Lao and European Union officials met on Friday in the Laotian capital Vientiane to discuss human rights issues at a time when the number of such abuses and restrictions on various freedoms are increasing rapidly.
The objective of the sixth annual EU-Laos human rights dialogue was to support the implementation of Laos’ international human rights obligations and commitments. Attendees exchanged views on governance and the rule of law, democratic freedoms and people’s participation, as well as human rights, socioeconomic development, and international cooperation.
The meeting comes as the communist, one-party state continues to score poorly on its human rights record, with rights groups continuing to pressure the government for details of activists, students and others who have been detained or disappeared.
“The situation in Laos during this time is getting worse because social organizations are restricted to working only with communities that suffer from a lack of development projects,” said a source who declined to be named.
Last month, Lao authorities decided not to host a meeting of civil society organizations (CSO) in Southeast Asia on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit next year, fearing potential criticism by participants against governments in the region and inadequate resources for the decision.
But another reason that the ASEAN forum will not be held in Laos is because the Lao government cannot guarantee the safety of Lao participants, the source said. He also pointed out that the country recently failed in a bid to win seat on the 47-member United Nations Human Rights Council.
“This means that the implementation of human rights in Laos is not developed and has not improved,” the source said.
Human rights groups have constantly spoken out against the lack of human rights in Laos, a former French colony ruled by communists for four decades.
“Laos has fallen to among the worst of the worse on human rights in Southeast Asia, and the EU should not pull any punches when it meets today to discuss Vientiane's very poor human rights record, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, prior to the talks.
Authorities routinely repress basic rights to form groups, publicly assemble and express critical opinions, and enforce restrictions by instilling a pervasive culture of fear among its citizens, he said.
“The Lao government evidently believes that because it is a small country that relatively few other governments pay close attention to, it can get away with all sorts of human rights abuses, so it’s critical that the EU speaks out strongly to disabuse Lao leaders of that notion and demands accountability."
The EU raised a number of individual cases of concern at the meeting and stressed the importance of a vibrant civil society in contributing to the development of an inclusive and open society, said a joint press statement issued by dialogue participants.
No details offered
The Lao government, for instance, has yet to offer details about a group of students who were arrested during a democratic protest on Oct. 26, 1999, and nine people who were arrested in November 2009 as they prepared to protest in Vientiane.
Onchanh Manivanh, director general of the Jail-Inspection Department at the People’s Supreme Prosecution Organization, told RFA that the prosecution could not provide details about the case, because it was the responsibility of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
An official at the ministry’s press office, however, said the department’s director general had to give permission for the releases of any information.
Many in the rights community also continue to prod Lao authorities to no avail about the unsolved disappearance of activist Sombath Somphone, who was kidnapped in front of a police outpost almost three years ago and has not been heard from since.
Although authorities have denied any role in his abduction, the forced disappearance is widely believed to have been carried out by police or another government-linked group.
In addition, Barbara Paklak-Thammavong, the wife of 52-year-old Polish citizen of Lao heritage who is a democracy activist, is still trying to get her jailed husband transferred from a Lao detention center to a prison in Poland, where his family lives.
Lao authorities arrested Bounthanh Thammavong in June and sentenced him three months later to nearly five years in prison for criticizing the Lao government online.
The Polish ambassador to Laos visited Bounthanh in prison recently, although he had difficulties in obtaining a permit to do so, Paklak-Thammavong said.
One of her husband’s sisters also obtained a permit to visit Bounthanh to take him food, medicine and other items, she said, although authorities have denied permission to other relatives to visit him.
“The ambassador assured me that Bounthanh’s case is a priority for the Polish government and European Union,” Paklak-Thammavong said. “They will do everything to get him to Poland.”
Reported by Ounkeo Souksavanh for RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.