The Laos Conundrum


In January 2007, eyewitnesses saw Lao man Sompawn Khantisouk, founder of the award winning Boat Landing guesthouse, being forced into a car as the sun fell into the hills of Luang Nam Tha. For months his distraught family searched for him, consulting fortune tellers who swore he was alive. Five years later, he is now presumed dead.

On 15 December 2012, internationally respected agronomist and educationalist Sombath Somphone, 62, was also abducted in the late afternoon. His erudition and passion about development in Laos earned him a Magsaysay Award. His wife, once a senior UNICEF staffer, doesn't know if her partner is alive or dead.

Despite CCTV footage giving evidence of government complicity, his abduction, staged with impunity on one of Vientiane's major arterials, was typically denied by the Lao Government. It's common knowledge that disappearances like these are common in Laos.

A ceremony to honour Somphone was cancelled, it is said, after security police threatened colleagues and family.

As prominent Lao and their family flee, busloads of travelers, many of them Australian, continue to line up at Immigration to enter Laos. Almost 3 million tourists visited in 2012. And this week Laos is hosting the ASEAN Tourism Forum.

About five years ago, travelers "discovered" Laos in a big way. Hillside paths now hold backpackers eager to see "authentic" village life, while ancestral lands are taken for dams, plantations or golf courses, elephants, projected to soon be extinct in Laos, are ridden by sunburned travelers as habitats are stripped of trees by Lao and Vietnamese military owned companies. Tourists canoe Lao's wild rivers, while plans and deals are made to imprison the rivers inside hydropower dams. The elite, who own the elephant's share of tourist facilities, smile and rake in the money. Laos' success as a premier tourist destination has boosted the government's credibility and, of course, its private coffers.

Under Laos' laid-back tourist veneer is a land resembling the communist police states of the 1950s. Village sound systems blare internal propaganda in the mornings. Spies hang out watching foreign residents and visitors. Outspoken freethinking Lao are warned and their families hounded. Neighbours inform on each other, and creative people like artists and writers, as well as village heads and civil servants, undergo intense, repeated political brainwashing.

Laos is run by a group of stonefaced men who practice the same fear tactics as their counterparts in Burma. Like Burma's generals, they are making money from tourism — and no-one has suggested that travel or economic sanctions be applied to Laos.

Why is this so? In the first place, Laos lacks the independent press-in-exile that fearlessly reported the attacks, disappearances, land grabs, torture, and arbitrary detentions that typified Burma. Protests and government repression are not reported in the government-controlled media. Foreign journalists rarely visit and are "supervised" when they do so. While Laos does not have the same high profile armed conflict that generate traveler alerts, there are occasional armed skirmishes, inevitably blamed on Hmong people.

Burma's Saffron Revolution focused local and international outrage against the previous military government; it put the radical and independent Buddhist clergy in the spotlight. In contrast, the Lao clergy formed an early alliance with the Pathet Lao and renounced Buddhist precepts, like impermanence, considered inconvenient to the Party. The monks, particularly those at the top, are subject to political training. In short, Lao has all the hallmarks of a fear driven society — but without Burma's alert systems.

"Colourful" indigenous upland people are dispossessed to construct hotels and golf courses. Once healthy forest communities now suffer micronutrient deficiency. Aid agencies lecture them on nutrition. Those who protest are arrested.

Christians are driven from villages, detained or placed in stocks. Laos signed the UN Convention against Degrading or Inhuman Treatment and yet its residents disappear — and foreign travel writers extol the country's "charming untouched" nature.

Without a charismatic oppositional figure like Aug Sung Suu Kyi and an independent media to present an alternative picture to the coffee and croissant view, opposition to government PR is difficult.

But there are exceptions. Earlier in the year a leaked report showed that Lao and Vietnamese delegates were responsible for corroding the recently revised ASEAN Human Rights Charter, limiting its scope and application.

So should we be talking about a Laos conundrum? I think so. The regime gets both income and legitimacy from tourism. Laos may seem untouched and "authentic", but there is no crossing authorities whose wealth and power are contingent on absolute obedience. As one resident told me recently, "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 fucked with."

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.