The ADL events in the USA:
- Demonstrations in front of the Lao/Vietnamese embassies
- International Forum on the Current Human Rights Situation in the Lao PDR Washington, DC, May 4-7, 2013
- Meetings in New York and Washington DC
Concerned about the
deteriorating situation of human rights in the Lao PDR, the Alliance for
Democracy (ADL) in Laos has organized a forum to address a range of
particularly troubling issues:
grabs and land rights
- Decision making without popular participation
- Repression of alternative viewpoints and the Sombath Somphone case
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|Carving up Laos|
ໜ້າສັງເວດ ປະຊາຊົນລາວ ບັນດາເຜົ່່າທີ່ເປັນຜູ້ຮັບກັມ ຍ້ອນພວກຜູ້ນໍາ ປົກຄອງຊາດ ດ້ວຍການສແວງຫາຜົນປໂຍດສ່ວນຕົວ- ສໍ້ລາດ ບັງຫຼວງ, ຂາຍຊັພໃນດິນ ສິນໃນນໍ້າ, ຂາຍຊາດ ຂາຍປະຊາຊົນ. ຂໍໃຫ້ດວງວິນຍານຂອງ ບັນພະບຸຣຸທລາວ ຈົ່ງມາສິງແລະສາບແຊ່ງໃຫ້ ພວກນັກ ປົກຄອງຂາຍຊາດເຫຼົ່ານີ້ ໃຫ້ດັບວາຍ ຈິບຫາຍ, ຕົກນະລົກ ອະເວຈີ ຮ້ອຍໂຄດຂອງ ພວກເຂົາ.
The Edge Review: 5 -11 April 2013
By Marwaan Macan-Markar / Bangkok
When they gathered for the second annual session of the National Assembly last December, Laotian lawmakers may have had a reason to feel buoyant. The communist-ruled country appeared on the verge of gaining international respectability. The preceding months had seen this impoverished nation shed some of its image as a diplomatic backwater in the region.The remake came in stages. In July, Hillary Clinton flew into Vientiane, becoming the first US Secretary of State to visit the landlocked country in 57 years.Then, in October, the World Trade Organisation approved Laos’ application to join the WTO, signalling that this agrarian nation had joined the world of international commerce. And finally, in November, Laos hosted its most important international gathering, the Asia-Europe Meeting (Asem), which drew world leaders from Asia and Europe.But by the time the 12-day session of the country’s parliament drew to a close in December, the assembly had traded open buoyancy for secrecy, raising questions about the prospect of a liberal political culture taking root. Nothing was more deafening to some community leaders than the assembly’s decision to silence one of the rare new avenues of openness – a hotline for the public to call the 132-member parliament.This rollback in a country where political dissent has traditionally not been tolerated was hard to ignore. After all, the first annual session of the parliament, held in July, seemed to indicate that the nod given to greater openness in recent years by the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) might be genuine. There were close to 300 calls that citizens made using the hotline, a number that was widely publicised in the local media.Just why the parliament backtracked has not been lost on Vientiane-based diplomats and other observers. Nearly 280 complaints registered during that July session involved a host of grievances related to land issues: a lack of adequate compensation to the public, the awarding of concessions to foreign investors that has forced local communities from their lands, land-grabs and other questionable land deals.“Local anger towards land-related issues has been discussed in the open more, certainly since 2011,” one Western diplomat confirmed. “From what we hear, some panic has set in within the party hierarchy. The reaction is to clamp down on the voices raising these issues.“There are people in the party and government who are profiting from corrupt land deals.”It is an issue that continues to dog Laos, which in 2012 ranked as the 160th most corrupt country in the world out of 183 surveyed by the global anti-graft watchdog, Transparency International.“The many local voices complaining about land conflicts were coming in the way of the deal makers,” the diplomat added.This nexus, some Lao watchers say, could be behind the abduction in December of Sombath Somphone, the country’s most famous civil society leader. The 61-year- old Sombath, who champions grassroots concerns and the need for sustainable development, vanished while the National Assembly was still in session.He was stopped on the evening of Dec. 15 at a police checkpoint in Vientiane. Grainy video footage from a nearby CCTV camera, viewable on YouTube, shows the last images his family and friends have of him. It reveals Sombath’s jeep parked at the checkpoint and him being led away from the police post by two unidentified men.“To date, we have had no news whatsoever about Sombath, where he is, in what condition, or even if he is alive,” Ng Shui-Meng, his Singaporean wife, revealed to The Edge Review. “I have wracked my brain to try and think why this happened and why now and not before, and I find no real answers.”The link between Sombath’s abduction and the growing public resentment over land conflicts featured during recent interviews with Laotian and foreign activists and development and aid workers. They point to a rising tide of rural anger over questionable land deals, which could loom as the gravest political challenge facing the secretive communist regime, which has ruled the country with an iron fist since December 1975.Conflicts over land featured prominently in October during a gathering of foreign and local community activists at the Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF). The soft-spoken Sombath was a leading organiser of that four-day event, and local complaints about dubious land deals with foreign companies were on full display during the exchanges in Vientiane. Sombath also had a hand in drafting a document called the “Lao People’s Vision,” which conveyed grassroots sentiments expressed at 16 provincial level gatherings that preceded the AEPF.“The foreign ministry approved the space for civil society at the AEPF as a sign that the country was opening up,” says Shalmali Guttal, senior researcher at Focus on the Global South, a Bangkok-based think tank. “It fit in with the attitude of Laos policymakers over the past five to six years of reaching out to their own people, their critics. The impression was that things were changing.”The political space for public complaints regarding land issues marked this shift, a rare opening that is credited to former Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavang. He chaired meetings that addressed land issues a year after coming to office in 2006. He appeared sympathetic to rural communities threatened by land concessions to foreign investors, and his views were even widely reported in the state-owned newspapers.Kham-oun Boupha, a former official in the prime minister’s office, had also echoed those views. “Our policy is to make people richer,” Kham-oun, who was also the head of the national land management authority, told local newspapers in May 2009, when local resentment at land purchases by foreign companies began to surface.‘If we take land from people that we have already given them for use in production, trade and services, and allocate it for the (foreign) concession agreement, I think we are in opposition to our own policy,” he said.Indeed, the popularity of a radio programme hosted by Laotian journalist Ounkeo Souksavanh was largely driven by villagers calling in from across the country to talk about the impact land deals were having on their lives. “I had a hotline that the audience could call and they often talked about the rise in land conflicts in their community,” says Ounkeo, whose hourly weekday programme ran for four years before being abruptly pulled off the air in January 2012.‘It is possible that this is the reason why the programme was shut down.”Laos’s land policy, which opened up opportunities for foreign investors in 1986, has resulted in over two million hectares of land being converted to lease or concession deals, with companies from Vietnam and China, two of the top three foreign investors in the country, accounting for the largest slice of the 2,000 approved projects. These include copper and gold mines, as well as industrial scale rubber and cassava plantations, among other projects.Vietnam, the other communist-ruled country in Southeast Asia, tops the list of foreign investors in Laos, with investments totalling US$4.9 billion, followed by Thailand, with US$4 billion. Vietnamese agricultural investments abound in southern Laos, while China’s US$3.9 billion in investments are concentrated in the hilly terrain in northern Laos, close to the Chinese border.In fact, growing land disputes between local villagers and Chinese investors in northern Laos prompted the Lao prime minister to issue an order last July for a moratorium on granting new land concessions for industrial plantations and mining in the area till 2015. “This is to freeze concessions for rubber plantations and mining projects,” says Manothong Vongsay, deputy director general at the ministry of planning and investment. “Separately, the national assembly is also working on a land policy law.”Attracting foreign investors to tap the country’s abundant natural resources is a key policy of Vientiane, which still depends heavily on foreign aid to care for its 6.5 million people, a third of whom live in absolute poverty. Overseas development assistance accounts for nearly 70 per cent – or US$1.7 billion — of the national budget.“The problem of poverty in Laos will only grow if the government continues with policies where corrupt deals have threatened the land held by rural communities,” says a Laotian grassroots campaigner. “For rural people, land is their life, their blood, and that is why they are fighting back. And the government is aware of this awakening.”
ເປັນເວລາສອງເດືອນປາຍ ທີ່ ທ່ານ ສົມບັດ ສົມພອນ ນັກພັດທະນາສັງຄົມ ໄດ້ຫາຍສາບສູນໄປ ໃນຕອນແລງ
ການປະທ້ວງຂອງ ປະຊາຄົມລາວກຸ່ມນຶ່ງ ທີ່ນະຄອນຫລວງປາຣີ ປະເທດຝຣັ່ງ ຮຽກຮ້ອງ ໃຫ້ຊອກຫາ ແລະປ່ອຍໂຕ ທ່ານສົມບັດ ສົມພອນ, ວັນທີ 9 ກຸມພາ 2013.
ກິ່ງສະຫວັນ ປະຖຳມະວົງ 21.02.2013
ວັນ ເສົາ ທີ15 ເດືອນທັນວາ ປີ 2012 ຈາກຖະໜົນເສັ້ນທີ່ ທ່ານໄດ້ໃຊ້ທ່ຽວໄປມາແຕ່ລະວັນ ອັນເປັນບ້ານເກີດເມືອງນອນບ່ອນທີ່ທ່ານເຕີບໃຫຍ່ ແລະສາມາດບອກໄດ້ທຸກຮ່ອມທຸກແຈ ໃນເຂດນະຄອນຫລວງວຽງຈັນ.
ເຖິງແມ່ນວ່າຈະມີຫລັກຖານ ຈາກບັນທຶກ ກ້ອງວົງຈອນປິດ ທີ່ຕິດຕັ້ງໄວ້ຢູ່ຖະໜົນ ບ່ອນທີ່ມີຄົນເຫັນ ທ່ານສົມ
ພອນ ເປັນຄັ້ງສຸດທ້າຍນັ້ນກໍຕາມ ຕົກມາເຖິງເປັດຈຸບັນນີ້ ກໍຍັງບໍ່ມີຄໍາອະທິບາຍອັນກະຈ່າງແຈ້ງ ຈາກເຈົ້າໜ້າທີ່ລັດຖະບານ ສປປ ລາວວ່າ ແມ່ນຫຍັງໄດ້ເກີດຂື້ນແກ່ ທ່ານສົມພອນ ແລະທ່ານຍັງມີຊີວິດ ຫລືວ່າ ທ່ານໄດ້ຈາກໂລກມະນຸດໄປແລ້ວ.
ການຫາຍສາບສູນໄປຂອງ ທ່ານສົມບັດ ສົມພອນ ອັນບໍ່ຄາດຝັນໄດ້ກໍ່ໃຫ້ເກີດຄື້ນຟອງນອງໜັ່ນໄປທົ່ວໂລກ ເພາະວ່າ ທ່ານ ສົມພອນ ເປັນບຸກຄົນສໍາຄັນ ທີ່ໄດ້ສ້າງຄຸນງາມຄວາມດີ ແລະໄດ້ວາງບົດບາດ ເປັນແບບຢ່າງ
ອັນດີເລີດໃຫ້ແກ່ ປະຊາຄົມລາວ ຊຶ່ງອົງການສາກົນທົ່ວໂລກພາກັນຍ້ອງຍໍຮັບຮູ້ເປັນກຽດຢ່າງສູງ.
ຊີວິດຄວາມເປັນມາຂອງ ທ່ານສົມບັດ ສົມພອນ ນັ້ນເປັນທີ່ໜ້າສັນລະເສີນ ທ່ານເກີດທີ່ ບ້ານດອນຂຽວ ເມືອງ ໜອງບົກ ແຂວງຄໍາມ່ວນ ເປັນລູກຊາຍກົກຂອງອ້າຍເອື້ອຍນ້ອງດ້ວຍກັນ 8 ຄົນ. ໃນຕົ້ນປີ 1970 ທ່ານໄດ້ຮັບທຶນສຶກສາໄປຮຽນຢູ່ທີ່ ມະຫາວິທະຍາໄລລັດຮາວາຍ ໄດ້ຮັບປະລິນຍາຕີຝ່າຍການສຶກສາ ໃນປີ 1974 ຈາກສູນກາງຕາເວັນອອກ
ຕາເວັນຕົກ ຫລື East West Center ແລະໄດ້ຮັບປະລິນຍາໂທ ຝ່າຍກະເສດສາດໃນປີ 1978.
ທ່ານສົມບັດ ສົມພອນ ໃນບົດບາດນັກພັດທະນາ
ເຖິງ ແມ່ນລະບອບການປົກຄອງໄດ້ປ່ຽນແປງໄປໃນ ບ້ານເກີດເມືອງນອນ ຕອນທີ່ ທ່ານຍັງສຶກສາຢູ່ຕ່າງປະເທດກໍຕາມ ທ່ານສົມພອນ ກໍໄດ້ຕັດສິນໃຈກັບຄືນເມື່ອບ້ານເກີດ ດ້ວຍຄວາມມຸ້ງມາດ ປາດຖະໜາອັນແຮງກ້າ ຢາກອຸທິດຄວາມຮູ້ທີ່ຕົນຮຽນມານັ້ນ ຊ່ວຍສ້າງ ສາພັດທະນາປະເທດຊາດ ໃຫ້ພົ້ນຈາກຄວາມທຸກຈົນ ແລະກ້າວໄປສູ່ການກຸ້ມຕົນເອງເພື່ອ ໃຫ້ຫລຸດພົ້ນຈາກການເປັນປະເທດດ້ອຍພັດທະນາ.
ເປັນເວລາ 30 ກວ່າປີ ທີ່ທ່ານສົມພອນໄດ້ບືກບືນສູ້ທົນກັບວຽກການ. ທ່ານເປັນຜູ້ນຳພາຄົນທຳອິດ ໃນການປູກຝັງໃຫ້ໄດ້ຜົນໃນປີ 1996 ທ່ານໄດ້ຮັບອະນຸຍາດຈາກ ກະຊວງສຶກສາທິການ ຮ່ວມສ້າງ ສູນອົບຮົມຮ່ວມພັດທະນາ ຫລື Participatory Development Training Center ທີ່ເອີ້ນຫຍໍ້ວ່າ PADETS ຂື້ນມາເພື່ອນສິດສອນບັນດາຊາວໜຸ່ມລາວ ແລະເຈົ້າໜ້າທີ່ທ້ອງຖິ່ນຂອງລັດ ຖະບານ ກ່ຽວກັບວຽກງານການພັດທະນາ ເປັນເວລາຫລາຍປີ ແລະມັນກໍເປັນອົງການຈັດຕັ້ງປະຊາຄົມທໍານອງ
ນີ້ແຫ່ງດຽວ ທີ່ມີຢູ່ໃນ ສປປ ລາວ.
ດ້ວຍຄວາມຂະຫຍັນຂັນແຂງທາງດ້ານຜົນງານ ແລະເປັນແບບຢ່າງທີ່ດີເລີດ ຢູ່ໃນປະເທດກໍາລັງພັດທະນາ ທ່ານສົມບັດ ສົມພອນ ຈຶ່ງໄດ້ຮັບຄວາມຍ້ອງຍໍຈາກວົງການສາກົນ ມາເປັນລໍາດັບ ຈົນໄດ້ຮັບລາງວັນ ຣາມົນ ມາກໄຊໄຊ (Ramon Magsaysay) ຊຶ່ງເປັນລາງວັນ ກຽດຕິຍົດ ທີ່ສູງສຸດປະຈໍາປີ 2005 ຢູ່ໃນເຂດເອເຊຍ.
ທ່ານນາງ ດອກເຕີ້ ບຸນທອນ ຈັນທະລາວົງ ວິດເຊີ
ການຫາຍສາບສູນໄປຂອງ ທ່ານ ສົມບັດ ສົມພອນ ໄດ້ສ້າງຜົນສະທ້ອນທາງດ້ານສິດທິມະນຸດ ພາໃຫ້ບັນດາປະຊາຄົມສາກົນ ອັນມີ ສະຫະພາບຢູໂຣບ ອົງການສະຫະປະຊາຊາດ ສະຫະລັດອາເມຣິກາ ແລະປະເທດສະມາຊິກສະມາ
ຄົມບັນດາປະຊາຊາດໃນເຂດເອເຊຍອາຄະເນ ຫລືອາຊ່ຽນ ຮວມທັງໝົດ 50 ກວ່າປະເທດ ໄດ້ພາກັນຮຽກຮ້ອງໃຫ້
ລັດຖະບານ ສປປ ລາວ ສືບສວນຊອກຫາແລະພາໂຕທ່ານ ສົມບັດ ສົມພອນ ນັ້ນຄືນມາ.
ໂຕຢ່າງກໍຄື ໃນວັນເສົາ ທີ 9 ເດືອນກຸມພາທີ່ຜ່ານມານີ້ ຊາວລາວຈໍານວນນຶ່ງ ພາຍໃຕ້
ການ ນໍາພາຂອງອົງການພັນທະມິດເພື່ອປະຊາທິປະໄຕໃນລາວ ທີ່ມີສາຂາຢູ່ປະເທດຝຣັ່ງ ເຢຍຣະມັນ ການາດາ ອອສເຕຣເລຍ ແລະສະຫະລັດ ຮ່ວມກັບອີກເກືອບຊາວອົງການຈັດຕັ້ງຂອງປະຊາຄົມລາວຢູ່ທົ່ວໂລກ ໄດ້ພ້ອມພຽງກັນທໍາການຮຽກຮ້ອງ ໂດຍການສົ່ງສານປະ
ທ້ວງຂອງ ຂະບວນການຈັດຕັ້ງ ແລະຊຸມຊົນລາວ ເພື່ອປະຊາທິປະໄຕ ຕໍ່ການຫາຍສາບສູນ ຂອງທ່ານ ສົມບັດ ສົມພອນ.
ເອກກະສານດັ່ງກ່າວໄດ້ຖືກ ນຳສົ່ງເຖິງ ທ່ານທອງສິງ ທຳມະວົງ ນາຍົກລັດຖະມົນຕີແຫ່ງ ສປປ ລາວ ດັ່ງທ່ານຈະໄດ້ຍິນໃນການສໍາພາດຂອງ ວີໂອເອ ໃນຂະນະທີ່ມີການປະທ້ວງຢູ່ Maison de Association ໃນນະຄອນຫລວງປາຣີ ທີ່ປະເທດຝຣັ່ງ ກັບທ່ານນາງ ບຸນທອນ ຈັນທະລາວົງ ວິດເຊີ ປະທານອົງການພັນທະມິດເພື່ອປະຊາທິປະໄຕໃນລາວ ດັ່ງຕໍ່ລົງໄປນີ້:
ດຣ. ບຸນທອນ ຈັນທະລາວົງ ວິດເຊີ
ທ່ານກາດ ດິດທະວົງ ກັບຄະນະ ເຂົ້າພົບທ່ານ ບອບ ຄາຣ໌ ລັດຖະມົນຕີຕ່າງປະເທດອອສເຕຣເລຍ
ທ່ານ ກາດ ດິດທະວົງ ຫົວໜ້າອົງການພັນທະມິດເພື່ອປະຊາທິປະໄຕໃນລາວ ສາຂາປະເທດອອສເຕຣເລຍ ກໍໄດ້ກ່າວກັບວີໂອເອ ວ່າ “ໃນວັນທີ 8 ເດືອນກຸມພາ ຢູ່ທີ່ນະຄອນ Sydney ໄດ້ມີການປະຖະກະຖາຢູ່ Australian National Maritime Museum ໂດຍລັດຖະມົນຕີ ຕ່າງ ປະເທດ ອອສເຕຣເລຍ ທ່ານBob Carr ໃນຫົວຂໍ້ Perpective on Human Right and
Australian Foreign Policy” ຫລື ຄວາມຄິດເຫັນກ່ຽວກັບສິດທິມະນຸດແລະນະໂຍບາຍການ ຕ່າງປະເທດ ຂອງອອສເຕຣເລຍ ຊຶ່ງທ່ານກາດ ດິດທະວົງ ພ້ອມດ້ວຍຄະນະ ກໍໄດ້ເຂົ້າຮ່ວມ
ຟັງ ແລະໄດ້ມອບເອກກະສານຮຽກຮ້ອງສະບັບນຶ່ງ ກ່ຽວກັບການຫາຍສາບສູນໄປຂອງ ທ່ານສົມບັດ ສົມພອນ ໃຫ້ແກ່ທ່ານ Carrຜູ້ທີ່ຈະເດີນທາງໄປຢ້ຽມຢາມ ສປປ ລາວ ຊຶ່ງທ່ານ Carr ກໍໄດ້ໄປຢ້ຽມຢາມປະເທດລາວມາແລ້ວ ໃນລະຫວ່າງວັນທີ 17-20 ກຸມພາ ຜ່ານມານີ້ເອງ.
ໃນວັນເສົາທີ 9 ກຸມພາ ພ້ອມໆດຽວກັນກັບການປະທ້ວງຢູ່ປະເທດຝຣັ່ງນັ້ນ ຊາວລາວຢູ່ອອສເຕຣເລຍ ກໍໄດ້ພາກັນ ປະທ້ວງ ຢູ່ທີ່ Fairfield Council Hall Bonnyrigg Heightຫ່າງຈາກນະຄອນຫລວງ Canberra ປະມານ 300 ວ່າກິໂລແມດ.
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|Laos Could Bear Cost of Chinese Railroad|
By JANE PERLEZ and BREE FENG
OUDOM XAI, Laos — Wang Quan, the new Chinese owner of a hotel in this farm town tucked into the tropical mountains of northern Laos, is hoping that the first of 20,000 Chinese workers will arrive here soon to start construction on a new railroad.
The Chinese-financed railway is to snake its way through dozens of tunnels and bridges, eventually linking southern China to Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, and then on to the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar, significantly expanding China’s already enormous trade with Southeast Asia.
But Mr. Wang may have to wait a little longer to make his fortune from all the Chinese expected to descend on this obscure corner of Laos about 50 miles from the nearest border with China. Even though the project has run into some serious objections from international development organizations, most experts expect it to go ahead anyway. That is because China considers it vital to its strategy of pulling Southeast Asia closely into its orbit and providing Beijing with another route to transport oil from the Middle East.
The crucial connection would run through Oudom Xai between Kunming, the capital of China’s southern province of Yunnan, and the Laotian capital, Vientiane.
“China wants a fast-speed rail — Kunming to Vientiane,” George Yeo, a former foreign minister of Singapore, said in a recent speech to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Business Club in Bangkok.
Mr. Yeo, chairman of Kerry Logistics Network, a major Asian freight and distribution company, is considered one of the best-informed experts on the expansion of new Asia trading routes. “The big objective is Bangkok,” he said. “It’s a huge market, lots of opportunities. From there, Bangkok to Dawei in Myanmar — that will enable China to bypass the Malacca Straits,” a potential choke point between the Indian Ocean and China’s east coast.
But China is not particularly interested in sharing much of the wealth the railroad would generate. Most of the benefits, critics say, would flow to China while most of the costs would be borne by the host nation. The price tag of the $7 billion, 260-mile rail project, which Laos will borrow from China, is nearly equal to the tiny $8 billion in annual economic activity in Laos, which lacks even a rudimentary railroad and whose rutted road system is largely a leftover from the French colonial era.
In mid-November, when Prime Minister Wen Jiabao of China visited Vientiane for a summit meeting of European and Asian leaders, he was expected to attend a groundbreaking for the railroad. The ceremony did not take place.
An assessment of the rail project by a consultant for the United Nations Development Program said the terms of the financing offered by China’s Export-Import Bank were so onerous they put Laos’s “macroeconomic stability in danger.” At the same time, construction through northern Laos would turn the countryside into “a waste dump,” the consultant’s report said. “An expensive mistake” if signed under the terms offered, the report concluded. As collateral for the loan, Laos was bound to provide China with minerals, including potash and copper.
Other international donors echoed the findings. “Partners, including the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, expressed concern, and the International Monetary Fund was here and said, ‘You have to be very careful,’ ” said an Asian diplomat briefed on the reservations expressed to the Laotian government.
Nonetheless, the National Assembly has approved the project as part of a much broader trans-Asian rail agreement signed by nearly 20 Asian countries in 2006. While the workings of the Communist Party that runs Laos are extremely opaque, diplomats here said, the project is most strongly backed by the pro-China deputy prime minister, Somsavat Lengsavad. Efforts to interview Mr. Somsavat were unsuccessful.
China’s exploding trade with Southeast Asia reached nearly $370 billion in 2011, double that of the United States in the same year. By 2015, when the Southeast Asian countries aim to have completed an economic community, China projects that its trade with the region will equal about $500 billion.
Even as it exports a variety of goods to the region, China relies on imports from its neighbors in Southeast Asia — natural resources and intermediate goods — to fuel its export machine, said Yolanda Fernandez Lommen, principal economist for the Asian Development Bank in Beijing.
The European Community, the United States and Japan are still China’s largest trading partners, she said, but “Southeast Asia is geostrategically and economically important to China, an increasingly important partner from both the trade and investment perspectives.”
Laos offers a perfect launching pad for China’s stepped-up regional ambitions. China has poured new investments into the capital, including in dozens of luxurious villas built on the banks of the Mekong River to house the European and Asian leaders who attended the November summit meeting.
A fancy new convention hall, part of a new complex called Vientiane New World, gives a 21st-century veneer to the shabby capital. In Luang Prabang, a popular tourist destination through which the railroad will run, China has built hospitals and upgraded the airport.
Some Laotians, unhappy with the unmistakable Chinese presence, complain that their country is becoming little more than a province of China or, more slyly, a vassal state.
Veterans of the Pathet Lao, the guerrilla movement that fought alongside North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, dominate a government that keeps its distance from Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited in July, the first visit by the United States’s top diplomat since the 1950s. The move was part of the Obama administration’s effort to forge stronger economic and military ties in the region as a counterweight to China.
In Laos, opposition to government policies is often squelched. The director of Helvetas, a Swiss development organization, was expelled on 48 hours’ notice last month, accused of an unfriendly attitude to the government. The director, Anne-Sophie Gindroz, had raised the issue of the government’s forcing peasants to sell their land at very low prices, a practice that is now seen as mainly serving the interests of Chinese-financed developers.
In Vientiane, the well-known Laotian director of a civil society group, the Participatory Development Training Center, disappeared last month after taking part in a People’s Forum where land issues were discussed on the sidelines of the November summit meeting. Diplomats said the director, Sombath Somphone, appeared to be in police custody.
Despite the sudden opposition to the Chinese railroad, a manager of a Chinese state-owned company in Vientiane, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said he had every expectation that it would go ahead. He said Hu Jintao, China’s departing president, “made the decision two to three years ago.”
A foreign diplomat agreed, saying that Vientiane and Beijing would find a way to paper over their financing dispute. “The Chinese will have their way,” he said.
Here in Oudom Xai, where a Chinese language school founded by Chinese businessmen has 400 students and 28 teachers, some paid by the Chinese government, Mr. Wang, the hotel owner, expresses confidence that the project will start within the next few weeks. Since arriving in Laos three years ago, Mr. Wang said, he has also acquired a wood processing plant.
Chinese immigrants have leased about half of the agricultural land around the town, he said. “You can rent land for however many years you have money for,” Mr. Wang said. “People here recognize money, not people.”
Summary of the situation in Laos
The past year in Laos has been far from business as usual. Yes, high economic growth, development megaprojects, and attendant controversies have continued apace. And, yes, there have been more major international events, notably November’s Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Vientiane, to keep the image of an emergent Laos in the news. However, a series of unusual events – climaxing in recent weeks with the expulsion of an international NGO director and the suspected abduction of a highly respected Lao Civil Society Organization (CSO) figure – suggests the country’s continued emergence as a member of the regional and international community is being accompanied by challenges to the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party’s tight control over political discourse, a key source of its authoritarian power since 1975. Unbothered by mounting negative press coverage abroad, the response by Lao authorities to such events has been to shut down dissent through harassment, dismissal, and sanction. It is worth summarizing these events briefly. In May the director of the Academy of , Khampheuy Panmalaythong was dismissed for his 2011 comments to the National Assembly (NA), in which he questioned the relevance of Marxism-Leninism in Laos’ education system. The major surprise was not his dismissal – his remarks struck at the heart of official doctrine – but that he made the comments at all. While there is often criticism of what might be called development issues (over displacements and evictions for resource projects, official corruption, etc.), public criticism of the party, the political system, or the leadership is almost unheard of. Since his comments, Dr. Khamphuey has published an academic article in the institute’s journal questioning the relevance and effectiveness of one-party systems, implicitly a far more serious critique of the political status quo, although he did not advocate multi-party democracy for Laos. Time will tell if and how this subsequent analysis will be dealt with. In June, a group of rural farmers from southern Sekong province were arrested and jailed for their activities in opposing a Vietnam-Laos rubber plantation project, after their customary lands were seized and they were left without land for crop production, forest product collection, or livestock grazing. Earlier, in 2011, the farmers had travelled to Vientiane to submit their grievance to the National Assembly Petition Unit. The group had also been interviewed by a Lao National Radio call-in program, Talk of the News, which the Lao Government subsequently cancelled in January 2012. In the lead up to the 9 Asia-Europe Meeting Summit of Heads of State (ASEM-9) held in Vientiane from 5-6 November, an Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF) was organized by Lao and regional civil society organizations in cooperation with a division of the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Laos only recently permitted the establishment of local civil society organizations – called non-profit associations (NPAs) – even if they to be closely regulated, monitored, and sometimes closely connected to the government. Whilst a relative freedom of speech was noted in the preparatory Lao provincial consultations for the AEPF, once the AEPF was underway in Vientiane it became apparent that Lao security personnel were filming individuals at the workshop and taking unwanted photographs. At least one Lao civil society member was intimidated and felt threatened in response to personal comments made by Lao officials during the forum. These issues and incidents unnerved several other sufficiently for them to withdraw from the event, and few other Lao NPA members ended up speaking at the AEPF. The tensions surrounding the AEPF suggest that, while some within the Lao government have embraced the idea of a functioning civil society, others see it as a threat to established interests, and are willing to act on this. Then, early in December, as has been widely reported, Anne-Sophie Gindroz, the director of the Swiss NGO Helvetas, was expelled after criticizing government repression of civil society in a personal letter addressed to the development partners of Laos. Gindroz wrote:
… real freedom of expression and assembly are not afforded, and those who wish to exercise their constitutional rights and dare to try, often do so at their own peril faced with intimidation, false accusations and increasingly unlawful arrest. The media are censored and, people are forbidden to hold peaceful assembly/demonstration. Even in Burma – this is no longer the case … There are serious constraints on freedom of expression. Those raising critical issues are considered as opposing the government. A climate of fear is maintained to ensure self-censorship…The expulsion of Gindroz appears related to her activities around the AEPF meeting. Referring to the AEPF controversy, Gindroz commended those who “were brave enough to share their challenges openly”, remarking that the non-profit associations “who supported them to participate are being investigated still to this day.” Once again, what was surprising about these remarks was their rarity and forcefulness. The self-censorship to which Gindroz referred typically extends to the international community (including, it should be noted, academics). The most recent incident, widely discussed in the press and in online forums, is the December 15 disappearance of Sombath Somphone (above, source), a senior and highly respected civil society activist in Laos, while driving home in Vientiane. Compelled to respond by the circulation of security camera footage of the incident, the Lao News Agency (KPL) has released a statement suggesting Sombath was pulled over for a routine traffic check — before, apparently, being kidnapped and driven away in a separate vehicle, in the direct presence of uniformed police officers. Released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the statement speculates that a business dispute might be to blame, although most think this to be implausible. Links are instead being drawn between Sombath’s disappearance and his involvement with the controversial AEPF, particularly his support for people who made statements advocating for the rights of villagers who are suffering from the loss of their customary lands and resources. As Sombath’s wife has reiterated in public comments, government officials were also involved with the National Organizing Committee of the AEPF, so the event as a whole should not have been tainted. Sombath’s case was discussed at an event on December 21 at the Thai Foreign Correspondents Club (see here, here, here), and has been the subject of comments, letters and diplomatic statements in a number of countries. An increasing amount of speculation is directly linking Ms. Gindroz’s expulsion and Mr. Sombath’s disappearance to the AEPF controversy, the assumption being that senior party and/or security officials have launched a major crackdown against those involved with AEPF. If true, this would not bode well for Mr. Sombath or his Lao NPA colleagues.As always in Laos, a growing list of questions remains. But, more broadly, a few things stand out with respect to this series of incidents. First, it is clear that the monopoly long enjoyed by the Lao leadership over public political space is, ever so slightly and gradually, being eroded. The reasons are not hard to see. It was inevitable that, in order to pursue its trajectory of foreign investment-funded resource-based economic growth coupled with international cooperation and aid, the party-state would have to make some concessions, however limited, to the emergence of civil society. Functioning NPAs are one of the norms, however variable, of modern constitutional statehood, and until very recently all organizations within Laos were obliged to be connected to the state. In many cases NPAs may still not be independent of the state but, together with a more outspoken National Assembly, critical voices are being heard more widely than before. While many within Laos, including individuals within the government, recognize the benefits of a functioning civil society and developing the “rule of law,” more conservative (and coercive) forces would apparently like to nip this unwelcome efflorescence of independent mindedness in the bud, before it gets out of hand. The contest, it seems, is not just between the foreign/Lao civil society, on the one hand, and the Lao state on the other, but is also taking place within the Lao state. Of course, just where and between whom these political contests are happening is a far more difficult question to ponder. Second, although there is ample evidence (without drawing any concrete conclusions about Sombath’s disappearance) that disciplinary forces have so far responded in a heavy-handed fashion to dissent, there may be limits to this approach if Lao leaders wish to retain the country’s current development trajectory and its positive international reception. The government’s plan is based not only on tapping resources – natural ones domestically and financial ones internationally – but on retaining the country’s image as a good – even charming – global citizen, as exemplified by graciously hosting international events like ASEM and being a responsible regional and international partner. Somehow, despite one of the most restrictive political spaces in Asia, Laos has not typically been lumped with Myanmar or even Cambodia as a questionable partner in business or development. Yes, concerns are regularly voiced over corruption and getting the benefits of economic growth to the people, but Laos is rarely the object of international condemnation like that associated until very recently with Myanmar. To put this another way, there seems to be little doubt that newly fashionable Myanmar will “steal” a lot of Laos’s tourism industry; Laos could do without Myanmar’s international pariah status in return. At least some within the party and certainly the government will be squirming as Laos receives increasing amounts of negative international media coverage over these recent human rights cases. But, third, and most cause for concern, political leaders and security forces in Laos may care less for international image than sending an unequivocal message to the nascent civil society sector and any others that wish to publicly question state policies or their implementation. Although overt government crackdowns are uncommon in post-socialist Laos, where most policing is done from within, they are not unheard of. One thinks specifically of the imprisonment of internal party critics in the early 1990s, the disappearance of student protestors in 1999, and the disappearance/abduction of Sompawn Khanthisouk from northern Laos in 2007. In the past, such clampdowns have had the desired effect of stifling perceptions or hopes of change, however modest, and reinforcing the ever-present, but usually implicit, threat of coercive force against dissenters. If recent events form part of a systematic response by senior levels of the party leadership, it seems the bad old days, when extra-legal repression and impunity were the norm, may be back (or never quite went away). Such actions might be viewed differently today, however. Many years after local non-profit organizations began to emerge in China, Vietnam, and Cambodia, the Lao authorities, faced with the inconvenience of dealing with similar groups, seem to be employing similar methods as its post-socialist neighbors in an attempt to control and repress the new political space that, however tentatively, is emerging in Laos. If a glimmer of hope emerges from such an analysis, it is that, with farmers and activists refusing to acquiesce in the face of intimidation and repression, these countries possess far more extensive and dynamic civil society movements than the nascent one in Laos.
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