Jan 16, 2013
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By Melinda Boh
VIENTIANE – In 2007, Sompawn Khantisouk, founder of the eco-tourism award winning Boat Landing guesthouse, was forced into a car by men in green uniforms as the sun fell into the picturesque hills of Luang Nam Tha in northern Laos. For months his distraught family searched for him, including consultations with fortune tellers, some of whom said they could sense he was still alive. Five years later, he is still disappeared and now widely presumed dead.
On December 15, 2012, internationally respected activist Sombath Somphone was similarly abducted by unknown assailants in the Lao capital of Vientiane. The 62-year-old’s erudition and passion for participatory development issues earned him a 2005 Magsaysay Award, widely viewed as Asia’s version of the Nobel Prize. His wife, once a senior UNICEF staffer, says she does not know if her internationally respected spouse is now dead or alive.
CCTV footage of his abduction, staged with impunity on one of Vientiane’s major arteries, shows clear evidence of police complicity. Officials have implausibly denied involvement, claiming inexplicably that his kidnapping may have been related to a personal or business dispute. It is an open secret that disappearances are commonplace in Laos, where activists are frequently picked up on unspecified offenses never to be seen again.
A ceremony in Laos to honor Sombath was cancelled after security police threatened his colleagues and family. Protests and events lamenting and calling for justice in his disappearance have been staged by regional human-rights groups, including in neighboring Thailand.
Laos’ authoritarian, communist-led government brooks no dissent, with those who have dared to speak out, including activists who unraveled a banner in public calling for democracy, now languishing in prison. Others who have been targeted by authorities for their critiques and activism have fled the country.
When formerly military-ran Myanmar, also known as Burma, imprisoned and abducted dissident citizens, the global response to the abuses was sharp. Western governments imposed punitive economic and financial sanctions, while grass roots groups campaigned against global travelers from putting Myanmar on their itineraries. Despite similar abuses in Laos, to date the global grass roots response has been mostly muted, even with the high-profile disappearances of Sompawn and Sombath.
As international concern shifts away from democratizing Myanmar, Laos’ abuses could receive greater attention. Yet while Lao activists and dissidents languish in prison or flee the country over fears of official reprisals, a growing number of global tourists are descending on the country, commonly referred to as “sleepy” in the guidebooks many of them carry. Nearly three million tourists visited Laos in 2012, a record number for the landlocked country of six million. Once closed to the outside world, the Lao government now heavily promotes tourism to boost its laggard local economy and international credibility.
Tourism in Laos, however, presents an ethical dilemma, similar to the one travelers faced when deciding whether to travel to Myanmar’s previous iron-fisted military regime. Laos, run by a committee of mostly stone-faced men that espouse communist ideals but increasingly practice market economics, use the same fear tactics Myanmar’s rulers used to crush dissent and capture the lion’s share of national resources.
Like Myanmar’s generals, Laos’ leaders are now profiteering from a tourism boom through their dominance of hotels and other tourism-related infrastructure. Political elites have forced so many locals out of the central city area of Luang Prabang to corner the tourism market that temples in the area are closing because the local community is no longer sufficient to provide alms to monks.
Laos is nonetheless set to host the upcoming Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Travel Forum from January 18-24, with meetings to be held for regional tourism ministers and ASEAN’s Airlines, Hotel and Restaurant and Travel Associations. CNN and CNBC, international news channels that profit from government-funded tourism advertising, are scheduled on January 21 to host respectively lunch and dinner for ministers and senior delegates.
No free press
Laos lacks the independent press-in-exile that fearlessly reported attacks, disappearances, land grabs, torture, and arbitrary detentions that typified the old Myanmar and raised global concern. Protests and cases of government impunity are seldom if ever reported in Laos’ state-monopolized media. Foreign journalists rarely visit the country; if they enter through official channels they are supervised by government minders, undermining their ability to report on true public opinion.
Myanmar’s Buddhist monk-led Saffron Revolution in 2007 focused local and international outrage against the previous military government and was a testimony to that country’s radical and independent Buddhist clergy. The Buddhist clergy in Laos, in contrast, formed an early alliance with the Pathet Lao communists and later renounced certain Buddhist precepts, like impermanence, considered inconvenient to the Party.
Drilled like the Lao people in obedience, Lao monks, particularly those at the top of the hierarchy, are subject to political training. Laos thus has all the hallmarks of a fear driven society but without Myanmar’s alert systems. The Lao government oppresses its’ peoples quietly, without fuss and with ruthless efficiency.
Colorful indigenous highland tribes, much loved by camera-toting travelers, are increasingly dispossessed to make way for tourist hotels and golf courses. Once healthy forest communities now suffer from micronutrient deficiencies and have become the focus for international aid agency rescue programs as they are relocated from fertile to barren lands. Those who protest or make representations to government officials are frequently arrested and detained. For instance, Lao activist Sivanxay Phommarath has been held incommunicado for three months for organizing villagers in Khammouane province in a land dispute.
Unlike Myanmar, Laos does not have any charismatic oppositional figures like Aung Sung Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and global pro-democracy icon. With no independent media to present an alternative picture to the mainstream view, the government has effectively monopolized national public relations. Foreign travel writers permitted into the country often extol Laos’ “untouched” and “sleepy” travel destinations, feeding into the government’s tourism promotion campaign.
To be sure, there is the occasional leak. Earlier in the year, a leaked report showed that Laotian and Vietnamese delegates eroded the recently revised ASEAN Human Rights Charter, limiting its scope and application. Weeks before Sombath’s abduction, the head of Swiss development agency Helvetas was expelled from Laos for criticizing the government over land disputes with local communities. After her expulsion, other foreign organizations working on land rights had their terms of reference altered to remove all references to land on government orders.
About five years ago, global travelers “discovered” Laos. The New York Times touted Laos as its top global travel destination in 2008. Hillside paths now hold backpackers eager to see “authentic” village life, while at the same time ancestral lands are taken for dams, plantations or golf courses. Elephants, projected to be extinct soon in Laos, are now ridden by sunburned travelers as their habitats are stripped of trees by Lao and Vietnamese military owned companies involved in tourism development.
To these travelers, Laos is a laid back, quiet place with quaint people, cheap beer, and spectacular scenery. Behind that veneer is a land out of the caricatures of 1950’s and 1960’s communist police states. Village sound systems still blare in the early morning to wake the masses with pro-government propaganda. Government spies keep close tabs on foreign residents and visitors, while outspoken Laos are hounded and their families harassed.
Creative people like artists and writers, as well as village heads and civil servants, undergo intense, repeated political brainwashing on the virtues of the communist system. While national leaders continue to define the one party state as a revolutionary socialist government, like formerly junta-led Myanmar, Laos shows more indicators of fascism than socialism with its flag-waving nationalism, disdain for human rights and persistent reference to common threats and foes.
To outsiders, Laos may seem like communism-lite. But there is no crossing allowed of those in government whose wealth and power rely on access to lands and resources for tourism development. “Don’t be fooled by the laid back nature of Laos. Their secret police were trained by the Vietnamese who were trained by the [East German] Stasi. They are not to be f*cked with,” says one local resident.
Sompawn’s and Sombath’s still unexplained disappearances are testaments to that warning, an advisory more global travelers should recognize when devising their itineraries.
Melinda Boh, a pseudonym, is an independent journalist.
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