On Path to Political Opening, Laos Stumbles

By Amy Killian

Road Number 9 in Savannakhet Province, Laos. Source: Aleksey Gnilenkov's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

When Laos joined the World Trade Organization in October 2012, many applauded. The move was expected not only to integrate the long-isolated country into the global economy, but into global political norms and rule of law as well.

Laos is falling short of this expectation. A series of unsettling incidents raises concern about Laos’ ability to open politically as it reforms economically. Development economist Sombath Somphone, who was removed from his vehicle by unidentified persons on December 15, 2012, remains missing under suspicious circumstances, despite international pressure. Secretary of State John Kerry publicly pressed the Lao government on March 24, 100 days after Sombath was last seen, to do everything it could “without delay” to find the activist. Lao authorities deny involvement, though surveillance footage last showed unidentified men driving him away after stopping his vehicle.

Just days prior to Secretary Kerry’s call, the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane accused the Lao government on March 18 of blocking its investigation into three Lao-Americans, who have been missing in southern Laos since January 7. Police refused to provide the embassy with details about three bodies found recently in a van near where the individuals went missing, and physically blocked embassy personnel access to an accident site.

The incident is the latest in a trend of obstruction of justice and free expression. Reports surfaced in November that authorities warned journalists to stay away from the Asia-Europe People’s Forum, a discussion organized last year in Vientiane just ahead of the Asia-Europe Meeting of heads of government. Several foreign journalists expecting to cover the event claimed Lao authorities denied them visas to enter the country.

In the weeks following, the Lao government expelled Anne-Sophie Gindroz, country director for the nongovernmental organization Helvetas, for criticizing government restrictions of free expression. The Swiss organization has operated in Laos since 2001, conducting primarily non-political development projects related to food security and organic agriculture.

These incidents raise questions about Laos’ commitment to international norms as it moves into the global arena. More worrying, it raises concerns about Laos’ willingness to tolerate the pluralism that comes along with economic development and integration. Laos has never been a leader in protecting the rights and freedoms of its citizens, but incidents of outright repression, intimidation, or worse, were less frequent. This is changing.

Laos, which ranks second last only to Myanmar among Southeast Asian nations in the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) human development index, is expected to benefit tremendously from joining the WTO. On March 21 Nikon announced it would build a digital SLR camera factory in Laos, and the country is considering joining a single visa regimen with Cambodia and Vietnam. These are important steps for growth.

Equally important for growth, however, is rule of law and free competition of ideas. Laos is falling short on promoting either, and this will hamper its aspirations to be a middle income regional and international player. Laos must seize the opportunity now to change this course.

Ms. Amy Killian is a Researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.

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