Off the air in Laos
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By Beaumont Smith
VIENTIANE – Amid an unprecedented flurry of public debate and critique of government policies and actions, Lao authorities abruptly canceled a popular call-in radio program in late January without any public explanation.
The program, Talk of the News, ran for four consecutive years and encouraged the public to comment on issues of the day through often anonymous phone calls. The host, Ounkeo Souksavanh, an urbane ex-print journalist found himself uniquely enmeshed in the Lao population’s complaints and grievances.
Social justice, overt corruption and land grabs were daily fare on Talk of the News, a rarity in Laos’ authoritarian context. While many wondered when the boot would drop on the program, Lao listeners had grown accustomed to this point of light in the otherwise drab government-controlled media landscape.
Summoned by the director of Lao National Radio, Ounkeo was told that Minister of Information, Culture and Tourism Bosengkham Vongdara had issued the cancellation order. “I was shocked. I had no warning,” said Ounkeo. “Suddenly I was told by the head of national radio that he had been told to cancel my show. I think the order came from high up in the Ministry of Information and Culture,” Ounkeo said.
“I take my program from the daily news. I open the show by reading out segments from the Lao press and then open the lines for people to comment. Recently people have been saying strange things. When many nightclubs were re-opened, someone called to say, ‘well what do you expect – you know who owns them’ and then he hung up.” The rub was that they are likely owned by senior government officials.
“Later, someone called me and warned me not to give space to the public. But it’s an open line program, so people complain about many things; the Vietnamese taking land from veterans for a golf course, the loss of farming land on Don Chang [an island outside of Vientiane]. What can I do?”
Hopes that Laos may emulate Myanmar’s recent tentative moves to greater press freedom, or that the ruling Communist Party might begin to move towards more enlightened policies, have been snuffed out with the program’s closure. The cancelation and continued human-rights abuses indicate that democracy is still elusive.
“Who [demanded the closure] is not the issue here, but there is no legal reasons at all. There is no warning about the mistakes. This case reflects that the Lao government limits on people’s freedom expression [and is] violating the national constitution. It expresses that the power belongs to only the government. In fact that the constitution says power belong to people, by people and for people [sic]” one anonymous fan posted to the program’s website.
Many Lao used the anonymity of radio to bring into question what one long time Vientiane observer has called “patrimonial politics”, referring to the dominance of several influential families in Laos’ politics and economy.
Some suggest the last straw may have been a live-to-air interview with a delegation of farmers from the Boloven plateau, a well-known coffee growing region in the south. They insisted that a Vietnamese coffee company had been given permission to plant 150 hectares of coffee.
Over time, however, the area had expanded into 1,000 hectares. The farmers alleged the district governor had taken bribes from the company to look the other way, and that he had recently been seen driving a new luxury car, which they insinuated was part of his pay-off.
That particular program attracted a huge audience and might have contributed to the subsequent deluge of the National Assembly’s hot-line with similar land-grabbing complaints.
Before the program’s airing, Ounkeo had already achieved a degree of Robin Hood-like fame for giving voice to poor versus rich social justice issues. For instance, he took his microphone into the city’s jail to interview a woman wrongly accused of arson following a neighborhood feud with a wealthy Lao family. The woman was subsequently released.
The show’s cancelation caused unprecedented commentary among Laos’ online community. Members of Lao Links, a Lao language online bulletin board, expressed dismay and regret that “society won’t be able to listen to this program anymore because it is as same as a big microphone to speak out about social problems”, one online contributor wrote.
“It’s the hot issue on Lao Links right now,” engineer Khantone Soumiphone said. “We are all wondering why it happened and we are very concerned. It was the only source of interesting news and discussion about important development issues … The government says it is pro-development but closes the only program that discusses the results. It doesn’t make sense.”
After the program’s closure, Ounkeo held discussions with European Union charge d’affaires Michel Goffin, who apparently told him that the issue of press freedom would be raised at the forthcoming 9th Asia-Europe Summit (ASEM) to be held in Vientiane in November. Goffin did not answer this correspondent’s request for confirmation that he made the comment.
Ironically, some of the complaints raised on Ounkeo’s radio show were about the agricultural land on Don Chang. A luxury hotel is scheduled to be constructed in time for the ASEM meeting on land that previously provided much of Vientiane’s fresh produce.
Meanwhile, less than a week after the program’s cancelation, the front page headline in Laos English language daily newspaper, Vientiane Times, announced that the party was poised to “bolster propaganda at grassroots level”.
The Ministry of Information and Culture’s Propaganda and Training Board is “to accelerate the establishment of mobile propaganda teams … to penetrate grassroots communities”. The new propaganda drive, some suggest, is a government reaction to the open public hostility to its policies and actions often aired on Ounkeo’s program.
Those grievances are apparently mounting. It is an open secret that many Lao provinces still function as modern-day fiefdoms for Lao political leaders to extract money and privilege. “Gate keeping, influence peddling and rent seeking are national sports disguised as development,” said agro-economist Jeff Casey from Bangkok.
While Laos’ gross domestic product has grown in recent years, so too has the national Gini coefficient, a statistical measure of economic inequality. Laos remains one of the world’s poorest countries and mushrooming mansions owned by government officials and the sheer number of new luxury cars on Vientiane’s roads have raised uncomfortable questions about who are the real beneficiaries of the communist leadership’s development agenda.
Some Lao residents believe that the party is rattled by the spate of demonstrations against official abuse in neighboring Vietnam and the rise in local complaints lodged via the National Assembly’s hot-line. Most of those complaints have focused on a lack of government transparency, particularly on land issues, and systemic corruption that Ounkeo’s program not so subtly suggested taints all levels of government.
Beaumont Smith is a freelance journalist.
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