Posts tagged ‘Laos’

June 27, 2014

Construction on Laos’s Mekong dams harried by lawsuits, political pressure

 

Construction on Laos’s Mekong dams harried by lawsuits, political pressure 

Friday, June 27, 2014 16:04
In a gesture likely aimed at placating its neighbors, Laos has agreed to submit its second Mekong River dam to the regional consultation process it sidestepped last year.
But experts say Laos is nowhere close to abandoning the dam and another it’s building on the Mekong. Environmental groups say these projects threaten the livelihood of tens of millions of people who depend on the mighty river.
“I fear that this will, at the best, only delay the construction by six months,” Marc Goichot, who works for environmental group WWF’s Greater Mekong program on sustainable hydropower, told Thanh Nien News.
“There are not yet any signs that the proponents of the project are taking seriously the concerns voiced by other Mekong riparian governments,” he said, adding that he believes the Lao government is unlikely to reconsider the project.
Last September, Laos announced that it would embark on the Don Sahong project, the second of 11 dams planned by Laos on the lower reaches of the 4,900-kilometer (3,045-mile)-long Mekong, which is second only to the Amazon in terms of biodiversity. Work on the Don Sahong dam is slated to begin in December at a site less than two kilometers from the Cambodian border, according to Lao officials.

Cambodian fishermen who live by the Mekong River pass the time by their boats outside Phnom Penh. Photo credit: Reuters

Environmental groups have warned that the 260-megawatt dam threatens to block the only channel that currently allows year-round fish migrations on a large scale and will certainly wipe out one of the last populations of endangered Irrawaddy dolphins.
Laos, which shrugged off those concerns altogether, has also been at odds with its riparian neighbors — particularly Vietnam and Cambodia — over the project’s prior consultation (e.g. regional decision-making) process.
Laos maintains that it need only notify its neighbors of its intent to build the dam because it is located neither in the tributary nor on the mainstream of the Mekong. It’s downstream neighbors, however, have demanded that the consultation process take place before the dam is built, citing its trans-boundary impacts.
Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia are bound by a 1995 Mekong treaty that requires each signatory to hold inter-governmental consultations before damming the river. No single country has veto powers and Laos will have the final say on whether or not to proceed.
At a regional meeting of the Mekong River Commission — a regional body established to coordinate dam projects on the river — in Bangkok on Thursday, Laos said it would agree to resubmit the Don Sahong project to the prior consultation process.
But environmentalists say they view the process as a diplomatic formality.
During the meeting, Laos’ Deputy Energy Minister Viraphonh Viravong told participants “with your support and constructive input, the Lao government will continue to develop the project in a responsible and sustainable manner.”

He told reporters that construction would not start during the six-month consultation process. “No, we will not start building. That is courtesy. Laotians are courteous,” he was quoted by Reuters as saying Friday.

Naturally, that didn’t go over too well.
A recent site visit by International Rivers, a California-based environmental group, has confirmed that construction work towards the Don Sahong dam in southern Laos.
The site visit held in early June confirmed that workers have begun construction of a bridge connecting the mainland to Don Sadam Island, the group said. The bridge will create an access route for construction on the Hou Sahong Channel, it added.
“One has to wonder how sincere a consultation process is when infrastructure in support of the project is being put into place at the same time,” said Ian Baird, an expert on Laos and specialist on hydro-power dams and fisheries at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
‘Laos has few resources’
In November 2012, Laos broke ground on the US$3.8-billion 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi dam project despite vehement objections from environmental groups and its neighbors who said the 810-meter (2,600ft) dam would unleash massive ecological changes on a river that feeds around 60 million people. The project is now 40 percent complete, according to Lao officials.
Opponents of the Xayaburi and Don Sahong projects said their commencement would usher in the construction of the 9 other dams planned by Laos on the Mekong, which begins in the Tibetan plateau and flows through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying into the East Sea (internationally known as the South China Sea).
At that time, Laos prematurely insisted that the prior consultation process on the Xayaburi project was already over, which drew sharp criticism from three other Mekong nations. Since then, the four countries have failed to agree on whether or not the process is still ongoing.
“The failure to reach consensus was interpreted by Laos as a green light to move ahead with construction of the Xayaburi dam,” Goichot said. “We cannot see any signs that this will be different for Don Sahong.”
Landlocked Laos plans to become the “battery of Southeast Asia” by exporting the vast majority of its power – mostly to Thailand – and has promoted the Xayaburi dam as a potential source of income and investment that will spur its small economy.
“Laos has few resources. Hydroelectricity is one, and the Lao government is determined to exploit it,” said Martin Stuart-Fox, a Laos expert at the University of Queensland in Australia. “Most dams have been relatively uncontroversial because they have been on tributaries. Don Sahong and Xayaburi are controversial because they are on the Mekong itself,” he said.
“From the Lao point of view, why should they be prevented from exploiting the river?”
Light at the end of the tunnel?
But on the bright side, the concession made by Laos has come at a convenient juncture for environmental groups and activists.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that a Thai court agreed to hear a lawsuit against state-owned Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and four other state bodies for agreeing to buy electricity from the Xayaburi project. Thailand plans to buy around 95 percent of the electricity generated by the massive mainstream dam.
Villagers from Thai provinces near the Mekong petitioned the Administrative Court in 2012 to suspend a power purchasing agreement signed by EGAT and Laos’s Xayaburi Power Company Limited, but the court ruled it had no jurisdiction to hear the case. That decision was reversed on Tuesday when the Supreme Administrative Court sided with villagers, who are demanding full environmental and health impact assessments.
The court will now call on the Thai government agencies to respond to questions and allow the plaintiff to rebut their response.  The court could take a year or longer to renders a verdict.
“[If] the power purchase agreement is suspended or cancelled, it will be financially risky for the developer to proceed with construction on the Xayaburi Dam as there will be no buyer for the dam’s electricity,” said Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers.
A growing civil society movement against dam construction has taken hold throughout the region. Meanwhile, Vietnam and Cambodia have reiterated their calls for a 10-year moratorium on all dam construction on the Mekong’s mainstream.
Numerous studies have underlined the threat the dam poses to Vietnam’s Mekong Delta (the world’s rice basket) which is already sinking and shrinking.
Activists say that although it is still not too late to halt the dams and devise a plan to promote the sustainable development of the Mekong, success in doing so would hinge on the political will of governments to make sound scientific decisions before forging ahead with any more dam construction.
If the dam-building binge continues unchecked, “Vietnam, as the most downstream country, has probably the most to lose, but millions of people in Cambodia Laos and Thailand are also at risk,” Goichot said.
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An Dien
Thanh Nien News

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Click on the link to get more news and video from original source:  http://asiancorrespondent.com/124211/laos-to-forge-ahead-with-controversial-mekong-dam/

Jun 27, 2014, 1:58 PM UTC

Serious concerns remain despite officials’ promise to hear input from locals and neighboring Mekong nations

Activists concerned with development along the Mekong River saw a small victory this week when the Supreme Administrative Court of Thailand agreed to take a case against Thai government agencies that purchased power from the Xayaburi dam in neighboring Laos. The Bangkok Post reported that the villagers who filed the complaints “accused the agencies of not complying with constitutional requirements before signing an agreement to purchase power from the Xayaburi dam.”

The villagers filed three orders with the court, according to the Bangkok Post: The first was to withdraw the cabinet resolution that allowed the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) to purchase power from the Xayaburi Power Company; the second was to revoke the Power Purchase Agreement that was signed in 2011; and the third requested that the defendants “respect community rights and comply with the constitution by arranging transparent public hearings, as well as health and environmental impact assessments before signing power purchase.” The first two orders were dismissed, but the court supported the third.

Meanwhile, during a meeting of the Mekong River Commission Thursday Laos announced it will move ahead with plans on a second dam, the Don Sahong, despite concern over construction of that one as well. The Laos government will submit plans to the Mekong River Commission Council for review, but refused to halt construction, according to Asia Sentinel. Viraphonh Viravong, Laos’ vice chairman of Energy and Mines, said the country wants to cooperate with other Mekong nations and open its plans to them under a Prior Consultation process, according to the Bangkok Post.

Teerapong Pomun, director of the Living River Siam Association, which advises the Mekong River Commission, said the court’s decision will allow locals affected by the project to voice their concerns about the impact the dam will have on communities along the Mekong. Teerapong said the companies involved in the dam development need to educate local people and include them in discussions about how the dam will impact their livelihoods, and how to mitigate problems caused by the development. He said that environmental groups hope the Xayaburi court case can be used as a standard in the future, especially looking ahead to the ASEAN integration in 2015. Teerapong hopes Thailand will set a precedent for including locals in the research and planning process, and for mitigating negative construction impacts before building even begins.

The 1,285 mega-watt Kayaburi dam is being built in Xayaboury province in northern Laos. The Laos and Thai governments are cooperating on the project, with one of Thailand’s largest construction companies and several Thai banks (including the government-owned Krung Thai Bank) involved, according to International Rivers. The Kayaburi is one of 11 dams planned for the Mekong region and activists have expressed serious concerns about the detrimental impact these could have on the environment and local economies in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

In its media kit on the Xayaburi dam, International Rivers states:

The costs of the Xayaburi Dam will be borne by the millions of people who live along the Mekong River, including in Laos and Thailand. Scientists expect that the dam will block critical fish migration routes
for between 23 to 100 species, including the iconic Mekong Giant Catfish. The dam would also destroy the river’s complex ecosystems that serve as important fish habitats. It would block the flow of sediments and nutrients, affecting agriculture as far downstream as the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The Lao government will resettle at least 2,100 people, and 202,000 people living near the dam site will be directly affected. Even in the early stages of construction, many of these people already face threats to their food security.”

On June 25, the Save the Mekong coalition issued a statement imploring regional leaders to “cancel the planned projects, including the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams, and ensure that future decisions over the shared river are based on scientific knowledge, transboundary impact assessment, and respect for the rights of all riparian nations and the public to a transparent and participatory decision-making process.”

Teerapong said that for him and other activists, the best case scenario is that projects like the Xayaburi will be halted completely until local people have had a real chance to participate. Barring that, he hopes to see locals involved in finding solutions to problems the dams create, such as land erosion and decreased fish population.

Teerapong said Thai and other regional leaders must consider the long-term effects of the dams, such as food security and conflict among the Mekong nations.

“It’s not only [a concern] for Thai and Laos people,” he said. “If it happens, what is the mitigation to solve the conflict? They have to let local people in the Mekong countries join the committee to solve the problems.”

The Mekong is a major food and income source for people in the Mekong nations, and environmentalists have expressed grave concerns about changing water levels and damage to fish populations. Teerapong said soil erosion is already happening and that the water levels will make it harder for farmers to irrigate their fields, costing them more money to raise their crops. He added that people in affected communities who may end up losing land and resources need to be fairly compensated, and that consequence should be taken into account before the dams are even built.

At the commission meeting, Laos officials “admitted that the Don Sahong channel is a key migratory route in the dry season, but there are several other channels that support fish migration,” according to the Bangkok Post. Viraphonh also said Laos will improve the channels in the Khone Falls to aid fish migration and work closely with local officials to promote fishery management, conservation and sustainable fishing, and broaden economic opportunities for fishing families.”

 

June 11, 2014

Laos: No Progress on Rights

Urgently End Disappearances, Systematic Suppression of Basic Freedoms

June 10, 2014

Click on the link to get more news and video from original source:  http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/06/10/laos-no-progress-rights

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This government brooks no dissent from its people, and uses rights-abusing laws and long prison terms to prevent any challenge to its power. Lao people fear their government because they know officials can act with near total impunity.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director

CN_Div_333(Bangkok) – The government of Laos has failed to address the country’s systemic human rights problems, Human Rights Watch said today in a critique of Lao’s human rights record submitted to the United Nations. Laos will appear for the country’s second Universal Periodic Review in October 2014 at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Human Rights Watch highlighted several human rights issues that deserve international attention, including severe restrictions on fundamental liberties, absence of labor rights, and detention of suspected drug users without charge in abusive drug centers. Of particular concern is the forced disappearance of civil society leader Sombath Somphone, in Vientiane in December 2012 after he was stopped by the police, and of an environmentalist, Sompawn Khantisouk, who has been missing since he was ordered to report to a police station in January 2007.

“The Lao authorities are defying international concerns by ignoring calls to respond to the enforced disappearance of activist Sombath Somphone,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Concerned governments need to drive home the point that they will not sit complacently by as disappearances and other abuses multiply in Laos.”

The Lao government has not made tangible changes toward meeting commitments made during its first UPR session in 2010. Laos should ratify core international human rights conventions; end restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, and the media; and bring its labor laws and regulations into line with core labor standards of the International Labor Organization. The government should investigate and end abuses in its drug detention centers and shift to voluntary, community-based drug dependency treatment that is medically appropriate.

The government severely suppresses the rights to freedom of expression, association, and assembly. The penal code outlaws activities that the government deems to be “slandering” or “weakening” the state. The government strictly controls all television, radio, and print media in the country. It bars any article or mass media broadcast considered contrary to “national interests” or “traditional culture and dignity.” People involved with unauthorized public protests have been sentenced to long prison terms.

Workers are similarly denied their rights, and prohibited from establishing or joining a trade union of their own choosing since all unions must be part of the government-controlled Lao Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU). They are also unable to exercise their right to strike because of restrictions in labor law and authorities’ proven willingness to forcibly break up workers’ protests.

“This government brooks no dissent from its people, and uses rights-abusing laws and long prison terms to prevent any challenge to its power,” Robertson said. “Lao people fear their government because they know officials can act with near total impunity.”

Lao authorities also violate the rights of people held in drug detention centers. Human Rights Watch found that detainees were held against their will for months and even years, in administrative detention without due process protections such as a court ruling, ongoing judicial oversight, or an appeal mechanism. Detainees at the Somsanga center outside Vientiane are given little effective treatment, locked in cells inside barbed wire compounds, and subjected to brutal beatings.

“Compulsory detention in the Lao drug centers violates a slew of human rights,” Robertson said. “Suspected drug users are arbitrarily arrested, denied a fair trial, and subjected to cruel and inhuman treatment in the drug centers.”

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June 11, 2014

 

June 10, 2014


Click on the link to get more news and video from original source:  http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/06/10/laos-universal-periodic-review-submission

 

The government of Laos continues to severely restrict fundamental rights including freedom of speech, association, and assembly. Since 2010 the government has arbitrarily arrested and detained, and in at least two cases forcibly disappeared civil society activists and those deemed critical of the government.

This submission focuses on four core areas that United Nations member countries largely failed to address during Lao’s previous UPR in 2010: enforced disappearances; freedom of speech, association, and assembly; the treatment of detainees in drug detention centers; and labor rights.

 

Enforced Disappearances

Despite having accepted relevant recommendations during its previous UPR, Laos has signed, but not ratified, the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Enforced disappearances violate a range of fundamental human rights protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the government has ratified, including prohibitions against arbitrary arrest and detention; torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment; and extrajudicial execution.

The enforced disappearance of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone, who was detained at a police checkpoint in Vientiane and has not been heard from since, is emblematic of the Lao government’s lack of accountability for rights abuses.

Sombath Somphone was last seen by his wife, Ng Shui Meng, on the evening of December 15, 2012 as they were driving separately from his office to their home. She lost sight of his vehicle about 6 p.m. near the police post on Thadeau Road in Vientiane. Shui Meng obtained close-circuit television (CCTV) from the police which shows that Sombath’s jeep was stopped by the police at the Thadeau police post. The police took Sombath into the police post. Shortly thereafter, Sombath re-emerged from the police post, was escorted to a different vehicle and driven away.

Government officials have repeatedly denied that the government took Sombath into custody yet have failed to conduct a serious investigation into his enforced disappearance or provide any other credible information about current whereabouts. Furthermore, the government has continually rejected all offers of technical assistance for the investigation from various governments, including offers to analyse the original CCTV footage in order to assist with determining the identities of the individuals in the videotape, and gathering additional details (such as license plates) of the vehicles that were involved.

Similarly, the Lao government has failed to make progress in the case of Sompawn Khantisouk, the owner of two ecotourism businesses in Luang Namtha province, who was forcibly disappeared on January23, 2007. Sompawn received a call from a local police officer to visit the police station concerning a supposed arson attack on his home the previous day. Riding his motorcycle, Sompawn stopped on the way to the police station to talk to a man about ordering fence posts and while talking with that person he received another phone call from the same police officer to hurry up. A few minutes later, as he was driving to the police station, witnesses saw an SUV signal to Sompawn to pull his motorcycle over. Witnesses stated that four men wearing police uniforms then forced Sompawn into the car and drove away. A rudimentary police investigation ensued that focused on discrediting the witnesses, and concluded without further evidence that Sompawn’s disappearance was the result of an unspecified personal or business conflict. His family filed a grievance of harm by the state to the National Assembly, but provincial and local officials never responded to the National Assembly’s inquiries about the case.

Laos is obligated under international human rights law to prevent and remedy any enforced disappearances. Despite widespread calls for accountability, both regionally and internationally, questions about the enforced disappearances are met with denials or silence by senior officials of the Lao government.

 

Suppression of Freedom of Speech, Association, and Assembly 

Laos is a party to the ICCPR, and despite having accepted recommendations at its previous UPR to “amend further its Law on the Media, the Law on Publication and other related regulations to comply with international human rights standards” and to “allow media and civil society organizations to undertake education, advocacy, monitoring and reporting on human rights issues,” Laos has failed to protect the right to freedom of speech, press, and assembly. The Lao government strictly controls all TV, radio and printed publications in the country.  The constitution in article 23 sets out that all “mass media activities” that are contrary to “national interests” or “traditional culture and dignity” are prohibited. Article 44 of the constitution establishes that Lao citizens have the right to freedom of speech, press, assembly, association and demonstration that are “not contrary to the laws”— yet the penal code contains broad limitations that prohibit “slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state.” In this way, the laws grant officials the authority to effectively limit basic rights and freedoms for anyone they deem critical of the government and authorities. Article 59 of the penal code provides prison sentences ranging from one to five years for anti-government propaganda, and up to 15 years for journalistswho fail to file “constructive reports” or who seek to “obstruct” the work of the government.[1] Government officials review all privately owned periodicals after publication and can impose fines for those they deem to violate the law.

In practice, self-censorship is encouraged and is common, and the media remains tightly controlled by the authorities. For example, in January 2012, the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism cancelled the popular radio program, Talk of the News, without explanation. The show encouraged political and social debate on a range of topics, including land grabs and corruption.[2]

The government should immediate release Thongpaseuth Keuakoun, Bouavanh Chanhmanivong, and Sen-aloun Phengpanh who were detained for the peaceful exercise of their basic rights. Both were arrested in 1999 for attempting to organize a demonstration and each were sentenced to 15 years in prison.[3]

Ethnic Hmong Thao Moua and Pa Phue Khang were arrested in 2003 after serving as guides for foreign journalists reporting on the situation of the Hmong in Laos. They were sentenced for 12 and 20 years respectively, for obstruction of justice and the possession of weapons.[4]

 

Treatment of Detainees in Somsanga Drug Detention Center

The arbitrary detention of people suspected of using drugs, along with beggars, homeless people, children, and people with mental illnesses in compulsory drug detention centers across Laos remains a grave concern. As of mid-2011 (the last year for which data is publicly available), there were at least eight such centers across the country, of which the Somsanga detention center on the outskirts of Vientiane is the oldest and largest. Somsanga functions as a detention center, although it lacks the basic protections of due process, judicial oversight, and mechanisms for appeals. None of the persons whom Human Rights Watch interviewed had seen a lawyer or been sent to a court prior to their detention in Somsanga.

Human Rights Watch found that detainees at the Somsanga center are locked in cells inside barbed wire compounds. Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that they were held for periods of three months to more than a year. Police, who guard the facility’s main gate, are responsible for security and are a constant presence among detainees. Detainees live in a punitive and heavily controlled environment. Those who try to escape are sometimes brutally beaten by “room captains”—trusted detainees whom police and center staff designate to play a central role in the daily control of other detainees, including serving the center’s as adjunct guards and punishing detainees who infringe center rules. One former detainee told Human Rights Watch that “room captains” beat detainees who had attempted escape “until they were unconscious.” The detainee stated that guards witnessed the beatings and encouraged the “room captains.” Former detainees also reported being punished by being tied up in the sun for hours without food or water.

Somsanga offers little effective, evidence-based treatment for those who need it. Confinement is Somsanga’s central operating principle: most detainees remain in locked cells inside compounds with high walls topped with barbed wire. Human Rights Watch found that Somsanga holds most of its detainees against their will. Police or village militia (tamnautbaan) detain and bring people to Somsanga. Other detainees enter because their family members “volunteer” them out of a mistaken belief that the center offers therapeutic treatment, or because they feel social pressure to help make their village “drug free.” Regardless of how they enter, people held in Somsanga are not given the benefit from any judicial process to authorize their detention.

Many of the former detainees interviewed by Human Rights Watch for the report said they had directly witnessed suicides or suicide attempts by fellow detainees during their detention. Maesa, a child who spent six months in Somsanga, said that, “Some people think that to die is better than staying there.” Former detainees spoke of suicides—both attempted and actualized—involving ingesting glass or hanging.

The treatment of individuals in compulsory drug detention centers violate a wide range of human rights, including the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment; the right to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention; the right to a fair trial; the right to privacy; and the right to the highest attainable standard of health. In its 2010 UPR review, Laos accepted that acts of torture and maltreatment were considered criminal offenses and that the Criminal Procedure Code did not permit the inhuman treatment of detainees in any circumstances.[5] Despite new reports of arbitrary detention and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment at Somsanga, the Lao government has not investigated these reports, held any person responsible or taken steps to close the center down.

 

Labor Rights

Laos violates the right to freedom of association for workers in law and in practice. The Trade Union Law 2008 defines a trade union as a “mass organization in the political system of the democratic centralism unified leadership under the Lao People’s Revolution Party” and requires that unions affiliate to the Lao Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU), which is controlled by the government and the ruling party. Article 5 of the law requires trades unions to “organize and conduct activities in line with the unified leadership under the Lao Revolution Party.” Laos violates article 22 of the ICCPR and article 8 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) by preventing workers from establishing or joining unions of their own choosing outside of the LFTU.

The LFTU is so close to the government that the president and two vice presidents of the LFTU are given status equal to a minister and vice ministers in the government and are paid salaries by the government. In public statements, the LFTU has regularly said that it plays a role in helping the government enforce “labor discipline” in line with the law. The LFTU’s quasi-state function compromises its ability to represent workers, since it plays a dual, and sometimes conflicting, role as a controller as well as a potential protector of workers’ interests.

Laos also effectively prohibits workers from exercising the right to strike.  Article 65 of the Labor Law 2007 strictly prohibits workers or their representatives from calling a work stoppage in a wide variety of situations, including disputes regarding implementation of the labor law or regulations, or over workers benefits under the law.  Work stoppages are also forbidden when the matter in dispute is currently being discussed in a negotiation that both sides have agreed to participate in, or during the period when the dispute is being considered by government labor authorities, or is being considered by the labor disputes settlement procedures of the courts. Any person or organization that engages either “directly or indirectly” in a stoppage, or who “verbally or materially incites workers” to conduct a stoppage “thus causing damage…or social disorder” is subject to prosecution. The penal code provides for between one and five years’ imprisonment for those who join an organization that encourages protests, demonstrations and other actions that might cause “turmoil or social instability.”

While it is important that the government has ratified core International Labour Organization (ILO) standards on nondiscrimination and ending child labor, it has not ratified ILO Convention No. 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize) and Convention No. 98 (Right to Organize and Collectively Bargain).

 

International Criminal Court

Despite purported efforts by the government in 2005 and 2006 to examine needed legislative changes to enable ratification of International Criminal Court (ICC), Laos did not ratify the Rome Statute establishing the court.  The ICC is the first permanent international tribunal with jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. As a court of last resort, which only has jurisdiction when national courts are unwilling or unable to prosecute these crimes, the ICC is an essential institution in the effective implementation of international human rights and humanitarian law.

 

Recommendations

Regarding Enforced Disappearance

  • Disclose the whereabouts or fate of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone and businessman Sompawn Khantisouk. Investigate and hold accountable those responsible for their and other enforced disappearances.
  • Ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Person from Enforced Disappearance and enact appropriate implementing legislation.

Regarding Freedom of Expression and Association

  • Cease the harassment and arbitrary arrest of human rights defenders, independent journalists, social activists, and worker advocates.
  • Ensure that civil society and media organizations can operate free of government interference in violation of their basic rights.
  • Drop all charges and release everyone facing criminal prosecution for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, assembly, or association.
  • End government control of the media. Reform media ownership and licensing rules to allow media organizations to function freely and without fear of government reprisal for their reporting.

Regarding Labor Rights

  • Amend the Trade Union Act and the Labor Act to bring them into full compliance with international labor standards, including the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and right to strike.
  • Ratify ILO Conventions No. 87 and 98.
  • Recognize in practice the right of workers to form unions of their own choosing, including those not affiliated with the LFTU.

Regarding Drug Detention Centers

  • Carry out prompt, independent, and thorough investigations into allegations of arbitrary detention and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in Somsanga and other drug detention centers.
  • Stop the arbitrary arrest and detention of people who use drugs and other “undesirables” such as homeless people, beggars, street children, and people with mental disabilities.
  • Instruct the Lao Commission on Drug Control to release current detainees in Somsanga, as their continued detention cannot be justified on legal or health grounds, and permanently close the center.
  • Instruct the Ministry of Health and other relevant ministries and departments to expand access to voluntary, community-based drug dependency treatment and ensure that such treatment is medically appropriate and comports with international standards.

Regarding the International Criminal Court

  • Undertake the necessary amendments of its national legislation and ratify the Rome Statute.

 


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[1] Lao Penal Code, Art. 59.

[2] Beaumont Smith, “Off the air in Laos,” Asia Times Online, February 22, 2012, http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Southeast_Asia/NB22Ae01.html (accessed April 22, 2014).

[3] Amnesty International, “Annual Report 2013,” https://www.amnesty.org/en/region/laos/report-2013#page (accessed June 4, 2014).

[4] Ibid.

[5] UN Human Rights Council, “Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review,” June 2010, A/HRC/15/5.

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May 12, 2014

Laos: Crony scheme in control of press and civil society

Laos: Crony scheme in control of press and civil society

By Helen Clark / 12 May, 2014

Click on the link to get more news and video from original source: http://www.indexoncensorship.org/2014/05/laos-crony-scheme-control-press-civil-society/

The Laotian president, Choummaly Sayasone, made a five day official visit to France in October 2013 — the first such visit in 60 years. (Photo: Serge Mouraret / Demotix)

When travellers and writers talk about Laos, they mention how peaceful it is, and how Buddhist. The people, says Lonely Planet, are some of the most chilled out in the world.  People forget, as they rarely do with Vietnam or China, that it is still a communist state.

The Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) has absolute control over the press and civil society. Professor Martin Stuart-Fox, a Laos expert with the University of Queensland, has written widely on the country’s history and government and has said that the party is little more than a crony scheme, with many of those in power now descended from the old Lao aristocracy. It is necessary to have a powerful patron, almost always in the party or closely connected to it, for success. Information is difficult to get hold of and even local journalists, who often have close ties to the government, complain publicly, if respectfully, about the impenetrability of government departments.

Freedom House writes: “Press freedom in Laos remains highly restricted. Despite advances in telecommunications infrastructure, government control of all print and broadcast news prevents the development of a vibrant, independent press.”

These media restrictions are part of a wider pattern of suppression of information, lack of transparency in business dealings, prevention of protests and cultural and religious oversight by the government and party.

However the most noticeable event of the past 18 months has been the disappearance of Sombath Somphone. At the end of 2012 the Lao development expert went missing and many of his colleagues quietly believe the government may be responsible. Little but the bare facts have been written in the local, state-owned press.

Somphone was, according to reports, well respected by both the local and international communities and hardly an anti-government firebrand. He did, however, jointly give a presentation in late 2012 to the ASEAN-Europe People‘s Forum held in Vientiane  with the United Nations Development Program. A western aid source told Index on Censorship: “In my opinion — one shared by many others as well –Somphone’s statement at the AEPF was the last straw for the government. He was particularly concerned with forced resettlement, directly linked to government land grabs to provide natural resources to Chinese companies [that are] full of bribes.” The source says since Somphone disappeared any attempts at criticism of government policy, either by the press or organisations “have taken a quantum leap backwards and are currently frozen”.

The World Trade Organisation accession of last year appears not to have much of an effect in promoting a freer or transparent climate. Though the global trade body did make the right noises little concrete action was taken.

This is in contrast to Vietnam’s 2007 WTO accession. In the lead up, the Vietnamese government made public attempts at allowing more freedom of press and speech and open criticism of government policies. Once it became the 150th member crackdowns began again. A small measure of transparency in regards to the business climate has been seemingly taken in Laos.

The LPRP has been in power since 1975. Agricultural reforms began in 1978 and economic reform in 1986, known as the New Economic Mechanism, which began its transition to a more market-based economy. Vietnam instituted its own doi moi, or renovation, policy the same year.

Laos has, in the past 15 years, pursued a policy of economic growth and regional and global integration with an eye toward world affairs. Joining ASEAN in 1997 was a step forward for the small nation, though the spillover Asian financial crisis engendered a certain skepticism among leaders of the manifold benefits of globalisation.

Many smaller nations racing towards development, especially those with sometimes problematic political systems, usually host an event that is as something of a “coming out party”. Vientiane’s hosting of the 2009 Southeast Asia Games was Laos’. Longtime Asia journalist Bertil Lintner pointed out in the Yale Global Review, that though the SEA Games may not have been compelling for much of the globe they are an important regional sporting competition. Chinese and Vietnamese donors and investment built much of the needed infrastructure, such as stadiums.

Despite the rapid development and a “strong” growth outlook for 2013 – 2014, according to Euromonitor, the country still struggles under Least Developed Nation status and poverty rates are high outside the cities while access to services remains low, as do literacy rates.

Unemployment is officially at 2.6 percent of the population, but it is widely believed to be far higher and according to market research and intelligence firm Euromonitor there will be twice as many job entrants as positions for them to fill. Labour export is favoured by the government to partially solve the issue and earn currency. The poverty rate has dropped in recent years and the government’s plan has been to halve it by 2015.

Freedom of the press?

“The Ministry of Information and Culture controls all media in Laos. There is no freedom of the press and no legal protection for Lao journalists who fail to reflect the party line. Most Lao journalists are actually party members attached to the MI,” Stuart-Fox wrote for Freedom House in 2012.

“Laos is the region’s black hole for news…. Because there is no functioning independent media, there are few overt press freedom violations,” Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists told Index. “No local reporting is allowed whatsoever on government corruption, official abuses or factional divisions inside the ruling communist Lao Revolutionary People’s Party. These are all pervasive in Laos, but you’d never know it reading local papers on watching local TV.”

Laos enshrines freedom of speech in its constitution, written in 1991, while ensuring harsh penalties in its penal code that can easily be applied to journalists, or bloggers — though bloggers are few and generally timid. Slandering the state, distorting party and state policies, inciting disorder or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state can all be prosecuted. The vague wording means many things can, if deemed necessary, fall under this ambit.

The English language Vientiane Times largely functions as a platform for photographs of handshakes, ribbon cuttings and deeply earnest affirmations of the great friendship between Laos and whichever national delegation dropped off in the capital on its Southeast Asia tour. It is essentially a showcase organ for what the government wishes foreigners to see, and understand, about modern Laos however its often rather old-fashioned, orthodox rhetoric and complete dearth of anything interesting do not ensure an avid readership.

“The Vietnamese media is much more open, skilled, and sophisticated than the Lao media. And the Lao media are dominated by self-censorship,” a senior Lao source from Radio Free Asia said in an email to Index. “Within limits some publications in Vietnam do try to do investigative journalism. You simply won’t find that in Laos.” The source pointed out that a query on the large scale illegal logging with logs going to Vietnam might not yield much past government authority saying that the government tries to protect the environment.

The 2008 media law is theoretically more friendly to the media and transparency — journalists are guaranteed the right to seek and publish information and to access to public records — there is in practice not much more freedom. The government allows a small measure of criticism of bureaucracy or government actions but reporters have not fully tried to push barriers until they push back. Self censorship is endemic and might be one reason why reporters do not languish in prison as they do in Vietnam or China. Stories on culture and social ills are permitted to a degree, but rigorous investigation of, for example, detainment in rehabilitation centres for all drug users might be going too far.

There is also the tricky situation that government bodies rarely respond to media requests and little information is provided to reporters, though a couple of departments do apparently have a communications department. The information that is provided is expected to be used to further the government’s message and aims.

“There is an endemic culture within our society where people are wary of the news media, and adequate protection is not granted to those willing to speak out on sensitive topics. As such, accessing information is not easy, which makes presenting it even harder”, said a Vientiane Times report quoted by a Southeast Asia Press Association report from 2012.

News on HMong returning refugees, hydro plants, land clearance and illegal logging — some of the most contentious issues in the country — do not make it into the news often. Many of the issues of concern to Lao people can thus remain localised either with those directly affected or educated urban dwellers able to afford access to foreign news sources. It does not appear activist groups have mass organised online yet. Those with access to Thai media may be able to learn more — the government does not block the Thai channels whose broadcasts make it into border areas.

There have been some moves towards private media ownership, although some sources have remarked the industry is too small and rewards too low at this point for anything but a nascent media industry. “There have been a few attempts to launch more trendy, lifestyle magazines, but most have been short lived, I suspect because the relatively small market size for this does not make it economically viable,” said one anonymous source.

There are really no permanent foreign news bureaus in Laos. Though Voice of Vietnam opened a bureau in 2010 and both Radio France International and China Radio International have broadcast from Laos. It should be noted that the 2008 media law does allow foreign news but Stuart-Fox argues that the hoops foreign papers must jump through are too difficult for it to be worth their while.

Problems of censorship go beyond no free press: even if a savvy reporter could persuade an editor to run stories on corruption finding any hard data would be difficult. Party members do not have to disclose their holdings or assets meaning their ownership of firms in Laos is hard to track down. A lack of data cannot be blamed simply on wilful or mendacious opacity; there is not always the capacity for nation-wide gathering and management of statistics.

It is also worth noting, as Stuart-Fox has, that Laos historically has a lower level of literacy and literary traditions than Vietnam. Policy documents often remain unread (many laws have been drafted with foreign help but few ranking civil servants remain au fait with them) and the fierce, bookish debate of intellectuals can be less prevalent in Laos than its Confucian neighbours. On the upside, Lao officials are sometimes, he says, more amenable to friendly informal chats over a Beer Lao or two.

Laos has some two dozen newspapers and almost twice as many radio stations–useful when one considers how remote some communities are. There has been investment into telecommunications infrastructure which better connects Laos to the ASEAN region.

The Southeast Asia Press Alliance wrote in 2012: “The launching of the country’s stock market towards the end of 2010 should be seen as a welcome step towards greater access to information inside this secluded communist regime as foreign investors need a more transparent government and greater access to its policies on social and economic development.” The World Bank ranked Laos at 159 out of 189 nations for ease of doing business, up from 163 the previous year.

Not all censorship is political. Authorities and the older generation worry about the cultural shifts brought about by rapid modernisation and integration with the wider world. A decade ago young people believed Western influences were “bad” according to a survey published in a 2000 book — Laos at the Crossroads —  by authors Vatthana Pholsena and Ruth Banomyong. Today, there are still moves by the government toward modesty and a “Lao” way of being that encompasses tradition and religion. Women still largely wear sins – an embroidered sarong, more or less —  and until not so long ago long hair on young men was frowned upon or outright illegal — along with earrings or “eccentric clothes”. The same Vientiane Post article quoted also noted that while Western music was technically illegal in nightclubs it could be permissible provided it made up no more than 20 per cent of the music content of the venue, which had to be well-lit to prevent “indecent acts”. However Vientiane’s nightclubs seem to play largely western music or at least the bland, synth-heavy electronica found across the world.

Religious freedom

Laos is Buddhist, which the government recognizes and publicly embraces. In fact, it even went so far as to argue, on more than one occasion, that Marxism and Buddhism are not so much mutually exclusive as eminently compatible. The Sangha, the Buddhist clergy, was asked as early as 1975 to study Marxism and be a kind of emissary or teacher of the doctrine especially to those in the countryside. Regimes in Southeast Asia reasserting legitimacy by linking themselves with the nation’s dominant religion is not new and serves a useful dual purpose: They are linked to something deeply esteemed by the people but also more able to control what could otherwise be a powerful dissenting force.

Christians face more persecution on the whole. Hmong Protestant Christians — as opposed to Catholic groups — possibly the more so. The Hmong were co-opted by US forces during the Secret War when the United States undertook a covert bombing of the nation to disrupt the supply chains operating through the Ho Chi Minh Trail that assisted Vietnamese forces.

It is important also to understand that though many Hmong face difficulties in the nation and are discriminated against, it is largely the Christian Hmong who face the worst persecution, similar to Central Highlands Protestants in Vietnam, who are loosely grouped under the umbrella term Degar. Both of these cases stem from involvement with and support of US forces during wartime. Lao Hmong in the United States make up a reasonable sized diaspora and the older generation not only rails against the communist government but enjoys support from US veteran’s advocate group the CPPP — which erroneously reported the murder of 72 Hmong by Vietnamese-trained Lao forces in 2011. Former leader, the late Vang Pao, went so far to plan a coup from his home in California. Many Hmong who fled to Thailand during the war years and remained in limbo were forcibly repatriated a few years ago.

According to Stuart-Fox, Hmong who have maintained their traditional animist beliefs or became party-friendly communists do not suffer the same discrimination or persecution. One woman even made it into the Politburo.

Laos’ multitudinous ethnic minorities also follow many religions and the government officially allows this and officially advocates religious freedom. However this only goes so far as preserving or allowing “good” practices. Religious ceremonies considered backward have been suppressed where possible — like slaughter of animals in rituals. “Superstition” is not kindly looked upon.

Digital freedom

Internet access is far lower than any of Laos’ neighbours with only 9 percent using it in 2011. More recent data suggests an expansion: In 2012 there were 400,000 Facebook users in Laos; up from 60,000 in 2011 in a population of over 6.5 million.

Internet use is growing in Laos but still remains confined to larger cities and towns. A report from academic Warren Mayes guesstimated there were some 50-60 internet cafes in Vientiane in 2006. He noted then online life was growing fast for young people and their interactions with the wider Lao diaspora.

Laos may yet crackdown on Facebook. Last year the communications ministry was to introduce internet regulations to allow official monitoring of the internet — though sources suggest it is already very much unofficially monitored. The director general mentioned to the Vientiane Times information on Facebook circulating regarding a crashed Lao Airlines plane was not “helpful”.

The state controls all internet service providers, and there are some reports that the government sporadically blocks web activity. “The government’s technical ability to monitor the internet is limited, though concerns remain that Laos is looking to adopt the censorship policies and technologies of its neighbors, Vietnam and China,” says Freedom House.

Much of Vietnam’s surveillance ability is already sourced from western companies such as Finn Fisher, Verint and Silver Bullet, rather than homegrown. Sources have previously told Index that Chinese private companies are more likely to assist in surveillance than the government proper; however many including the CPJ strongly suspect Chinese government involvement.

One problem for Laos is that Lao language and alphabet programs have been slow to catch up, though young people do use a phonetic, romanised script known as pasa karaoke.

Deputy Minister of Post and Telecommunications, Thansamay Kommasith, told the Vientiane Times that an “official” Lao script program was being developed, saying: “This is for unity and prosperity, using the official Lao language in those technologies for the future development of IT in Laos as well as to develop the country through them.” There are already unofficial ones being used. Vietnamese military-owned telco Viettel is to assist in the development, according to local news stories. The telco was previously linked to malware attacks within Vietnam.

Laos has plans to launch its own communications satellite. Minister of Post and Telecommunication, Hiem Phommachanh, said at a “groundbreaking ceremony” the satellite would contribute to the nation’s socio-economic development. The $250 million (£147 million)  satellite will be funded by China, though Laos will hold a 30 per cent share.

Formerly message boards like Laoupdate and Laosmiles have been popular with both the younger diaspora and native Lao. The former site shut down, some suggest thanks to government pressure. The latter censored posts, explaining earnestly to the outraged users that it was to avoid trouble.

The Electronic Freedom Frontier has reported that Laos is on the Global Online Freedom Act’s blacklist, which was passed by a US House sub-committee, meaning US companies are prohibited from selling surveillance gear to repressive regimes. The EFF called it “an important step toward protecting human rights and free expression online”. US companies have sold such technology in the past to Vietnam.

Just as Laos has laws which can govern the press or activists, it has also specified similar acts in its internet laws. Article 15 (points 6 and 7) states people must “Not to use communication to defeat national stability, peace, socio-economic or cultural development of the country”; “7. Not to use the telecommunication system to defame persons or organizations.”

Staying friendly with the neighbours

Laos, neighbour to Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and Burma, has long been called land-locked for its lack of access to any sea. With so many roads being built, Chinese railway funding and Laos’ own ambition to turn itself into a goods transport corridor it’s now more often called “land-linked”. But Laos has been balancing its neighbours and acting as either a buffer or corridor for a long time.

Historically beset from three sides by China, Vietnam and Thailand the nation has learned how to balance its neighbours’ needs and demands while paying expected tribute and playing them off against one another. Laos shares religion, a measure of culture and language with Thailand, as well as strong cross-border trade and cultural products like television shows and popular music. China and Vietnam have more invested both politically and economically. China’s projects and influence are seen more in the north of the nation; Vietnam in the south.

While China cooperates with the party and offers no criticism, Vietnam has more invested in the party. Both Professor Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy and Stuart-Fox say that Vietnam has a greater interest in the political status quo in Laos being maintained. A change in regime could have repercussions for Hanoi. Vietnam has traditionally offered more political guidance and military assistance. The two nations also have a shared wartime history. But it has been Chinese involvement in Laos that has prompted some of the few public demonstrations, though protests over land reclamation often related to dams are also growing.

For example, the New City Development would have involved 50,000 Chinese workers to build the stadium for the 2009 SEA Games.  It was met with public opposition and even members of the largely party-member legislative National Assembly disapproved. There are also many towns, especially in the north, with large Chinese populations, Chinese markets and even signage in Chinese. Some in Laos have publicly wondered why, for example, Chinese workers must be imported for Chinese building projects when Laos has its own workers available.

China exerts political influence by virtue of not trying to. Unlike western aid, packages from China are not conditional upon human rights. China has a policy of non-intervention, though this is true for all nations it aids and invests in; there has been criticism of its similar policies in Africa. The two nations raised their bilateral relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership in 2009. Chinese development aid from 1997 to 2007 was estimated at $280 million and the nation provided another $330 million from 1998 – 2001, according to Thayer.

The problems already present in Laos such as lack of transparency, corruption and environmental degradation have been raised as issues in regard to Chinese investment also by western aid agencies and NGOs and concerned Lao. At the same time there are worries about Chinese goods pushing out locally-made goods.

The ongoing non-investigation

Writing in the Asia Times in February, more than a year after Somphone went missing, his wife Shui Meng Ng pointed out that his disappearance has barely been mentioned in the local press and certainly no words of distemper from the foreign press have made it into local news. Questions on his whereabouts have been met with official blandness: “We have found nothing yet, but the relevant authorities are still doing their best to investigate the case.”

The European Parliament expressed grave concern, and many foreign aid groups and private NGOs have also tried to put pressure to bear on the government to explain or transparently investigate the man’s disappearance. The government, it seems, does not care. “Tough words,” from these groups she writes “have not been followed by equally tough actions.” She described questions by resident or visiting dignitaries as an “irritation” to local officials but nothing more.“Within Lao officialdom, no one wants to hear his name, no one wants to be reminded of his disappearance, and no one dares to talk openly about him.”

Given few in Laos read much aside from the official papers it is easy enough to whitewash his disappearance. Another source speaking to Index suggested a certain laissez-faire attitude even among some local, educated aid workers, characterised with: “Well, he should have known what might happen to him for speaking up so much.”

Ng makes a useful point: The nation’s steadfast drive to greater international and regional roles is, seemingly, belied by its refusal to even acknowledge what has gone wrong, or why.

Human rights and freedom of speech are not, despite what we would often like to believe, essential for a well respected global role. But for small, hitherto forgotten and least developed nations, a respect for international norms helps ease notions of “backwardness”.

This article was published on May 12, 2014 at indexoncensorship.org

April 25, 2014

Laos to borrow $566m this year

Breakingnews >

Laos to borrow $566m this year

Click on the link to get more news and video from original source:  http://www.bangkokpost.com/breakingnews/406615/revenue-shortfall-forces-laos-to-borrow-566m

Vientiane — Laos will need to borrow an estimated 4.5 trillion kip ($566 million) this fiscal year to address its ballooning budget deficit, a state media report said on Friday.

Over the year to Sept 30, Laos plans to spend 29.7 trillion kip but projects only 25.2 trillion in revenues, forcing it to borrow from foreign and domestic sources, the Vientiane Times reported.

During the first six months of fiscal 2013-14 the government collected only 9.2 trillion kip, significantly lower than forecast, the government mouthpiece said.

“The three major reasons for the large fiscal deficit have been overly optimistic revenue projections, large wage increases and allowances awarded without due regard for their impact on the country’s fiscal and external positions, and development projects financed off budget,” the Asian Development Bank (ADB) said in its latest report on Laos.

The Lao government hiked base wages for the civil service by 37% last year and plans further wage hikes this year, despite problems with making payments, the ADB said.

“A number of government officials, in particular those in the countryside, have received only February’s salary so far this year,” the Vientiane Times said.

Last year, Laos’ fiscal deficit was the equivalent of 5.8 per cent of its gross domestic product, the bank said.

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