Today, members of the International Organisating Committee of the Asia-Europe Peoples' Forum and members of the three delegations to Laos who followed up on Sombath Somphone's abduction in 2012, sent the below letter to the Steering Committee of the ASEAN Peoples' Forum (APF). The letter expresses concerns about the plans to hold the next APF in Laos when Laos takes on the ASEAN chairmanship in 2016.
22 May 2015
Dear Members of the ACSC/APF Steering Committee,
It is our understanding that you currently face a decision about whether to hold your 2016 forum in the Lao PDR. Please allow us to share our experience and concerns in this regard.
In the lead up to the ninth Asia-Europe People’s Forum (AEPF9) held in 2012, there were also many who questioned whether the Lao PDR was a suitable venue. Others, including Sombath Somphone, who was serving as the National Co-organiser, argued that while there may be challenges, it would be a very good opportunity for Lao civil society to develop both internally as well as in its international relations.
Throughout the planning process, members of the AEPF were repeatedly given assurances by the Lao government there would be no interference. Indeed, materials shared with participants stated:
The AEPF9 aims to enable a secure environment that encourages learning and reflection and provides space for open, respectful, diverse and constructive debate. We support harmony, compassion and understanding, whilst recognizing the strength of diversity and solidarity for peaceful and sustainable development.
The reality, unfortunately, proved quite different. Government staff were present in virtually every event, often acting in the guise of regular citizens. Lao participants who voiced their opinions were often rebuked or reprimanded and in one case publicly berated and sent threatening text messages. Translation to and from Lao was often truncated or distorted, and the distribution of key documents was banned.
Moreover, harassment of some participants continued after the event and extended to their home villages. Sombath was following up on these issues and raising concerns with government counterparts when he was abducted.
Subsequently, the International Organising Committee of the AEPF9 released a statement which said in part:
…the IOC of the AEPF is compelled to state that the legacy of the AEPF9 in Laos is in great jeopardy. The lived reality for many people in Laos today is in sharp contrast to the rhetoric of the Vientiane Declaration on Strengthening Partnership for Peace and Development agreed at the end of ASEM9.
There does not appear to be a secure environment that encourages learning and reflection, or one that provides space for open, respectful, diverse and constructive debate.
The full statement sent by the AEPF9 International Organising committee to the Lao AEPF National Organising Committee and the Lao government is available here: http://www.aepf.info/aepf9/99-aepf9-reflections-and-lesson-learning and more information about the three delegations to follow-up is available here: http://sombath.org/tag/parliamentary-delegations
Recent indications are that the situation has gotten worse. Sombath has yet to be returned safely to his family, and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and many international human rights organisations have stated that his abduction is an enforced disappearance.
The Lao government continues to claim it is seriously investigating Sombath’s disappearance, but has yet to release any significant findings, other than it was not involved. Not one word of the international reaction to his disappearance has been reflected in the Lao media, and most CSOs fear to even mention his name in public gatherings.
Lao participation in the AEPF10 in Milan, as well as on the panels and debates at the ASCS/APF last year in Yangon, and just recently in Kuala Lumpur has been extremely limited. Most Lao CSOs are reluctant to attend, much less engage in discussion about any sensitive issues.
We were also quite alarmed to learn that persons allegedly representing Lao civil society have sought to remove references to Sombath, indigenous peoples, LBGTQ, and multi-party systems from the 2015 ACSC/APF conference statement.
Given past experience, combined with these more recent developments, we strongly council against holding the 2016 ACSC/APF in the Lao PDR.
It is clear there would be virtually no chance of any substantive participation by Lao citizens and civil society in such an event. More critically, we are greatly concerned of possible repercussions if some did choose to participate fully, speak out, and share their concerns.
The decision you face is one of substantial responsibility. We accordingly exhort your serious consideration of the risks involved.
For the AEPF International Organizing Committee:
For the January 2013 follow-up delegation to the Lao PDR:
Walden Bello, former Congressman, Akbayan Party, the Philippines
Charles Santiago, Member of Parliament, Democratic Action Party, Malaysia & Chair, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights
For the March 2013 follow-up delegation to the Lao PDR:
Tuur Elzinga, Senator, the Netherlands
Andy Rutherford, AEPF International Organising Committee
For the August 2013 follow-up delegation to the Lao PDR:
Mugiyanto, Senior Program Officer for Human Rights and Democracy, International NGO Forum On Indonesian Development
Paul-Emile Dupret, Lawyer, Belgium