Laos’ representatives attending a meeting of civil society organizations that is held each year during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit said little about human rights issues inside their own authoritarian country because they were selected by the government in Vientiane, sources tell RFA.
While the ASEAN People’s Forum is designed to highlight human-rights issues in the 10 countries that make up ASEAN, the Lao government made sure that rights criticisms of that country were kept to a minimum by hand-picking the Lao civil society representatives attending the forum, according to the sources.
“Most Lao representatives are selected by the Lao Ministry of Home Affairs to participate the 2016 APF in East Timor,” a civil society official told RFA’s Lao Service, on condition of anonymity. “They are fully registered and verified Lao civil society organization members, but those with temporary registrations were not selected.”
Laos’s single-party government likes to keep civil society organizations on a short leash by granting organizations that don’t toe the party line temporary status, making it easier to pull the plug on an organization if it bucks the government.
Just days before the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum was to begin, the Ministry of Home Affairs conducted a meeting with Lao representatives to the forum reminding them they should avoid politically sensitive issues and fully follow the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party philosophy and the government’s rules and policies, the source told RFA.
“During the meeting, we were told to talk about human rights problems in Laos indirectly and were told we cannot say something on a specific case,” the source said. “We can only say or raise topics in general terms that relates to any problem or issues about human rights in Laos during the meeting.”
Laos has tried to keep a lid on discussion about rights abuses since it took over as ASEAN chair. The country refused to allow the ASEAN People’s Forum to meet in Laos, host of the ASEAN summit.
Lao officials cited the potential criticism by participants of the region’s governments and inadequate resources as the reasons for keeping the forum outside of Laos. Instead the ASEAN People’s Forum was conducted in East Timor.
Maydom Chanthanasinh, who headed the Lao delegation, was critical of the forum, saying it has lost credibility because people who lost economic interest and political power have come to use it simply as a way to criticize their governments.
The attempt to keep criticisms to a minimum worked for most of the People’s Forum as discussions about the arrest of government critics, the lack of press freedom, unsustainable development, dam construction and land seizures were minimized.
"Where is Sombath Somphone?"
While the disappearance of Sombath Somphone was among the topics that Lao representatives were told was off limits, supporters of the Lao agricultural and community development worker attempted to be heard in spite of the obstacles.
Sombath’s 2012 abduction remains unsolved even though there is video footage of Sombath’s Jeep being stopped at a police checkpoint that also shows Sombath being herded into a white truck and taken away. In the video, a man dressed in white returns and drives off in his Jeep.
He is well known in Laos for his decades of work on behalf of farmers and sustainable agricultural practices. He pioneered an agricultural approach in Laos that aims to incorporate the knowledge and opinions of rural people in the planning and management of development projects.
Sombath was generally apolitical, but just before his abduction he challenged the massive land deals the government 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.
While the Lao government was apparently successful in keeping the delegation quiet inside the forum, it was unable to muzzle protests and other events outside the forum.
A member of the Alliance for Democracy in Laos, an overseas pro-democracy organization, told RFA the alliance was able to set up a workshop and discuss human rights violations in Laos including the disappearance of Sombath Somphone.
Demonstrators also carried a large poster of Sombath inscribed with “Where is Sombath?” as they also yelled out the question.
Reported by Lanxang for RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.