Saturday, December 29, 2012

Disappearance and Expulsion Send Chills through Laos

THE sudden disappearance of social activist Sombath Somphone has set Laos on edge.

Rumours abound that he has been spotted alive. Perhaps he will call. Perhaps there is some explanation, however outrageous, for his disappearance on the evening of Dec 15.

The mysterious disappearance of the 62-year-old social activist and winner of one of Asia's most prestigious international awards, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, is inevitably being paired with the expulsion eight days earlier of Ms Anne-Sophie Gindroz, the head in Laos of Swiss development agency Helvetas.

On Dec 7, Ms Gindroz was given 48 hours to leave, after she wrote a letter - scathingly critical of the Lao government - to development partners. Taken together, the two incidents shine an unaccustomed light on Laos, a country too often seen only through the prism of tourists as a laid-back pastoral backwater of tropical Asia.

Ms Gindroz is no naive neophyte; she had worked in Mali, and in Suharto-era Indonesia. Her expulsion was a shock to the international non-governmental organisation (INGO) community, which has a prominent place in a Laos that is struggling to lift itself out of least
developed country status and only just joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO). But two foreign professionals working in development in Laos told The Straits Times that her letter had appeared deliberately provocative, to the point of inviting expulsion.

The letter, penned after Helvetas was not invited to the government-hosted annual Round Table Implementation Meeting of Non-Profit Associations last month, was titled "Personal Letter to Development Partners", but carried the Helvetas letterhead - and immediately became public.

Ms Gindroz wrote: "We are working in a challenging environment: This is a country governed by a single-party regime, where there is little space for meaningful democratic debate and when taking advantage of that limited space, repercussions often follow.

"Although allowable under the Lao Constitution, real freedom of expression and assembly are not afforded, and those who wish to exercise their constitutional rights and dare to try, often do so at their own peril faced with intimidation, false accusations and increasingly unlawful arrest. The media is censored and people are forbidden to hold peaceful assembly/ demonstration. Even in (Myanmar), this is no longer the case."

The two-page letter went on to sketch a dilemma for civil society organisations in Laos.

Laos was given membership status in the WTO in October, a key step in bringing it in sync with the rest of Asean and integrating it into the global economic system.

The dissonance between such progress and Ms Gindroz's expulsion and the disappearance of Mr Sombath is apparent.

In 2007, Mr Sompawn Khantisouk, owner and manager of an eco-tourism lodge, vanished. Many thought his disappearance was because he had tried to mobilise local opinion against Chinese plantation investments. He has not been seen since.

Observers in Laos say it is no coincidence that the expulsion of Ms Gindroz and the disappearance of Mr Sombath came after the Asia-Europe People's Forum, held in October in conjunction with the Asia-Europe summit in Vientiane. Mr Sombath had helped organise the forum, and Ms Gindroz also participated.

The two cases have sent a chill through civil society organisations in Laos.

The Straits Times (Singapore)

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