What does Laos have to hide?

Photo: Christian Haugen/CC BY 2.0

By Sarah Caroline Bell

You cannot speak out, protest about, or write negatively about the government unless you want to spend 16 years in prison, or disappear without a trace. You would be forgiven for thinking I am talking about North Korea. However, I’m talking about Laos.

In the age of social media the government of Laos has stepped up its controls further, causing many to wonder what exactly they have to hide. For if their hands were clean, surely there would be no problem with citizens voicing their opinions freely?

When a government restricts what citizens can say, to the point of enacting legislation that provides the ability to sentence internet users to jail terms, you have to wonder exactly what they have to conceal. The press has no freedom in Laos and the media is tightly controlled by the governing People’s Revolutionary Party.

In the 2016 Reporters Without Borders Index, Laos ranks atrociously, placed at 173 out of 180 countries. In fact, anyone who dares speak about the country (usually while on a trip overseas) asks to do so on the condition of anonymity in order to avoid any personal repercussions when they return home.

ASEAN’s hotbed of crime

With this tarnished reputation it is no surprise to find that Laos sits among the very worst of the world when it comes to transparency perceptions. It ranks abysmally, at 154 out of 178 countries in the most recent index by Transparency International.

Internationally condemned for its role in the trafficking of ivory, the country is reportedly a hotbed for the illegal trade of wildlife products. According to the New York Times, it is the transit point for the illegal trade of exotic and endangered animals. “It is pretty clear that Vietnamese and Chinese crooks are using Laos as their preferred staging and transit ground these days,” says Steven Galster, the executive director of Freeland, a counter-trafficking organization.

Representative Ed Royce, Republican of California and the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, explains, “Laos hasn’t recorded a single illicit wildlife seizure since officials started keeping records in 1989, making it a smuggler’s paradise. The Laos government cites its lack of resources as an excuse,” adding, “but it’s quite clear that officials are profiting from wildlife trafficking.”

Significant human rights abuses

And the stories go deeper. Ng Shui-Meng has spent her life looking in vain for her husband who vanished without a trace. She cannot speak out for fear of repercussions and despite her long hunt she is no closer to finding out what became of him.

However, the fate of at least some of the hundreds of people that have simply disappeared is known. They have been imprisoned indefinitely. In December of 2015, it was reported that Thongpaseuth and Phengphanh, under lock and key since 1999, were in solitary confinement with their legs in wooden stocks. They are allowed out of their cells only once a week, or once every fortnight, to wash and clean out the buckets they use as their toilets. They are denied visitors, food, and the medication sent by caring relatives.

What was their crime? As students, they attempted to organise a peaceful protest on the subject of social justice, citizens’ rights and democratic reforms: three things Laos sorely needed in 1999 and three things Laos still needs now. And these were not the only two arrested. Khamphouvieng Sisa who was captured alongside them, died in prison in 2001. It has been widely reported that his death was the result of torture.

Nine others were also arrested in connection to the same peaceful protest, then imprisoned in 2009 while travelling to seek basic rights. In 2015, the Lao Movement for Human Rights stated that, “it is not known in which prison the 12 are being held or if they are still alive.” In 2016, this is unacceptable.

Obama ahead

The outgoing American president, Barack Obama, has signalled his intention to attend the 2016 ASEAN Summit hosted by Laos – a trip positioned to create a relationship ‘between former foes’. In fact, it will be the first time a U.S. President has made an official trip to the country. But as a nation with a human rights history similar to that of North Korea, why is Obama even planning to come?

The motto of ASEAN is, ‘One Vision, One Identity, One Community.’ And with the 28th ASEAN Summit ahead it is time for the bloc to take a stand against Laos as a single entity. Obama must issue a clear statement on its human rights abuses by not only declining the invitation, but also by saying their actions will not be tolerated.