Updated at 01;25 p.m. EST on 10-13-2015
Laos will not host a meeting of civil society organizations (CSO) in Southeast Asia on the sidelines of an ASEAN summit next year, a local official said, citing potential criticism by participants against governments in the region and inadequate resources as among reasons for the decision.
Maydom Chanthanasinh, Chairman of the Lao CSO Committee, told RFA’s Lao Service that a regional steering committee meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) People’s Forum next month will decide which country will host the next talks among the CSOs.
Laos will take over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) next year from Malaysia. The 10 ASEAN member countries take turns to host the grouping’s summit every year and typically organize a meeting for civil society organizations in the region on its sidelines.
But the authoritarian Lao government has been cautious over hosting the regional meeting, fearing civil society groups will criticize it for curtailing freedom and human rights in the country.
Maydom also blamed the regional steering committee for not giving adequate notice to Laos to organize the meeting as well as lack of adequate local resources to host such talks.
“The reasons that we cannot organize the ASEAN People’s Forum is that firstly, they [the regional steering committee] did not give us the ASEAN People’s Forum flag to us. Secondly … we do not have time to prepare it. And thirdly, the funds to support the forum are not available," he said.
"Fourthly, foreigners [ASEAN CSOs] would like to use the ASEAN Peoples Forum to criticize ASEAN governments, and ASEAN governments do not agree,” he explained.
He also said that Laos could not guarantee the safety of “extremist” activists who planned to attend the meeting.
“A group of extreme activists … would like the Lao government to guarantee their safety if the ASEAN Peoples Forum is held in Laos,” he said.
“No one can guarantee this to them. If they come to Laos with good objectives, they will not have any problems, but persons who come with bad objectives will be prosecuted in accordance with international law,” Maydom said.
“The funds to support the forum are [also] not available,” he said.
Phil Robertson, Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said he believed the meeting was canceled because the Lao authorities are unwilling to provide space for the open discussion of politically sensitive subjects.
Topics especially worrying Lao officials include land seizures in Laos, the impact of dams on the environment and local populations, ethnic minority and LGBT issues, and the forced disappearance more than two years ago of Lao development specialist Sombath Somphone, Robertson said.
“Comments by the [government] side that the resources are not there to hold the APF are a lame excuse, and not believable,” Robertson said.
Some CSO members have already voiced fears of arrest if they come to Laos for meetings in which politically sensitive subjects are raised, pointing to the open intimidation of outspoken participants in APF meetings in Malaysia.
Lao government monitoring and control of CSO discussions was evident during APF meetings in Malaysia earlier this year, Robertson said.
“The Lao government sent fake NGOs [nongovernment organizations]—sort of like state enterprise NGOs—to join the APF meeting in Malaysia, but we knew that they had come from the Lao government.”
And as to the safety of participants to express their views in Laos, “there are no guarantees,” Robertson said.
“This is a big problem.”
Civil society organizations in ASEAN have also expressed concern.
“There should be no illusions about the reality of the prevailing fear within Lao society [of] mentioning issues that are deemed sensitive,” a group of regional CSOs said in a Sept. 10 "Statement of Concern" submitted to the Regional Steering Committee of the ASEAN Civil Society Conference and the ASEAN People's Forum (ACSC/APF).
Open dialogue on issues of regional importance “will not and cannot take place in Laos,” the statement said.
It is unclear now whether APF meetings can be hosted next year under other sponsorship, or if they will simply not take place, Robertson said.
“There is no previous experience with this, because there has never been a boycott before,” he said.
“This could be the first boycott of the ASEAN People’s Forum.”
Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Richard Finney.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a Sept. 10 Statement of Concern submitted by regional CSOs to the Regional Steering Committee ACSC/APF.