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The True Face of Laos

by Joshua Kurlantzick
January 5, 2013

Laos honor guards and members of military orchestra sit behind guns as they prepare to welcome another foreign delegation arriving at Vientiane airport.


The tiny country of Laos does not normally get much attention from policymakers or the international media, at least since the Vietnam War; but in Obama’s first term, the administration put a focus on Laos as one of the Mekong Region countries with which Washington would push for closer relations. This push came partly to reaffirm the United States’ presence in mainland Southeast Asia, which had diminished during the Bush administration, in part because of apathy, and in part because of sanctions and restrictions on relations with several Mekong nations. It also came partly because several Mekong region nations, including Laos, seemed increasingly uncomfortable with how dependent they had become on China for investment, aid, military-military relations, and diplomatic relations, and increasingly angry at China’s dams on the upper portion of the Mekong River, which were seriously affecting downstream water flows. Hillary Clinton became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Laos in decades, the United States increased its aid budget for Greater Mekong nations, and it has boosted limited military-military contacts.

In some ways, Laos has seemed to be opening up, consistent with the Obama administration’s beliefs that greater contacts with the authoritarian and long-closed nation would help integrate it better into regional organizations, global trade, and regional security apparatuses. Laos’ government has projected that its GDP will rise by a staggering 12 percent in 2012-13’s fiscal year, due in part to growing construction projects in the capital and other sites, new mining, and new hydropower plants.  The country has aggressively courted investment from Thailand and other neighbors, and has been accepted for membership in the World Trade Organization. A small window of political and social change appeared as well: a popular Laos call-in radio show had begun broaching sensitive topics like land concessions and land grabbing, as well as the environmentally destructive aspects of some investments entering Laos. Vientiane elites seemed to be able to speak more freely about the government, and allowed several foreign academics to come lecture to local universities.

But in recent months, it has become clearer that, despite the investment and better relations with the United States and other Western nations, the Lao government remains extremely opaque and paranoid about any domestic criticism. In fact, with Burma opening up, Laos is now the most closed and repressive state in Asia outside of North Korea.  Last year, the call-in show, News Talk, was abruptly forced off the air. Then, in an even more shocking turn of events, in December Laos’ most well-known activist, Sombath Somphone, vanished. According to several news reports, he was held at a police post in the capital and then taken away in another truck which had stopped at the police post. Despite his high profile in Asia—he received the prominent Ramon Magsagsay Award for his community activism—his whereabouts remain unknown, even though, by the standards of political activism in neighboring states like Thailand, Malaysia, or the Philippines, he was hardly even critical of his government.

Will Washington alter its rapprochement with Laos in the face of these disturbing events? Given that the administration has continued building closer ties with neighboring Cambodia despite the deteriorating rights climate there, it seems unlikely.

Post a Comment 15 Comments

  • Posted by Sanasinh BOUNETHONE

    I think The Dissappeared of Dr.Sombath Somphone in not Political isuue but It seems that concerns with Private Movement
    or Black Activities with his groups partners because all of funds from Thailand to support his work in Lao and when he finished from the work and they all must do somethings to protect their benifits of unclear movement in Lao PDR,this is my personal opinions and I think so.

  • Posted by Mexico Jim

    A good article. I hope everyone will not allow this issue to fade from our notice. The abduction of Sombath must be kept in the eye of the world. He is a good man.
    Laos does not allow anything that can be considered “civil society”. They even refused to allow the Australian Embassy to form an Alumni Association (of graduates of Australian Institutions of Higher Learning) because it might turn into a “political party”.
    It should be noted that Laos is very friendly with North Korea. They regularly exchange visits.

  • Posted by J

    Helvetas country director expelled on December 9th for criticism of the Lao government (

  • Posted by Tong Khaojai

    Laos – most closed and repressive in Asia beside N Korea? Are you kidding me? We can access facebook and other sites freely here that you can’t do in China, Vietnam or even some sensitive topics in free Thailand. And why the heck would the gov’t go after a well-known CSO worker after receiving so much kudos from successfully hosting ASEM? And why automatically the Western media said it’s the government if a CSO person disappears? Well it’s a communist country so it must be the gov’t! Extremists on both sides. He was not even criticising the gov’t so why the gov’t would go after him? No western media sources suggest any other motive but the gov’t. Talk about biased reporting. Enough said.

  • Posted by Ecky S.

    We the people all knows Communist has only one party. I have a classmate from Russia she is a law firm consultant said she still don’t trust their government do unjustice to the citizens. Anyone did better than them they hunt them down they don’t go by their constitution. Laos was communist country if i’m right? We should plant more conservative in LPDR congress and also in the urban communities so it is the best time for new reform. People waiting for us.

  • Posted by pizone

    You should watch the video clip of the abduction in front of the po;ice station below to see why people point the finger to the lao communist government

    The Nation–30197396.html

  • Posted by Ctlao

    Smart peoples would use their brain and guide themselves on the common sense before launching a cheap accusation against Laos in the case of Sombat disappearance. I don’t think that the Lao police officers are that dumb to kidnap that scrap guy in front of the video footage that can be served as eyewitness against himself or herself. Secondly the Lao government would neither bother itself to kidnap that guy of that caliber to discredit Laos as land of opportunity for the investors.

  • Posted by educated guess

    totally agree with “Tong Khaojai” the government would not shoot its own foot especially when the officials are all in the praising mood for all the huge things this small nation had managed to achieve recently.

  • Posted by brandon p

    i know laos inside out, one thing i know for sure is, anything good there, it’s never 100% up to par.
    case in point, roads are always crooked, never straight roads.
    there’s always some unfinished work left over after every supposedly a finished building project.
    there are always some loopholes and side ways…
    conclusion, it just how it is there.
    “can be better, but it’s never really better…”

  • Posted by toosay

    I’m sure many lao can’t talk about how they feel toward the LPDR. Sombath is one of the people who has that feeling and somehow the LPDR does’n’t want it spread out , especially, land concession, enviroment protection and corruption within the high ranking officials. LPDR had practiced this disappearing murder against ordinary people for years in the remoted areas and continued to deny being the culprit one. If anyone still think LPDR has nothing to do with , s/he must be drunk. My own father was kidnapped and murdered in 1964 by the Pathet lao soldiers, his body wasn’t found 6 months later .

    Currently, people in Savannakhet are jailed for refusing to give up their land for LAND CONCESSION….I hope the people of LAOS will have more voice-up soon.

  • Posted by Thangleader

    This was a rare article about the Laos PDR — landlock country in Asean. Perhaps Laos has to consult the policies and tactics from the US masterminders, still alive whose the name are Kissinger and Brzezinski. The US well designed a future for Indochina previously and pushed these plans via the Vietnam war as you known.

    Laos is tiny country, rich of natural resources, back of Vietnam and now, in the crossroad of mixed/conflict interests from the regional players. We can guess that there are real rivalry between Vietnam – its old sponsor and mentor and China – new rich, new comer with the soft power.

    When US decided to re-balance its forces in Asia Pacific, the position of Laos had been repeated by whatever’s level designed previously by Americans, but today, they have to study the impacts of China for a regional domination.

    It’s hard for small countries to express some ideas or make by themselves the independent decision in the context the greedy are more often plus the nationalism. What the small countries can do are the solid solidarity and have their responsible leaders while almost of them want to protect by themselves, first. What’s next hope for Laos coming up? Future had been drawn by now.

  • Posted by Birdeyes

    If Lao government not involve to hide Mr. Sombath, in terms of prove (Vedio) , Lao government has to help Mr. Sombath from kidnapper as soon as possible, to show your ability, dignity, honesty… and to clearly identify that Lao, PDR is small lovely peace and justice country… make Lao people be pround of our positive and constructive Lao government. If Lao government could not help Mr. Sombath, that means, Lao government has involved or supported on Sombath Somphone vanished!

  • Posted by phetsakhat Sorphainam

    according to the American constitution that they don’t want any body to punish their own people, but Mr. sombath is a US citizen so lao government have to release Mr.sombath uncondictionally if Mr. sombath is in the police custody, but no body knows where Mr.sombath is, that means the US government may have to suspent the aid for laos.

  • Posted by Bob Walker

    ‘ In fact, with Burma opening up, Laos is now the most closed and repressive state in Asia outside of North Korea.’

    One should not include North Korea in any discussion regarding S.E. Asia,the imbalance is too severe

    The GDP of any ASEAN country is not known with sufficient accuracy that it may be used in any form of realistic debate.It is well known that Vietnam is more prosperous than Laos and that is about the greatest comparison one can can make.

    Burma is a wait and see national entity……no more and no less [ it’s indeed a pity re. Mrs Clinton departure,however maybe she will return as US President ]

    The US is well aware of the South East Asian countries concern about China’s increased influence but this concern,I feel,is being well handled.

    Meanwhile Laos [China’s best ASEAN pal]can lump it or phone Washington bob

  • Posted by anobserver

    I began closely following events in Laos 44 years ago. To those who carefully read the tea leaves the Govt of the Lao PDR is hardly pretending to be uninvolved. It is up to them what and how much and when they wish to comment on Mr. Sombath’s arrest. My wish is that he can return to his family if not public life as soon as possible.

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