korea, And It’s Not China

Forbes: 27 December 2016

We know about North Korea as Asia’s most hardcore police state. The government enslaves and kills people who dispute the policies of leader Kim Jong-un.

Laos looks free and happy by contrast. Travelers can walk across the quiet, uncluttered capital Vientiane’s commercial-tourist district in an hour if that. A string of cafes near the riverside make French coffee. Slow-moving, smiling vendors are more likely to miscount change in your favor than cheat. The warm orange hues of Buddhist monks and temples radiate from streetsides. Westerners can get visas on arrival at the Vientiane airport. The idea of a police state would seldom occur to the interloper in Laos, though it’s a one-party Communist country.

Now try being a Laotian citizen with gripes about how things are run. Authorities in the country with a population of 7 million make some of Asia’s most chilling grabs of dissenters. Laos is better known for “disappearances” compared to putting people on trial after detention periods as practiced in communist China and Vietnam. And you never know when you might say something that disappears you, a deterrent to speaking out. Continue reading “See Who’s Asia’s No. 2 Police State After North Korea, And It’s Not China”

The Mystery of Sombath Somphone Still Resonates in Laos

Radio Free Asia: 15 December 2016

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

The disappearance of Sombath Somphone remains one of the most enduring and heartbreaking mysteries of modern Laos as the abduction of the world-recognized rural development activist at a police checkpoint four years ago remains unsolved.

“As the fourth anniversary of Sombath’s disappearance approaches, my heart becomes heavier by the day,” his wife Shui Meng Ng told RFA’s Lao Service on Tuesday. “I never expected that I would still have no news of Sombath after so long.”

Video footage show’s Sombath’s Jeep being stopped at a police checkpoint on the evening of Dec. 15, 2012. In the video Sombath is herded into a white truck and taken away, and a man dressed in white returns and drives off in his Jeep. Continue reading “The Mystery of Sombath Somphone Still Resonates in Laos”

Asean summit must address Vientiane’s shortcomings

Bangkok Post: 07 September 2016

Lao Embassy-Bangkok-2013-04
The Laos government has refused even to discuss the disappearance of Sombath Somphone, who was last seen at a government checkpoint nearly four years ago. (File photo)

As world leaders, including US President Barack Obama, the heads of state of Asean countries, as well as the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, gather in Laos, they should ask their hosts: “Where is Sombath?”

My husband, Sombath Somphone, a leading community development advocate, “disappeared” in Laos on Dec 15, 2012.

Even though nearly four years have passed since he was last seen on closed-circuit television footage being driven away from a police checkpoint in Vientiane, the Lao government has continued to stonewall any queries as to his whereabouts and simply maintain “the state is not involved and the police are still investigating”. Continue reading “Asean summit must address Vientiane’s shortcomings”

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?”

Three government critics arbitrarily arrested, detained incommunicado

FIDH/LMHR: 06 June 2016
FIDH-LMHR-June 2016

(Paris) Lao authorities must immediately and unconditionally release three individuals who have been arbitrarily arrested and detained incommunicado for criticizing the government, FIDH and its member organization Lao Movement for Human Rights (LMHR) said today.

“The government’s systematic repression of all forms of peaceful dissent underscores the immense gap between Vientiane’s promises to the international community and its abusive behavior at home. It’s time for foreign governments and donors to raise their voices about human rights violations in Laos and demand Vientiane change its ways.” Karim Lahidji, FIDH President

Continue reading “Three government critics arbitrarily arrested, detained incommunicado”

UN Special Rapporteur Slams Laos

Maina KaiMaina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, is sharply critical of the situation facing civil society in the Lao PDR in a forward to the book Au Laos, la Répression Silencieuse by Anne-Sophie Gindroz. Excerpts include:

Laos is something of a void on the human rights map these days… A casual observer might take this to mean that things are all well.

But that is a horribly misguided assessment, of course,  for Laos is like few countries I know.

I first began to understand few years back, when I had my first encounter with members of Laos’ civil society at an international conference. My overriding impression from these individuals was the profound and all-encompassing fear that engulfed them. Their lack of trust was palpable. They did not want to talk to me with others present. They did not even want to be seen with me.

I have never seen anything quite like it. These individuals were like islands– operating in apparent isolation, prevented from exercising their fundamental human right to connect with others who shared their concerns.

…And Sombath’s case seems to have only created more trepidation, which is a tragic irony. He dared to affirm his convictions, and his courage and dedication should be an inspiration. Instead, it is viewed as a warning. The culture of fear is that deep.

This culture, of course, is toxic to a thriving civil society movement. Activism is based on connections, relationships, discourse, and open discussion. None of this is possible when fear crushes people’s very ability to talk to one other.

The full text is available here. The book will be available from Asieinfo Publications on February 15, or can be ordered at [email protected]