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.