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Exiled democracy activist: “Lao people have no free ideas when it comes to politics” 

 By: Paul Millar - POSTED ON: August 31, 2016                           
The Alliance for Democracy in Laos is a worldwide network of activists and non-governmental organisations dedicated to bringing democracy to the one-party communist state. Its president, Bounthone Chanthalavong-Wiese, spoke to Southeast Asia Globe about her ongoing campaign for change
Illustration by May Sak
How did you first get involved with the cause for democracy in Laos? I was a Lao student in Eastern Europe in 1990 when I made peaceful democratic demonstrations in front of the Laos embassy. But I can’t go back to Laos – I have been in exile here in Germany since then; here with all the Lao people exiled together who are part of the Alliance for Democracy in Laos. What was it that brought you to Germany in the first place?  After the peaceful demonstration in front of the embassy in Czechoslovakia, where I studied medicine, the Lao government wanted to arrest me, to take me back to Laos. I had only one week to go into exile. The German government gave me a visa. Three days later I was living in exile in Germany. Since then I have worked with all Lao people – in Germany first, then later with Lao people living in other countries. What was it in the first place that made it so important to you to protest against the Lao regime? Since 1975, the Lao regime has been a one-party communist system. And they have never accepted human rights in Laos. We all have human rights – we have the right to free speech, to assembly, to demonstration, to political activity. The Lao people have no free ideas when it comes to politics in Laos, and there are maybe 18,000 Lao people who have been arrested and persecuted. Many people. We want to change from this dictatorial system to a democratic system. Do you think that there is a lot of support for democratic change in Laos, on a local level? Yes, we have many Lao people in our country who support us. There are many people in Laos, in our homeland, who are working for a change to democracy. In the government, or in the Communist party, they don’t have that same need for change. But the Lao people, and some smaller officials, they want things to change. But there’s a great deal of corruption in the political system. And how do you think you can mobilise that support to effect real change? Through the internet, through our television broadcasts in the US, we maintain direct contact with our people around the world and in Laos. The people in Laos give us direct information about human rights violations in the country. This contact – and our work in social media – is now very active, and we have had a great deal of support from the people of Laos, and from Laotians in exile across the whole world. Living in Germany, has the reunification of the country following the fall of the Berlin Wall changed the way you look at the future of the communist regime in Laos? Yes. We’ve seen that shift towards democracy in Eastern Europe, and it shows us that peaceful change in Laos is possible. But we need international support. In September this year US President Barack Obama will visit Laos for the Asean Summit. This is a big chance for Lao people, for our country. We need all Lao people to tell President Obama that we need change – not through war, but through peaceful change. And we need support from international media – Laos needs a free media now more than ever… We appeal for international organisations, every government and parliament of every democratic country in the world to help the Lao people and help our movement for democracy in Laos.

US President Obama in Laos
Speeches and Panel
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Obama-Laos-Sep.2016.pdf (PDF — 89 KB)
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Obama to Make, and Face, History in Laos
US President Barack Obama tours Midway Atoll in the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the Pacific Ocean, September 1, 2016.  

When President Barack Obama sets foot in Laos next week he will mark a new experience for an American president, but he will also come face-to-face with some old problems Obama will become the first president to visit Laos when he attends a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the capital Vientiane While the ASEAN summit will undoubtedly focus on current issues, Obama is likely to face the ghost of Sombath Samphone and the remains of the U.S. Secret War in Laos.
Sombath, a U.S.-educated activist focusing on rural development, went missing in Vientiane on Dec. 15, 2012. Even though there is video footage of Sombath’s Jeep being stopped at a police checkpoint that shows Sombath being herded into a white truck and taken away, the Lao authorities have arrested no one and there is little indication a serious investigation ever took place. While Sombath was generally apolitical, just before his abduction he challenged massive land deals the government had negotiated that left thousands of rural Laotians homeless with little compensation. The deals sparked rare popular protests in Laos where political speech is tightly controlled. Sombath’s wife Ng Shui Meng, during an Aug. 31 conference in Bangkok, appealed to Obama and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to take the “opportunity to raise issues on Laos' human rights record and other basic rights including opening civil society space for greater people’s participation.” She also appealed to Obama and Ban to take up the issue of Sombath’s disappearance. “On a personal level, I also hope President Obama and Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other ASEAN leaders will directly ask the Lao leaders about the fate of Sombath,” she said. “Will the Lao leaders brush off the queries by resorting to the standard response that the police are still investigating? I don’t know, but I hope not.”
‘Pie in the sky’ While Ng Shui Meng was unsure about the Lao response, she urged the government there to accept international aid to help solve the case. “I hope that this time around they show some good will and some sincerity by agreeing to accept international assistance and conduct a serious and transparent investigation as to what happened to Sombath,” she said. “Maybe it is pie in the sky, but whatever the response, I cannot give up hope and I will never be deterred from my search.” Sombath has become a symbol of the Lao government’s repression, and his disappearance is now viewed as a warning to others to muzzle their criticisms of the Lao government and the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party that has governed the country since 1975. “Since the disappearance of prominent civil society member Sombath Somphone, the environment for civil society in Laos has only deteriorated, with more surveillance and restrictive laws put in place,” said Anne-Sophie Gindroz, who worked as a human rights defender in Laos for many years until she was expelled in 2012. “Unfortunately, this has only led to extreme self-censorship under an increased climate of fear, making it even easier for an outsider to keep quiet on the silent repression in Laos,” she told RFA’s Lao Service. Gindroz and other human rights activists hope that Obama will use his influence to push Lao President Bounnhang Vorachith and the government on human rights.
Daring to address human rights “If I had just one message to Obama, it would be: If you really want to do something useful, speak up on human rights in Laos, because no one else will do so during the ASEAN Summit,” Gindroz said. “There is a good reason why we do not hear about the human rights situation in Laos: It is such a sensitive topic in this repressive state, no one dares to address it.” Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, told reporters that Obama plans to take up Gindroz’s dare. “I have no doubt that President Obama, himself, will of course engage directly with the Lao senior officials on this important topic, make clear that as our development programs already undertake to do, that we seek to help improve and strengthen the institutions that protect the rights of all citizens of the country,” he said. Daniel Kritenbrink, the National Security Council director for Asian Affairs, echoed that sentiment, telling reporters he is “confident that the President will raise issues related to human rights and the importance of a free and vibrant civil society while he’s in Laos.” “The promotion of universal human rights remains a central element of American foreign policy, and we continue to demonstrate that every day,” he said. “I think you’ll see those issues emphasized on the ground in Laos, as well.” According to news reports, the country's new leaders may want closer ties to the U.S., in part as a counterbalance to China’s immense influence. "The new government is more influenced by the Vietnamese than the Chinese," Reuters quoted a Western diplomat in Southeast Asia as saying. "It's never too late for a U.S. president to visit." Laos has strategic importance to both Vietnam and China as it shares a long border with Vietnam, giving Hanoi access to markets in Thailand and beyond. China for its part sees Laos is a key gateway to Southeast Asia in its "new Silk Road" trade strategy. Chinese influence can be seen throughout Laos. Beijing funded construction of a 20,000-seat stadium in Vientiane, and has launched a $250 million communications satellite for Laos. Beijing has also had a hand in building shopping malls, hotels, and entertainment and entertainment centers, mostly on land provided by the Lao government. Chinese investment in country has reached $5.1 billion in 2014, overtaking Vietnam and Thailand as the top foreign investor in Laos. That investment has brought Beijing influence, but it has also raised concerns as much of that money was eaten up by corruption and the land used was often confiscated in the land grabs that Sombath Somphone criticized before he disappeared.
The ‘Secret War’ in the open Obama may have an opening to press for change in Laos, but he also must deal with the American past in the country. In the so-called “Secret War,” a part of the conflict the between the U.S. and Vietnam, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions from 1964 to 1973. While the U.S. dropped hundreds of tons of bombs on Laos, one-third of those failed to explode, and 20,000 people have been killed or injured by unexploded ordinance (UXO) in Laos since the bombing ceased, according to the U.S.-based organization Legacies of War. It’s a dark legacy acknowledged by Kritenbrink, who said the U.S. will “continue to address directly our shared and oftentimes difficult history.” “Over the past two decades, the United States has invested over $100 million in Laos in UXO assistance,” he said. “We hope to build on that commitment during the President’s trip. We also want to build a foundation for the future. Our assistance priorities, in addition to UXO, are focused on education, health, and nutrition.” While the U.S. acknowledged the problem with unexploded bombs, it has yet to address the fallout from Agent Orange and other chemical defoliants used in Laos to kill crops used as cover by the North Vietnamese military. According to an Agent Orange Record examination of flight records, spray missions flown in Laos between 1965 and 1970 dumped at 537,495 gallons of the chemicals in the provinces that border Vietnam. Dioxin, one of the chemicals in Agent Orange, has been linked to birth defects, cancer, and other diseases. “To date the U.S. has not addressed any aspect of the use of agent orange and other chemicals throughout Laos,” said Susan Hammond, founder of the War Legacies Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that supports families heavily affected by long-term impacts of the war in Southeast Asia. “It isn’t on their radar screen,” she said. “We’re trying to put it on their radar screen.” "Dioxin remediation is another dimension of our efforts to deal with the legacy of the war and the after-effects of that very fraught period," said the State Department's Russel. "It’s folded into a broader set of initiatives whereby the United States seeks to support in a number of ways the development and promotion of health throughout the Lao PDR, including particularly for children inasmuch as stunting in Laos is a particular problem." The U.S. has paid out billions of dollars for disability payments and health care for American soldiers who came into contact with Agent Orange and has agreed to clean up about of about two dozen former American military sites polluted by the chemicals, but has been silent about the issue in Laos. “A lot of people called Laos a sideshow,” said Jacquelyn Chagnon, an international development specialist with the War Legacy Project. “Nine years, 10 years of war. Is that a sideshow?” With Obama’s visit the limelight will finally shine on Laos, but only time will tell if it will burn like a beacon or flicker like a candle. Reported and translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek. 
ADL letter to President Obama:
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Human rights under scrutiny in Laos ahead of ASEAN meet
An activist holds a protest in front of the Laos Embassy in Bangkok calling on the government to stop Human Rights violations.
Anadolu Agency: 31 August 2016

One week before Laos hosts a summit of Southeast Asian leaders, international rights groups are demanding that Thailand’s sleepy northern neighbor improve its human rights situation. But while advocates have underscored the state of human rights in the country, the wife of a prominent civil society leader who disappeared after being arrested in Vientiane in December 2012 had more personal concerns Wednesday. “I hope [Barack] Obama, [United Nations secretary-general] Ban Ki-moon and other leaders will ask directly Laos leaders on the case of Sombath Somphone,” Shui-Meng Ng told a press conference in Bangkok co-organized by several rights groups supporting the Sombath Initiative, a project established to find the truth about his disappearance and improve the human rights situation in Laos.
Both the U.S. president — the first to ever visit Laos — and Ban will be in Vientiane for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit. “The government continues to say it is not involved in the disappearance and that the police continue to investigate. But I have not been contacted for any update for two years. It is going exactly in the way the abductors want, that is to say that the passing of time erases the memory of Sombath,” she said. Other speakers at the event underscored what they considered to be the sorry state of the human rights situation in Laos, in almost every field. “At the international level, while Laos has ratified seven core human rights convention, it has failed to keep up with its reporting obligations,” said Laurent Meillan, acting regional representative in Southeast Asia for the U.N. High Commission on Human rights. “We also regret that Laos has not engaged in other important human rights mechanisms. For example, only two U.N. human rights experts have visited the country over the past 18 years,” he added. Human Rights Watch Deputy-Director for Asia Phil Robertson emphasized that for the first time the ASEAN People’s Forum, a meeting of civil society organizations held in parallel with the ASEAN summit, could not take place in the host country. “The Laos government said clearly that they were going to interfere and not allow some topics to be discussed [if the forum took place in Laos], not only about enforced disappearances, but also about the impact of mega-projects, about hydropower, rights of indigenous peoples and LGBT rights,” he said. During the course of the conference, Somphone’s disappearance was seen as emblematic of a deteriorating human rights situation in the country of 7 million people. Walden Bello, a former member of the Philippines’ congress and vice-chair of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights stated that the disappearance has had a tremendous bearing on the future of human rights and democracy in Laos. “We cannot let it go,” he stated. Earlier on Wednesday, two Lao migrant workers — who said they belonged to a group called the Lao Youth Movement for Human Rights — brought a letter to Laos’ embassy in Bangkok, emphasizing the human rights problems they said occurred in Laos. They were quickly surrounded by around 30 Thai police officers, but were allowed to leave freely after delivering the letter, which they promised to also deliver to the U.N. regional office. The heads of government and heads of state of the 10 ASEAN member countries will gather in Vientiane from Sept. 6 to Sept. 8. Laos became an authoritarian communist state after the Pathet Lao guerilla movement took over the country in December 1975 after a 22-year civil war, during which the U.S. — while fighting in its eastern neighbor Vietnam — dropped an estimated two million tons of bombs on the country. What became known as the “Secret war” left a dangerous and costly legacy, with about 30 percent of the ordnance failing to explode.
Since 1977, political and civil liberties have been strictly limited in the country, all local media is heavily controlled by the government, and foreign news agencies wishing to open a bureau are told they will only be allowed to do so if they agree to submit all stories to the foreign ministry for prior approval before publishing.

The Alliance for Democracy in Laos at 

ACSC/APF 2016 – Timor Leste


The ADL in Berlin
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 ADL and alied organization demonstrates for freedom
in front of the Lao embassy and the Vietnamese residence 
Protest letters:
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The New Communistic Leadership in Laos
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Bounnhang Vorachit
Bounnhang Vorachit

Laos' new President Bounnhang Vorachit ( left ) and former President Choummaly Sayasone wave during the inaugural session of the National Assembly's 8th Legislature yesterday. -- Photo Khamphan
Laos' new President Bounnhang Vorachit ( left ) and former President Choummaly Sayasone wave during the inaugural session of the National Assembly's 8th Legislature yesterday. -- Photo Khamphan
New leaders take up their posts
April 21, 2016
The National Assembly's (NA) 8th Legislature began its four-day inaugural session yesterday with members reelecting Ms Pany Yathotou to a second term as the Assembly's President and electing Party Secretary General Mr Bounnhang Vorachit as the head of state.

Ms Pany, who was President of the NA's previous legislature, received votes from almost all Assembly members present at the session.Referring to her suitability for the post, members said she was a longstanding and accomplished female member of the Assembly and possessed the necessary knowledge, skills and experience to lead the legislative body. She was also able to make clearcut decisions on the issues submitted for her consideration.Members also spoke of their pride that the country could elect a woman from an ethnic group to one of the Party's highest leadership positions. This demonstrated that the National Assembly was the highest state body and a true representative of the people.During their first session, National Assembly members reelected the vice president of the Seventh Legislature, Mr Somphanh Phengkhammy. Also elected as vice presidents were Lieutenant General Sengnuan Sayalath, Dr Bounpone Bouttanavong, and Ms Sisay Leudethmounsone.Party Secretary General Mr Bounnhang Vorachit was elected as President of the Lao PDR, and Permanent Member of the Party Central Committee Secretariat Mr Phankham Viphavanh was elected Vice President, after they were nominated by the NA's Standing Committee.Mr Bounnhang and Mr Phankham have been active participants in the lengthy revolution process and have years of experience in executive positions.Mr Bounnhang was a revolutionary activist for many years. He was formerly a commander in the Lao People's Army, provincial Party Secretary and Governor, minister, deputy prime minister, and Vice President.The National Assembly also approved the election of Mr Thongloun Sisoulith as Prime Minister, and Dr Bounthong Chitmany, Dr Sonexay Siphandone, and Mr Somdy Duangdy as Deputy Prime Ministers.Mr Thongloun was previously Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs. Dr Bounthong is also Head of the Party and Government Inspection Authority and the Anti-Corruption Organisation. Mr Somdy is also the Minister of Finance.In addition, Mr Khamsane Souvong and Mr Khamphanh Sitthidampha were reelected as President and Head of Office of the Supreme People's Prosecutor and President of the Supreme People's Court respectively.The structure of the new government remains unchanged and comprises 18 ministries and three ministry-equivalent bodies.

Ministry heads are as follows:
1. Lieutenant General Chansamone Chanyalath is Minister of National Defence.
2. Major General Somkeo Silavong is Minister of Public Security.
3. Mr Khammanh Sounvileuth is Minister of Home Affairs.
4. Mr Chaleun Yiapaoher is Minister to the Prime Minister's Office.
5. Mr Sommad Pholsena is Minister of Natural Resources and Environment.
6. Prof. Dr Bosengkham Vongdara is Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism.
7. Dr Lien Thikeo is Minister of Agriculture and Forestry.
8. Mr Xaysi Santivong is Minister of Justice.
9. Dr Khampheng Saysompheng is Minister of Labour and Social Welfare.
10. Mr Khammeung Phongthady is Minister and Head of the Presidential Office.
11. Dr Khammany Inthirath is Minister of Energy and Mines.
12. Ms Khemmani Pholsena is Minister of Industry and Commerce.
13. Prof. Dr Boviengkham Vongdara is Minister of Science and Technology.
14. Mr Saleumxay Kommasith is Minister of Foreign Affairs.
15. Ms Sengdeuan Lachanthaboun is Minister of Education and Sports.
16. Mr SomphaoPhaysith is Governor of the Bank of the Lao PDR.
17. Mr Thansamay Kommasith is Minister of Posts and Telecommunications.
18. Dr Bounchanh Sinthavong is Minister of Public Works and Transport.
19. Dr Phet Phomphiphak is Minister and Head of the Prime Minister's Office.
20. Dr Souphanh Keomixay is Minister of Planning and Investment.
21. Dr Bounkong Sihavong is Minister of Health.
22. Mr Bounkeuth Sangsomsak is Minister to the Prime Minister's Office.
23. Mr Alounkeo Kittikhoun is Minister to the Prime Minister's Office.
24. Dr Souvanpheng Bouphanouvong is Minister to the Prime Minister's Office.
The National Assembly's Eighth Legislature has eight committees and a secretariat.
1. Mr Saithong Keoduangdy is President of the Law Committee.
2. Mr Bounpone Sisoulath is President of the Economics, Technology and Environment Committee.
3. Dr Vilayvong Bouddakham is President of the Finance, Planning and Audit Committee.
4. Dr Somphou Duangsavanh is President of the Cultural-Social Committee.
5. Ms Buaphanh Likaiya is President of the Committee of Ethnicity.6. Dr Buakham Thipphavong is President of the Justice Committee.
7. Khamsouk Vi-inthavong is President of the National Defence and Public Security Committee.8. Prof. Dr Eksavang Vongvichit is President of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
9. Ms Suansavanh Vignaket is Head of the Secretariat.
Le nouveau président du Laos Bounnhang Vorachit (à gauche) et l'ancien président vague Choummaly Sayasone au cours de la session inaugurale du 8ème législature de l'Assemblée nationale hier. - Photo Khamphan
Mme Pany, qui était président de la précédente législature de l'AN, a reçu les votes de presque tous les membres de l'Assemblée présents à la session.
Le nouveau président du Laos Bounnhang Vorachit (à gauche) et l'ancien président vague Choummaly Sayasone au cours de la session inaugurale du 8ème législature de l'Assemblée nationale hier. - Photo Khamphan
Mme Pany, qui était président de la précédente législature de l'AN, a reçu les votes de presque tous les membres de l'Assemblée présents à la session.
  Les nouveaux dirigeants prennent leurs fonctions
21 avril 2016
(NA) 8e législature de l'Assemblée nationale a commencé ses quatre jours séance inaugurale hier avec les membres réélisant Mme Pany Yathotou pour un second mandat en tant que Président de l'Assemblée et élire secrétaire général du parti M. Bounnhang Vorachit que le chef de l'Etat.
Se référant à son aptitude pour le poste, les membres ont dit qu'elle était une femme membre de longue date et accompli de l'Assemblée et possédaient les connaissances nécessaires, les compétences et l'expérience pour diriger le corps législatif. Elle a également été en mesure de prendre des décisions sur les coupes à blanc questions soumises à son examen.
Les membres ont également parlé de leur fierté que le pays pourrait élire une femme d'un groupe ethnique à l'un des plus hauts dirigeants positions du Parti. Cela démontre que l'Assemblée nationale était la plus haute instance de l'Etat et un véritable représentant du peuple.
Au cours de leur première session, les membres de l'Assemblée nationale ont réélu le vice-président de la septième législature, M. Somphanh Phengkhammy. Aussi élus vice-présidents étaient le lieutenant-général Sengnuan Sayalath, Dr Bounpone Bouttanavong, et Mme Sisay Leudethmounsone.
Secrétaire général du parti M. Bounnhang Vorachit a été élu président de la République démocratique populaire lao, et membre permanent du Comité central du Parti Secrétariat M. Phankham Viphavanh a été élu vice-président, après qu'ils ont été nommés par le Comité permanent de l'AN.
M. Bounnhang et M. Phankham ont participé activement au processus de révolution longue et ont des années d'expérience dans des postes de direction.
M. Bounnhang était un militant révolutionnaire pour de nombreuses années. Auparavant, il était un commandant dans l'armée populaire lao, secrétaire provincial du Parti et gouverneur, ministre, vice-Premier ministre et vice-président.
L'Assemblée nationale a également approuvé l'élection de M. Thongloun Sisoulith en tant que Premier ministre, et le Dr Bounthong Chitmany, Dr Sonexay Siphandone, et M. Somdy Duangdy comme vice-premiers ministres.
M. Thongloun était auparavant vice-premier ministre et ministre des Affaires étrangères. Dr Bounthong est également chef du Parti et de l'autorité d'inspection du gouvernement et l'Organisation de lutte contre la corruption. M. Somdy est également le ministre des Finances.
En outre, M. Khamsane Souvong et M. Khamphanh Sitthidampha ont été réélus en tant que Président et Chef du Bureau du Procureur suprême du peuple et président de la Cour populaire suprême, respectivement.
La structure du nouveau gouvernement reste inchangé et se compose de 18 ministères et trois organismes ministériels équivalent.
têtes du ministère sont les suivantes:
1. Le lieutenant-général Chansamone Chanyalath est ministre de la Défense nationale.
2. Major général Somkeo Silavong est ministre de la Sécurité publique.
3. M. Khammanh Sounvileuth est ministre de l'Intérieur.
4. M. Chaleun Yiapaoher est ministre au bureau du Premier ministre.
5. M. Sommad Pholsena est ministre des Ressources naturelles et de l'environnement.
6. Prof. Dr Bosengkham Vongdara est ministre de l'Information, de la Culture et du Tourisme.
7. Dr Lien Thikeo est ministre de l'Agriculture et des Forêts.
8. M. Xaysi Santivong est ministre de la Justice.
9. Dr Khampheng Saysompheng est ministre du Travail et des Affaires sociales.
10. M. Khammeung Phongthady est ministre et chef du bureau présidentiel.
11. Dr Khammany Inthirath est ministre de l'Energie et des Mines.
12. Mme Khemmani Pholsena est ministre de l'Industrie et du Commerce.
13. Prof. Dr Boviengkham Vongdara est ministre de la Science et de la technologie.
14. M. Saleumxay Kommasith est ministre des Affaires étrangères.
15. Mme Sengdeuan Lachanthaboun est ministre de l'Éducation et des Sports.
16. M. SomphaoPhaysith est gouverneur de la Banque de la RDP lao.

The ADL at the CSO/EC forum in 
Brussel (Belgium) March 17/18 2016
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 ADL Demonstration against the Vientnamese occupation of Laos at the US/ASEAN Summit

President Obama is about to host a cavalcade of dictators in Southern California.
On Monday and Tuesday, Obama will meet heads of state from the 10 Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries at the Sunnylands estate in Rancho Mirage, marking the first U.S.-ASEAN summit to be held on American soil. Obama will focus on deepening political and economic ties to the region, primarily to bolster his Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and form buffers against China’s growing regional clout.
Yet human rights groups have noted that only three participating countries — Indonesia, the Philippines, and arguably Singapore, a de facto one-party state — will be represented by elected leaders. They have raised concerns that the meeting could serve as an endorsement of repressive regimes.
“President Obama knows that human rights are under assault in Southeast Asia; the question is whether he’s going to say or do something about it,” John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Wednesday. “The risk is that the Sunnylands summit will empower and embolden ASEAN leaders who have been responsible for jailing journalists, cracking down on peaceful protesters and dismantling democratic institutions after coups.”
Here’s a list of the authoritarian leaders who will attend:
 : Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. (Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP/Getty Images)
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen. (Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP/Getty Images)
 Hun Sen, Cambodia
Hun Sen, 62, has ruled Cambodia for 30 years, making him Asia’s longest serving ruler. A former commander in the Khmer Rouge — a murderous regime thay killed nearly a quarter of the country’s population in the 1970s — his security forces have imprisoned critics, executed political opponents and embarked on systematic campaigns of torture, killing and land confiscation. He has said he wants to lead till he’s 90.When Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with Hun Sen in January, he praised Cambodia’s recent economic growth but also admonished the Cambodian government on its human rights record, saying that improvements would be necessary to “to fulfill the potential” of bilateral relations with the U.S..
 : Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. (Sakchai Lalit / Associated Press)
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha. (Sakchai Lalit / Associated Press)
 Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand
Since Prayuth, 61, took power in a military coup in 2014, he has shuttered outspoken media and detained activists for the slightest acts of dissent. He has also burnished a reputation as an eccentric strongman, replete with long, nonsensical televised rants. In the fall, he told an audience that he once doused himself in holy water to ward off curses from opponents. Although the U.S. still looks to Thailand as an ally, Prayuth has taken a sharp turn toward Beijing — last year, Bangkok formally handed at least two Chinese dissident refugees and 100 persecuted Uighur Muslims back to China, where rights groups say they could face unjust imprisonment and torture.
 : Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. (Mohd Rasfan / AFP/Getty Images)
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. (Mohd Rasfan / AFP/Getty Images)
 Najib Razak, Malaysia
Najib, 62, Malaysia’s Prime Minister since 2009, passed a controversial new security law in December that gives him unchecked powers to crack down on all perceived threats to “socio-political stability,” possibly including protests. Last summer, he was embroiled in a major financial scandal after he failed to account for $700 million in his bank account, raising concerns that he embezzled the money from a state fund.
 : Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei. (JHoang Dinh Nam / AFP/Getty Images)
Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei. (JHoang Dinh Nam / AFP/Getty Images)
 Hassanal Bolkiah, BruneiSince 1968, Bolkiah, 67, has been the sultan and leader of Brunei, a tiny, conservative, Sunni Muslim nation on the island of Borneo. As the absolute monarch of an oil-rich state, he is one of the world’s wealthiest men, with an estimated net worth of $20 billion (in 2009, he reportedly spent $21,000 on a haircut). In 2014, Bolkiah put the country under sharia criminal law, decreeing that citizens can be put to death for blasphemy and insulting verses of the Koran. Adultery and homosexuality are punishable by stoning. This past December, he banned celebrations of Christmas in public spaces including city streets and shopping malls, warning that celebrators could face five years in jail.
 : Myanmar President Thein Sein. (Nyein Chan Naing / European Pressphoto Agency)
Myanmar President Thein Sein. (Nyein Chan Naing / European Pressphoto Agency)
 Thein Sein, Myanmar
Myanmar’s opposition National League for Democracy party, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide election victory in November. Yet the summit was planned before her victory, and Thein Sein, an unelected former military officer who has helped oversee Myanmar’s recent democratic reforms, will be representing the country at Sunnylands. He will step down in late March.
 : Laotian President Choummaly Sayasone. (European Pressphoto Agency)
Laotian President Choummaly Sayasone. (European Pressphoto Agency)
 Choummaly Sayasone, Laos
Choummaly, 79, the head of the Lao People's Revolutionary Party — the landlocked country’s only legal party — presides over one of the world’s most repressive states. The communist government censors the Internet, detains activists without due process and strictly censors the media. Journalists can be sentenced to 15 years in prison for writing critical reports. Choummaly recently bought a house with a $615,000 garden, according to a report by Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government-funded news service. (In 2013, the country’s per capita income was $1,450). The party replaced Choummaly as its top leader during a twice-a-decade party congress last month, and he will soon step down after almost a decade in power.
 : Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. (Andrew Taylor / Associated Press)
Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung. (Andrew Taylor / Associated Press)
 Nguyen Tan Dung, Vietnam
Dung, 66, is one of the most powerful leaders in Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party, along with General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong. Over two five-year terms as prime minister, he has gained a reputation as a pro-business reformer and champion of closer ties with the U.S.. In January, he was sidelined at a Communist Party internal election, leaving Trong as the party’s top official.

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