Civil society organizations in Laos are under pressure to omit key concerns from a list of regional human rights issues to be raised on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Malaysia this week and “fear for their safety” if they attempt to do so, a CSO official said Wednesday.
The groups dare not raise the concerns during the April 21-24 ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (APF)—intended to provide civil society with a platform to address ASEAN leaders—because they fear retribution for criticizing government policy, the CSO official told RFA’s Lao Service.
“[The CSOs] will talk mostly about gender roles only, but not other issues such as land rights, the impact of hydropower dams … and enforced disappearance, because they are afraid for their safety,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The official said the majority of authentic CSOs in Laos “do not want to attend the forum,” especially those which focus on human rights issues, but that the Lao Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of the Interior had persuaded other “irrelevant” organizations to go in their place.
Lao activists told RFA last month that a retired Lao official serving as a proxy for the authoritarian government in the capital Vientiane had unsuccessfully lobbied the APF to erase the name of Sombath Somphone—a prominent civil rights leader who has been missing for more than two years—from its list of human rights and governance problems in Southeast Asia.
However, a high-ranking official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has told RFA that the Lao government “never intervenes in or controls the work of CSOs” and only seeks to “facilitate and cooperate” with the groups.
Sombath went missing on Dec. 15, 2012, when police stopped him in his vehicle at a checkpoint in the capital. He was then transferred to another vehicle, according to police surveillance video, and has not been heard from since.
Rights groups suspect that Lao officials were involved in or aware of the abduction of Sombath, who received the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership—Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize—for his work in the fields of education and development.
Lao officials have yet to state a reason for his disappearance or make any progress in the case, which has become a major headache for the Vientiane government, drawing criticism from European and U.S. development partners and aid donors and attention from the United Nations.
In 2016, Laos will assume chairmanship of the 10-member ASEAN coalition and will host the APF, but forum chairman Jerald Joseph told RFA the country’s leadership must demonstrate a greater commitment towards improving human rights and progress on Sombath’s case before it can earn the trust of CSO participants.
“We think that any chairmanship who is organizing the next summit must answer these questions and if they are not forthcoming with answers then it will really create doubt in many peoples’ minds: ‘should we go to Laos or organize the APF in Laos?’,” Joseph said.
“I think it is up to the government of Laos to open up … and have more disclosure on information about what really happened to Sombath, and then it can build confidence and people will feel … it is safe to go in.”
Joseph said Lao CSOs are too closely influenced by the government in Vientiane and that ASEAN needs to do more to help them operate with greater freedom.
“NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) should have the confidence and empowerment to be more independent away from government. I feel in Laos it’s not there yet. NGOs in Laos are not fit to be too critical of what’s happening in the country,” he said.
“So I think that’s something that really needs to open up … and I think governments must be comfortable with people who are critical of you or disagree with you … this is something ASEAN should do for our countries.”
Joseph was adamant that the Lao government refrain from interfering in the APF process.
“They should allow local CSOs to decide if they will work with other NGOs from other ASEAN countries and decide as [groups representing] ASEAN countries what should be [discussed at] the APF,” he said.
“The Lao government must learn from other governments how it is possible to respect civil society in organizing the events.”
Thida Khus, executive director of Cambodian NGO Silaka, expressed solidarity with civil society in Laos, noting that many of the issues raised in the first full day of the forum were problems shared by all ASEAN nations.
“The common problems among ASEAN countries are land concessions and human rights abuses,” she said, adding that “Lao is suffering from similar issues to those in Cambodia.”
She said more than 70 NGOs from Cambodia were participating in the APF and that around 160 NGO officials from different ASEAN nations had raised different topics on Wednesday, including land grabs and evictions of residents, the destruction of natural resources, and the violation of indigenous and womens’ rights.
The officials also expressed concerns about plans to integrate the ASEAN economy by the end of 2015, adding that the scheme was likely to lead to more evictions in Cambodia as a result of land concessions.
“More villagers may become victims of land concessions because so far the government has given priority to the companies rather than the people,” she said.
“We want the government to put a mechanism in place to resolve the villagers’ problems.”