04/23/2015, 00.00
LAOS

Laotian government pressures activists not to raise human rights issue at ASEAN meeting

Laotian NGOs planning to attend the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum are the target of government threats. Many of these have been scared off and will not participate. The Sombath case is still wrapped in silence after the activist disappeared more than two years ago.

Vientiane (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Civil society organisations (CSO) 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 (21-24 April).

Such groups dare not raise their concerns at the ASEAN Peoples’ Forum (APF) – a venue intended to provide civil society groups with a platform to address ASEAN leaders – because they fear retribution for criticising government policy.

“[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,” a CSO official told Radio Free Asia, on condition of anonymity.

The anonymous official said most CSOs in Laos “do not want to attend the forum,” especially those which focus on human rights issues. Instead, the Laotian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of the Interior have persuaded other “irrelevant” organisations to go in their place.

By contrast, a high-ranking official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Radio Free Asia that the Laotian government “never intervenes in or controls the work of CSOs” and only seeks to “facilitate and cooperate” with these groups.

Yet, according to local sources, Laos unsuccessfully lobbied the APF to remove Sombath Somphone’s name from its list of human rights and governance problems in Southeast Asia.

Sombath, a civil rights activist who won the Magsaysay Award in 2005 (the Asian equivalent of the Nobel Prize), was taken into custody by Lao police on 15 December 2012. Since then, the government has refused to comment on the case.

In 2016, Laos will assume chairmanship of the 10-member ASEAN coalition and will host the APF, but forum chairman Jerald Joseph told Radio Free Asia that the country’s leaders must demonstrate greater commitment towards improving human rights and show progress on Sombath’s case before it can earn the trust of CSO participants.

“I think it is up to the government of Laos to open up,” he said, “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 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.

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