For many Australians, Laos is a scenic, off-the-beaten path, holiday destination for adventurous travelers.
Relatively few know that it's also a repressive one-party state with a long record of restricting basic rights, and imprisoning or forcibly disappearing critics or citizens who dare to form groups or hold protests without government permission.
Last week, Australia had a chance to throw light on Laos' darker side when on 5 March, Canberra hosted officials from Vientiane for the fourth bilateral human rights dialogue. The dialogue, held in Australia for the first time, is part of Canberra's assistance to the Lao Government, intended to improve its human rights record. However, given the intensifying crackdown on fundamental rights, the Lao Government's commitment to reform appears dubious at best.
To ensure that this dialogue doesn't become an exercise in empty rhetoric, the Australian Government should work with its Lao counterparts to set concrete measurable benchmarks for reform, and publicly commit to them.
This past January, Laos' rights record was under scrutiny by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva during the country's second Universal Periodic Review. Australia notably raised key concerns on forced disappearances and the systematic and escalating crackdown on freedom of expression and association.
Disappearances remain a very serious concern. It has been more than two years since Lao police were last seen detaining prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone - and the government has come no closer to providing answers about his case.
Somphone, a highly respected community development practitioner who was awarded the prestigious 2005 Magsaysay Award, was stopped and taken away from a police checkpoint on a busy thoroughfare in Vientiane in 2012. The entire incident was caught on security camera film, a copy of which was provided to his family by local police officers. Those officers have now been transferred to posts unknown. Senior government and parliamentary officials have repeatedly denied official involvement in Sombath's disappearance, and some are now spinning absurd theories of Thai mafia involvement.
At the same time, police investigators have refused all technical assistance in the investigation, including from Australia. Following up on its statement at the Universal Periodic Review, Australia should demand answers and accountability in Sombath's case.
In Laos, government intimidation to silence critics is standard practice and self-censorship is widespread. The wall of silence that has descended in Vientiane about the Sombath's case is emblematic of that self-censorship sparked by fear. It is suspected that Sombath's dedication and involvement in supporting and empowering communities and civil society led to his ultimate disappearance. The already limited space for civil society is shrinking further. In the past year, the Lao Government has been making a concerted effort towards restricting the activities of both local and international non-governmental organisations. Newly formed guidelines controlling the activity of nonprofit associations have set onerous restrictions on international funding, alongside other limitations on notification, permissions and the types of acceptable activities that both local and international groups can engage in. An existing decree on associations forbids organisations from 'abusing the rights of freedom' or 'engaging in activities that run contrary to national interest,' both expressions that are vaguely worded and easily manipulated to serve the interests of government authorities.
Taking it one step further, in September, the Lao Government promulgated an internet decree to further solidify state control over online speech.
The language of the decree is vague and broad, and can be used to prohibit speech on a wide variety of political, economic and social topics. For instance, the decree forbids spreading 'false information' about the ruling Lao People's Revolutionary Party. The decree sets outs that it is impermissible to send information that could be seen as 'divid[ing] solidarity' among ethnic groups and between Laos and other countries. Another provision effectively criminalises disseminating information that 'distorts truth or tarnishes the dignity and rights of individuals, sectors, institutions and organisations.'
For far too long, Laos has been treated as an afterthought by the international community when it looks at Southeast Asia. But this year and next, it's not going to be possible to continue to look the other way on Laos's poor human rights record.
In 2016, Laos will be the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and many regional and national leaders will meet several times in Vientiane. Somewhat incredibly, Laos has also indicated its plan to run that year for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council – a seat for which they are woefully unqualified at this time.
It's time for Australian leaders to find their voices and call on Laos to stop its crackdown on civil society groups and account for Sombath Somphone's disappearance. Last week's dialogue, and those in the future, are an opportunity for Australia to help put Laos on the right track.