Asia in Review Archive

Laos

Date of AiR edition

News summary

20 October 2020

Laos: More Chinese assistance

(py) Following an official visit to Laos by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, China agreed to assist Laos across three initiatives as part of its effort to bolster cooperative relations between the two countries. Those will cover Chinese supplies to curb the dengue fever, a rural development infrastructure project and an offer for a generalized system of preferences for duty exemptions and facilitating  transport of goods across borders. Besides, an easing of immigration policy was  discussed which would grant certain privileges to Chinese individuals with regards to entry and exit procedures, especially diplomatic staff, technical experts and foreign workers. The said fast-track immigration policy was already discussed in September. Foreign Minister Wang also met with the President of Laos, Bounhang Vorachit to discuss further bilateral relations. Laos would be granted priority access to the Covid-19 vaccine once they are ready.  Foreign Minister Wang Yi is currently on a tour of ASEAN, having visited Cambodia, with Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore as his next destinations. [Laotian times[AiR NO. 38, September/2020, 4]

20 October 2020

Laos: Christians expelled from their homes

(py) Seven Lao Christians in the country’s Saravan province in Laos’ South have been expelled from their homes for refusing to renounce their faith. The evicted Christians now live in the forest putting up with a shortage of rice and food supply. A new piece of legislation was passed last December which allows Christians to practice services and preach their services throughout the country. Though improvements to safeguard the rights and freedom of religious beliefs in Laos have been made, the bipartisan U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) still report cases of abuse and violations of religious freedom in Laos, especially in remote rural areas. [Radio Free Asia]

Though the Laos socialist constitution states that it provides the citizens with the right and freedom to believe or not to believe in religion, religious freedom in Laos has always been an embattled topic. A 2019 Report on International Religious Freedom: Laos can be found [here]. 

 

13 October 2020

Laos: Russian vaccine trials

(py)  The Laotian Government held meetings with Russia concerning its intention to trial the Russian-made “Sputnik V” vaccine against the COVID-19 virus. According to a report in Lao Phattana News, once passed, the “Sputnik V” vaccine would be imported, produced and tested with volunteers in Laos and implemented by the Pharmaceutical Factory No. 3 State Enterprise in cooperation with Atlantic Pharma. Russia has been successful with its first and second phase of the vaccine with immune response developed within three weeks in 100 percent of volunteers aged between 18 and 60. Many countries have already participated in the clinical trials with the first batch of vaccine in Venezuela arriving last week and recently in the United Arab Emirates. [Laotian Times] [CNBC]

6 October 2020

Southeast Asian nation’s critical potential

(nd) With the economic and political repercussions of Covid-19, Southeast Asia has entered a period of potential crisis that mirrors developments around the “Arab Spring” and the economic situation that lead to the Asian Financial Crisis of the late 1990s, mobilizing both public and political opposition to demand fundamental political reform to change institutions of governance.

In the World Bank’s latest economic outlook, ASEAN nations’ economy could contract by as much as 4.7 percent. According to an estimate of the International Labor Organization, nearly 85 percent of youth employment within the Asia-Pacific is within the informal economy, which is not reached by governmental support and not included in official numbers. The many regional protest movements illuminate the frustration of younger populations with ineffective governance and high levels of unemployment.

Already, a political legitimacy deficit can be seen, which turns into trying to mute or quash dissidents and critics through authoritarian leadership, as seen prominently in Myanmar, the Philippines and Cambodia, facing criticism by UN representatives and human rights advocates. Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo finds himself increasingly pleasing powerful Islamic constituencies that threatened to galvanize public discontent. Ever since February, Malaysia has been struggling with political stability, yet again following an unresolved claim of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim to form a new government. In Thailand, the unprecedented student-led protests and their criticism of the monarchy institution is gaining ever more momentum. Additionally, Thai protesters expressed solidarity for Taiwan and Hong Kong, fueling a vision of “pan-Asian alliance for democracy”, named “Milk Tea Alliance,” continues to trend on social media.

A recent study by British-based risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft – the Right to Privacy Index (RPI), rated 198 countries for privacy violations, including mass surveillance operations, retention of personal data, home searches and other breaches. According to this, Asia was the world’s highest-risk region for violations with a deterioration in recent years. Among the worst-scoring Asian nations were Pakistan, China, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, India and the Philippines. The study advocated data privacy legislation and a transparent surveillance system.

The backdrop for these developments is a raging pandemic with sometimes haphazard public health responses additionally undermining credibility and trust. [The Diplomat] [Jakarta Post]

6 October 2020

Thailand: Higher costs for high-speed rail

(nd) The Thai government announced that another THB 12 billion is needed for the first phase of the high-speed rail from Bangkok to Korat, amounting to THB 50.6 billion in total. The overall budget for the 617-kilometer line that will eventually reach Nong Khai on the border with Laos is THB179 billion (US$5.7 billion).  Funds were approved in 2017, following an agreement with China, which is building the railway and extending loans. Following the agreement, three Chinese state enterprises — the National Development and Reform Commission of China, China Railway International and China Railway Design Corporation — are hired, who are expected to design the high-speed train and related systems, train the staff and build the system. The high-speed rail is expected to be completed in 2025.

The line is an important part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and it is assumed that it will eventually extend onward to the city of Nong Khai, across the Mekong River from Lao capital Vientiane. In Laos, there is a railway project under construction connecting the capital with China’s Yunnan province, linking it to the Chinese national high-speed rail network.

Last week, the rail base for the initial segment was completed and the project handed over to the State Railway of Thailand (SRT), which will work with the three Chinese firms to build the railway. Having been postponed earlier, Covid-19 repercussions on Thai economy might cause further delays: According to an economic outlook published by the World Bank, Thailand is facing an economic contraction of between 8.3 and 10.4 percent in 2020 – the worst of any nation in Southeast Asia. Additionally, the possibility for Chinese engineers and laborers to enter Thailand is in jeopardy.  [Coconuts Bangkok] [Bangkok Post] [The Diplomat]

6 October 2020

Laos: Tightening grip on social media platforms 

(py) Authorities have urged parties wanting to operate on social media channels to register their platforms. According to the latest notice by the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism’s office, publishing or circulating information to the public via social media without the permission is prohibited. Perpetrators can be charged in line with relevant provisions of law. This new notice includes individuals, legal bodies, state and private sectors. [Vientiane Times]

Criticism of governments is punishable by law in Laos. In 2018, a female Lao environmentalist raising awareness and funds to help the flood victims found herself arrested and charged under article 117 of the Lao criminal code, for spreading “anti-state” propaganda. [Bangkok Post] Though Laos has made progress in the promotion of human rights, no independent mechanism or body has been established to safeguard human rights in the country. [Human Rights Asean]

 

29 September 2020

Thailand: Worries over possible Bank of Thailand loan for dam project

(py) NGO’S, the Rak Chiang Kong group and the Thai public sector network of the eight provinces in the Mekong Basin, have expressed their concerns over possible loans from the Bank of Thailand to the construction of the Luang Prabang dam claiming geo-political, sociological and environmental risks.

The construction of the dam would not only be a highly potential natural catastrophe but would also represent a geo-political risk with Chinese power growing in the region. Lead developer of the Luang Prabang Hydropower Project is the “Petroleum Vietnam” enterprise. Some private Thai companies seem to also plan to invest in the project as well. [Prachathai, in Thai] 

Dam constructions in the Mekong River basin have always been a controversial issue as the integrity of the entire region depends heavily on the Mekong River. The Mekong River Commission’s secretariat concluded that the Xayaburi dam, which was completed in 2019, did not at that point comply with the World Bank’s standard. According to a Thai geologist, the building of the new dam in an earthquake-prone region could pose a great risk to the famed UNESCO-World Heritage City of Luang Prabang and further cited the dam as ‘’high risk”. [Asia Sentinel]

As a partner in China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI), Laos seems to be one of the victims in the debt trap whereby the countries have to compromise their sovereignty after defaulting on their infrastructure-related debts owed to China. Though Laos could approach the International Monetary Fund under its COVID-19 Financial Assistance and Debt Service relief response, the government preferably resort to China as the IMF agreement would demand greater financial transparency. Laos was reported as a country with no significant progress in the 2019 Fiscal Transparency Report by the U.S. Department of State. [See also AiR NO. 37, September/2020, 3]

29 September 2020

ASEAN states commit to more military cooperation 

(jn) The 17th ASEAN Chiefs of Defense Forces Meeting (ACDFM-17) was held virtually on September 24th with participants pledging to boost military cooperation, to build trust and enhance solidarity among the member states’ armed forces.

At the meeting themed “Military Cooperation for a Cohesive and Responsive ASEAN,” the participants agreed that the joint efforts will help the organization to keep peace and stability in the region, and that the region is facing traditional and non-traditional challenges namely cyber security, terrorism, transnational crime, climate change, and diseases. [Hanoi Times]

29 September 2020

Laos is set to allow foreign ownership under the new condominium law

(py) In 2018, local and foreign investors called on the government to consider passing a condominium law that would allow foreigners to own apartment and condo units, citing that the passage of the law would stimulate growth in the property market. [Asia News Network] Recently, article 132 of the revised law grants foreigners the right to purchase and own the rights to a suite or unit inside a condominium for the life of the building. Besides, foreign nationals are also entitled to sell, lease, mortgage and bequeath the ownership of the unit. Nevertheless, the ownership of an individual unit is not perpetual. The period of the ownership of the individual units depends on the nature of the ownership of the land itself. [VDB Loi]

 

22 September 2020

Laos considers easing immigration policy for China and Vietnam 

(py) According to Lao Phattana Daily, a local news source, the fast-track immigration policy refers to bilateral legislation between Vietnam and China that would allow certain privileges such as a waiver for the 14-day quarantine for individuals including diplomatic personnel, technical experts and foreign labor for special projects.  [Laotian Times]  

Though Laos has been having the pandemic under control with the last confirmed case reported on 14 August and a total of 22 confirmed cases since the breakout, many fear a second wave could be on the verge with illegal entries to the country. [WHO

 

22 September 2020

Laotian-Chinese expressway Vientiane – Vang Vieng is set to open ahead of schedule

(py) On the occasion of the 45th National Day (2 December), the Vientiane-Vang Vieng expressway is set to open ahead of its scheduled completion in 2021. The expressway is the first section of the planned Vientiane-Boten expressway which is jointly planned by the Lao government and Chinese developers, a state construction enterprise from Yunnan province to connect the Capital, Vientiane with the northern province of Luang Namtha which borders China. [Laotian times]

The agreement for Lao’s first expressway between China Yunnan Construction and Investment Holding Group (“YCIH”) and the Lao Planning and Investment Ministry was signed in Vientiane on 4 April 2018. [Xinhuanet]

 

22 September 2020

Laos: Germany supplies scientific equipment to the MRC to monitor Mekong dam impacts 

(py) On 15 September, Germany has supplied equipment, worth around $600,000, to help monitor the impacts of Lao’s Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams. The support was part of the German government’s assistance to the MRC’s pilot program on Joint Environment Monitoring of Mekong Mainstream Hydropower Projects (JEM). Reportedly, the German government has already subsidized around 6.45 million euros to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) which aims to promote and coordinate sustainable management and development of water and related sources for countries in the Mekong River basin. [The Phnom Penh Post] [MRC 1] Mr. Jens Lütkenherm, German Ambassador to Lao PDR, expressed his concerns over the potential environmental and socio-economic backlashes brought about by the two dams. [Laotian times] The constructions of both dams have faced criticisms from concern groups in neighboring countries. In its latest report, the MRC reported that the border area between Lao PDR and Thailand would be hit the hardest in this year’s drought. [MRC 2

22 September 2020

Asian financial leaders agree to make ‘all policy efforts’ to fight pandemic

(jn) Financial leaders from China, Japan, South Korea and Southeast Asia vowed on Friday to redouble their efforts to help the region recover economically from the coronavirus and to defend a multilateral system of trade and investment. In a joint statement they vowed to “remain vigilant to the continued downside risks [and to take] steps to reduce vulnerabilities to these risks and […] to continue to use all available policy tools to support the sustained recovery.” They also said they remain committed “to uphold an open and rule-based multilateral trade and investment system, and strengthen regional integration and cooperation.”

The statement followed the annual meetings of finance ministers and central bank governors from China, Japan, South Korea and the 10-member ASEAN. The meetings were held via teleconference on the sidelines of the annual gathering of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). [Reuters]

 

 

15 September 2020

ASEAN foreign minister meeting held virtually with focus on South China Sea Dispute, pandemic and Rohingya crisis

(jn/nd) ASEAN’s foreign ministers conducted their annual summit by video on Wednesday to discuss how to overcome the immense challenges presented by the pandemic, rising tensions by the US-China rivalry in the South China Sea dispute while also touching on the continuing plight of the Rohingya refugees. The ministers were also scheduled to meet Asian and Western counterparts, like China and the US. The talks kicked off a four-day string of ASEAN meetings that were delayed by a month and were now held online to avoid COVID-19 exposure. Vietnam hosted the talks as this year’s chairman of the group. 

Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc opened the conference with a speech pointing out the repercussions of the pandemic on people and businesses while also acknowledging the “growing volatilities that endanger peace and stability” in the South China Sea, all of which required regional solidarity. Indonesia’s foreign minister Retno Marsudi addressed US and China representatives to not trap Indonesia in a regional struggle between the two. [Jakarta Post] Tensions between the two powers rose recently, not only with respect to trade and sanctions but because of the status of the South China Sea. Having become not only one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways, these waters are also subject to various territorial claims with Chinese military maneuvers establishing facts on the ground. [See also AiR No. 35, September/2020, 1]

China accused the US of becoming “the biggest driver of militarization” in the resource-rich waters. [Manila Times] This year, the US intensified “freedom of navigation” operations in South China Sea, including bringing two aircraft carriers into the region for the first time since 2014 and lifting submarine deployments and surveillance flights.

In fact, Marsudi referenced a joint statement given last month by all 10 ASEAN foreign ministers, showing they are united in their focus on peace and not taking sides as China-US relations are deteriorating. The latter fact was earlier emphasized by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. He was promoting an inclusive regional structure, with important regional powers such as Japan and India on the rise, and emphasized the importance of strong ASEAN cooperation, despite inward looking tendencies of the member countries. Because of its own claims and ethnic involvement, China was not able to fulfill the security role of the US. Still, the Belt and Road Initiative, he stressed, if carried out with financial prudence, is a step towards needed multilateral cooperation and to develop connectivity and infrastructure, which was neglected before. [Foreign Affairs]

In another virtual meeting on Thursday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged ASEAN leaders to reconsider deals with Chinese companies that have been blacklisted by the US for building island outposts which he said Beijing was using to “bully” rival claimants in the disputed South China Sea. [South China Morning Post] The Philippines referred to their need of Chinese investments, despite the two nation’s dispute over one of the region’s richest fishing grounds, Scarborough Shoal. [Manila Standard]

In their communiqué, the ministers reaffirmed the importance of maintaining and promoting peace, security and freedom of navigation in, and overflight above, the South China Sea and underscored the need for giving effect to the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC). They also commended the progress in negotiations with China on an effective and substantive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC) consistent with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS. First COC talks occurred in 2002 but have so long been without a result. [Hanoi Times] The text also mentions the concerns by some ministers on land reclamations, activities and serious incidents in the South China Sea which, it states, have eroded trust, increased tensions, and may undermine peace and security in the region. [AP] [Al Jazeera] [ASEAN FM Communiqué] [Bangkok Post] [Nikkei Asian Review] [The Diplomat]

Another key project was establishing a COVID-19 response fund to help ASEAN member states buy medical supplies and protective suits. A regional stockpile of medical supplies has also been approved, and a study to be financed by Japan will research the possibility of establishing an ASEAN center on public health emergencies. The communiqué also calls for “enhanced collaboration and sharing of experience with ASEAN’s partners in research, development, production, and distribution of vaccines, providing access to medicines for COVID-19 and other diseases in future public health emergencies, and making them available and affordable to all as global public goods.”

Referring to diminished regional movement and trade due to the pandemic, the statement also noted that members encouraged “the maintenance of necessary interconnectedness in the region” by facilitating a resumption in the cross-border movement of people.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. During the last meeting, ASEAN reached a consensus agreement with four more states, France, Italy, Cuba and Colombia. [VN Express]

15 September 2020

Laos’ economic, and thus political, dependence on China growing  

(jn/py) The $6 billion China-Laos highspeed railway is on track for completion in just over a year, with the first train scheduled to arrive on December 2, 2021. However, as a partner in China’s Belt and Road Iniative (BRI) Laos seems to have become the latest victim to its so-called debt trap whereby nations are pressed into making sovereignty-eroding concessions after defaulting on their infrastructure-related debts owed to Beijing. Laos has borrowed heavily to invest in several Mekong River hydropower projects as well as the $6 billion high-speed rail project, a key link in China’s BRI design to connect its southern province of Yunnan with mainland Southeast Asia. Since the entailing financial obligations of the railway project seem to have become untenable, the Lao government is now being forced to sell state assets like the majority control of the national electric power grid to a Chinese state-owned enterprise.[The Lao Times 

Électricité du Laos (EDL), the state-owned power grid, and China Southern Power Grid  (CSG), one of China’s state-owned power grids, agreed on a joint venture, Électricité du Laos Transmission Company Limited (EDLT). [The Economist 1] Laos’ foreign exchange reserves have fallen below $1 billion, less than the country’s annual owed debt payments, putting the country on the verge of a sovereign default. News reports suggest that the Lao Finance Ministry has asked China, its biggest foreign creditor with around 45% of Lao’s foreign debt owed to China in 2019 [The Economist 2],  to restructure its debts to avoid defaulting.

Last month, Moody’s downgraded Laos to junk territory, from B3 to Caa2, and changed its outlook on the country from neutral to negative due to “severe liquidity stress.” [Asia Times]

Though Laos could approach the International Monetary Fund under its COVID-19 Financial Assistance and Debt Service Relief response, the government made clear that they preferably resort to China as IMF agreement would require greater financial transparency. [Bangkok Post]  In 2019, Laos was reported as a country with no significant progress in the 2019 Fiscal Transparency Report by the U.S. Department of State. [U.S. Department of State]

1 September 2020

China, Southeast Asian leaders meet to discuss the Mekong`s plight

(lm) At a time when the Mekong River’s health is in dire straits, leaders from China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam gathered on Monday for a virtual summit, the third leader’s meeting for the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) platform. During the summit, Chinese Premier Li Keqian promised that Beijing would henceforth share the Lancang River’s hydrological data with the Lower Mekong countries. [The Diplomat]

Established in 2016, the LMC is a sub-regional cooperation mechanism that brings together the riparian countries of the vital waterway, which begins in China as the Lancang then traverses Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. For a second year in a row, the Mekong River is at a record low, with water levels across the Lower Mekong Basin down by two-thirds and rainfall for the three months of the current monsoon also down by about 70 percent.

Starting in the mid-1980s, Beijing has since constructed 11 giant dams along the mountainous territory of the Upper Mekong to sustain its ever-increasing energy needs. In April this year, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – representing Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand – refuted a previously published US-funded report that had accused China of deliberately holding back water, significantly contributing to the major drought impacting the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. Despite denying the allegations, however, the MRC did call on China for greater transparency in its water data.

In March this year, five provinces in Vietnam’s Mekong delta region had declared a state of emergency in face of continued extreme drought and salinity. A result of lobbying from international NGOs and internal reporting, shortly thereafter, the Cambodian government announced a decade-long dam moratorium on the mainstream of the river. The Cambodian moratorium leaves Laos, which commissioned two major dams in 2019, as the only Lower Mekong country pursuing hydropower on the mainstream of the river. [AiR No. 12, March/2020, 4] [AiR No. 10, March/2020, 2]

Beyond the Lancang/Mekong River`s plight, leaders on Monday also talked about strengthening their cooperation on public health, food supply chains, and a post-COVID-19 recovery of the region’s tourism industry. [TTR Weekly]

25 August 2020

Japanese Foreign Minister visits Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia

(jn) Japanese foreign minister Motegi Toshimitsu visited Laos from August 22-24 to mark the 65th Anniversary of diplomatic relations between Laos and Japan. Among several topics, both sides discussed whether to allow long-term residents of each other’s nations, and investors and businesspeople, to travel between the two countries while maintaining the requirement of a fourteen-day quarantine at home or at another designated area. Such travelers would be monitored throughout their stay, but it would make commerce possible, with the Lao side keen to see more Japanese businesses move their operations to Laos. [Laotian Times]

Mr. Motegi also visited Cambodia and Myanmar, where he met with his respective counterparts, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodia and State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, and agreed to reopen borders for expatriates as soon as early September, relaxing travel restrictions that were imposed to contain the spread of the new coronavirus pandemic. Similar to the deal between Laos and Japan, expatriates and other long-term residents will be allowed to travel reciprocally provided they self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving and take other precautionary measures. [Nikkei Asian Review 1] [Nikkei Asian Review 2]

25 August 2020

Laos: The missing link in the fight against drugs

(ls) Over the course of the last five years, the production of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine has increased seven-fold in Southeast Asia. The majority of those drugs are from the Golden Triangle, the border region where Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet. As Thai and Chinese anti-drug efforts concentrated mostly on the border to Myanmar for the past years, large parts of the drug production has been moved to Laos. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Southeast Asia and the Pacific therefore demands stronger efforts with a focus on drug syndicates operating there. [CNN]

18 August 2020

Vietnam, Laos agree to enhance ties

(dql) During phone talks held last week Vietnamese Party General Secretary and State President Nguyen Phu Trong and his Laotian counterpart agreed to further enhance relations between both countries and to  continue timely information sharing, close and effective coordination, as well as mutual support in international and regional affairs, in particular within the frameworks of ASEAN, the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation, the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), and Mekong sub-region cooperation mechanisms. [The Star]

14 July 2020

Construction of largest railway station of Laos-China railway to begin

(dql) The construction of the Vientiane railway station, the largest railway station of the Laos-China railway, a strategic project under the Belt and Road Initiative, is set to start this week in the capital city of Laos. The station with more than 14.500 square-meter is one of 20 new stations that have been constructed for 6 billion USD 414 kilometre-long rail construction project. It is expected to be operational be end of 2021. [Construction Review

30 June 2020

At summit, ASEAN leaders stress importance of international law for South China Sea dispute 

(jn) Leaders of the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Friday emphasized the importance of maintaining and promoting “freedom of navigation and overflight” above the South China Sea. The passage in their vision statement is seen as a response to reports of China planning to establish an air defense identification zone (ADIZ), something the country has also not ruled out publicly. The prospect of an ADIZ was not only decried by ASEAN members, but also the US military in the region.

ASEAN members explicitly stressed “the importance of non-militarization and self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability, and avoid actions that may further complicate the situation.” They also agreed to work on “an effective and substantive Code of Conduct” for the South China Sea, a framework that would go further than the 2002 Declaration of Conduct that the ASEAN once agreed on with China.

On Saturday, another ASEAN statement authored by chairing member Vietnam pointed out that the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) should be “the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones” in the South China Sea. Such remarks can be seen as a strong repudiation to China’s controversial historical claim to most of the disputed waters, and it is no coincidence that Vietnam as one of the most vocal critics of China’s encroachment was the drafter. As a sign of increasing geopolitical tensions, Chinese vessels harassed Vietnamese fishing boats this month and in April, and in the earlier case sunk one of them [AiR No. 24, June/2020, 3] [AiR No. 14, April/2020, 1].

The UNCLOS defines certain water areas as exclusive economic zones (EEZ) where coastal states are given the exclusive right to explore and use marine resources. The leaders said in the statement that the “UNCLOS sets out the legal framework within which all activities in the oceans and seas must be carried out”. 

There was no immediate response from China, but according to AP, Southeast Asian diplomats said that the statement marked a significant strengthening of ASEAN’s assertion of the rule of law in the region. In 2016, the Permanent Court or Arbitration in The Hague had ruled that China’s vast claims in the South China Sea had no legal basis. However, Beijing did not recognize the ruling. 

For a number of different interpretations and evaluation of the ruling see [ISEAS]. Among them is a piece of Clive Schofield who refers to China’s refection of the ruling to point to the fact of “fundamentally opposed, overlapping and contested spatial visions of maritime rights in the SCS” which “sets the scene for ongoing maritime incidents and disputes” with China not giving up its claims of historic rights.  

The ASEAN leaders also dedicated themselves to tackling the economic collateral damage wreaked by the Covid-19 pandemic by establishing a regional pandemic fund, building medical supply stockpiles and reasserting the need for open trade links.  

The vision statement reaffirmed the importance of implementing free trade agreements and comprehensive economic partnerships between ASEAN and key economies. It mentioned India as a major trading partner (alongside China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong), although PM Narendra Modi had said last year that India would withdraw from the negotiations to sign up for the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade pact [see also AiR No.45, November/2019, 1]

The 36th ASEAN Summit themed “Cohesive And Responsive ASEAN: Rising Above Challenges And Sustaining Growth” was convened as a video conference on June 26 under the chair of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc. [The Guardian] [South China Morning Post] [South China Morning Post 2] [Radio Free Asia] [Asia Nikkei Review]

 

30 June 2020

Philippine President Duterte calls ASEAN not to escalate South China Sea dispute

(mp) Echoing ASEAN’s general stance on the South China Sea (see above), also Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte called the parties involved in the conflict to exercise self-restraint and respect the rule of law to avoid “escalating tension.” He stressed that the conflict needed to be solved peacefully and in accordance with international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Duterte, the country coordinator for ASEAN-China dialogues, demanded to work with China closely and to achieve an early conclusion with the other member states to reduce the tensions in the region that have continuously risen. [Inquirer]

 

 

30 June 2020

Malaysia wants no more Rohingya refugees – APHR calls ASEAN’s limited help shameful

(cm/ls) Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has said that Malaysia did not have the resources and capacity to allow further Rohingya refugees be admitted to the country. Malaysia implemented strict border control since April when an influx of Rohingya refugees attempted to enter. Many of the refugees have been detained. Muhyiddin urged “the UN Refugee Agency to speed up the resettlement of Rohingya in Malaysia to third countries” as there are more than 100,000 refugees currently in Malaysia. [Bangkok Post] [South China Morning Post] [Air No. 23, June/2020, 2]

Meanwhile, Indonesian fishermen have rescued nearly 100 Rohingya refugees, including 79 women and children, in Aceh province. Officials said they planned to push them back out to sea with a new boat, gas and food, but these plans have not been realized following protests from the local fishermen. [Reuters]

The chairman of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), Charles Santiago, called the ASEAN response to the refugee crisis “totally shameful”. The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network said the crisis was exacerbated by the pandemic due to travel restrictions and the closure of borders across the region. [Jakarta Post]

 

 

16 June 2020

Laos declared free of Covid-19

(jn) The Laotian government has declared the country free from Covid-19 last week after the last of only 19 patients was discharged from hospital marking a stretch of 59 days without newly reported infections. At a press conference, Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith pointed to countermeasures such as social distancing, border closures and lockdown as vital factors in defeating the spread of the coronavirus.

The government had imposed a national shutdown by the end of March with measures prohibiting all residents to leave their homes except for essential grocery shopping, hospital visits, and any other tasks authorized by the government, such as essential work. The restrictions were loosened in late May, gradually allowing various sectors to reopen, including schools, sporting venues, cinemas, and night markets. [The Laotian Times]

 

 

2 June 2020

Laos’ first Civil Code enters into force

(ls) Last week, Laos’ new Civil Code entered into force. It has been drafted over the course of six years. Including the preparatory period, the process took 15 years in total. Previously, contract and property law in Laos were separate, which meant problems of overlap and omission. The Civil Code now combines them into a single piece of legislation. The drafting took place with the continuous advice of Japanese legal experts. Since starting with Vietnam in 1994, Japan has been offering legal advice to Southeast Asian nations, including Cambodia, Indonesia and Myanmar. In 2018, Japan’s Justice Ministry’s established an international division to lead the country’s judicial diplomacy. [Nikkei Asian Review]

 

 

26 May 2020

Laos on the brink of debt crisis, China ready to step in and expand influence

(jn/jk) Credit Rating Agency Fitch has downgraded its outlook of Laos to negative, even as the long-term default rating is maintained as “B-“. This assessment is reflective of the economic and financial-market effects of the Covid-19 pandemic that have exacerbated the countries’ external financial risks, namely its forthcoming external debt maturities and its low foreign exchange reserves. Outstanding external debt for this year is said to amount to $900 million, and to $1 billion annually from 2021-2023, standing against low foreign exchange reserves of just $1 billion (and a nominal GDP of $20 billion).

About 86% of public debt is held by external creditors in foreign currency, most notably by  China, accounting for half of that sum. Fitch has also revised its originally forecasted GDP-growth of 5.5% to just 0.5% for this year. 

Of the economic activity resuming after a pandemic-induced lockdown, work at the China-Laos railway (AiR No. 19, May/2020, 2) is the most important factor, even as this project comes with a price tag of more than $800 million for Vientiane for which China has made available a low interest loan. A milestone has been achieved by Chinese engineers last week by completing the drilling of the China-Laos Railway Friendship Tunnel, running through the Laos-China border in the country’s north. [Xinhua

China’s economic reach further extends to Laos’ energy supply system, for which a subsidiary of the largest Chinese state-owned power producer will erect a 684-megawatt dam for $2 billion at the upper Mekong. Scheduled to be operational by 2028, the dam is envisaged to generate energy for Thailand which so far has not shown any need, but it is certain to impact the downstream of the river as well as local livelihoods, food-security and the environment. Severe droughts are already exacerbated by 11 dams on the Chinese part of the river, leading to record lows in water levels as found in a recent study. [Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI)]

The Chinese cash flow for development projects in Laos is accompanied by an influx of thousands of Chinese skilled workers who are necessary to compensate for the lack of a comparable workforce in Laos. They, too, are an indicator of China’s increasing dominance in the country, while other top investors like Thailand and Vietnam are themselves preoccupied with keeping their economies afloat. Laos’ economic and political dependence would have grown anyway given its novel international train connection and China’s strategic economic commitment, but the economic marks left by the pandemic will help accelerate this trend. [Asia Times] [Fitch Ratings] [Bangkok Post]

 

 

19 May 2020

Laos: Former Lao Prime Minister dies at 92

(hg) General Sisavath Keobounphanh – one of the senior members of the first generation of Party revolutionaries and former Prime Minister – has died at the age of 92. 

Sisavath Keobounphanh had also served as a member of the Central Committee of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) from the 1st to the 8th session, as a Secretary of the LPRP Central Committee for the 3rd and the 4th session, as a Politburo member during the 4th and the 6th to the 8th session, as well as a Minister of Agriculture and Forestry and a Minister of Interior until he became Vice-President from 1996 to 1998 and then Prime Minister from 1998 to 2001. [Laotian Times]

The state funeral was attended by Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, leading a high-ranking delegation of the Vietnamese Party and State apparatus. [Vietnam Plus]

 

 

12 May 2020

China advances Belt and Road Initiative in Laos due to few Covid-19 infections 

(jn) After anti-coronavirus measures taken by governments in the region caused several weeks of delay, construction has resumed at the new China-Laos railway that is going to be a part of a highspeed train connection between the Chinese town Kunming and Singapore. As part of the global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the railway is envisaged to span more than 400 km through northern Laos and is scheduled to be finished by 2022.

The renewed activity has been facilitated by the particularly small number of 19 officially reported coronavirus cases, the lowest of any other ASEAN member. Even though the mild impact of the coronavirus cannot be independently confirmed, it at least matches a plausible curve in a country with sparse population and infrastructure as well as contactless social etiquette.

China plans to make use of the railway as an alternative transport route for resources like energy and food, and as a way to reduce its dependency on maritime connection hubs. Laos itself is bound to pay $900 million for the $6 billion project, a considerable amount against a GDP of barely $20 billion. In case of default it is expected that Laos will have to pay in land concessions and natural resources. [Asia Times]

 

 

31 March 2020

China-Laos railway communication signal project commenced

(jk) Last week, the communication signal project of the China-Laos railway has begun by building a communication tower on the outskirts of Vientiane. The project aims to form the  heart of the “entire railway’s train operation command and control system”.

According to Chinese media, “the China-Laos Railway is a strategic docking project between the China-proposed Belt and Road Initiative and Laos’ strategy to convert from a landlocked country to a land-linked hub. The electrified passenger and cargo railway is built with the full application of Chinese management and technical standards.” [Xinuha]

 

 

31 March 2020

Mekong River Joint Patrol started 

(jk) The Mekong River joint patrol by China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand began last week. The four countries will engage in “joint visits, inspections and an anti-drug publicity campaign during the four-day patrol” and will include a focus on the Golden Triangle notorious for illegal drug activity. [Navy Recognition]

 

11 February 2020

Laos: Authorities ban shrines of local religion 

(fs) In Sekong, the southern Laos region, local authorities issued a ban on erecting shrines in front of houses directed at the Talieng ethnic group on grounds of being offensive to Buddhism. While two thirds of Laotians are Buddhist, there are many minority religions spread across the country. In Sekong, 23,000 people are members of the Talieng ethnic group. Although the Laotian Constitution grants freedom of religion, the government limits and represses believers’ right on a frequent basis. [Radio Free Asia]

 

7 January 2020

Laos receives support from the U.S. to counter human trafficking

(tk) The U.S. has made a commitment to support Laos in its fight against human trafficking by launching a new three-year Laos Counter Trafficking in Persons (CTIP) program. The $2.3 million promised by the Memorandum of Understanding are funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in order to reduce vulnerability to human trafficking among targeted populations by supporting vocational training and employment opportunities. [Vientiane Times]

 

 

 31 December 2019

Russia expands military ties with Laos beyond arms sales 

(jk) Earlier in December, Russia and Laos launched their first-ever joint military exercise, “Laros 2019” [UrduPoint]. Albeit small, the exercise is seen as significant for bilateral relations as well as for the region as they could set an example for other countries to expand on their military ties with Russia and engage in more exercises, in addition to an already significant arms trade relationship. They also indicate Russia’s ambitions to once again become a more militarily relevant force in a region the Soviet Union was once very active in. [Nikkei Asian Review]

 

 

12 November 2019

Indonesia and Laos to cooperate more closely on anti-drugs and human trafficking

(ls) Indonesia and Laos have signed an agreement to cooperate in the fight against transnational organized crimes, including drug smuggling and human trafficking. Both countries also commenced a joint capacity building and training program on transnational crimes and extradition. [Jakarta Globe]

 

 

5 November 2019

Human rights groups criticise East Asia Summit for not including human rights issues

(jk) Rights groups criticised the state of human rights protection in Southeast Asia in particular over the weekend as they pointed out that the big summits, such as the East Asia Summit, do not include official discussions or statements on the deteriorating human rights situation in the region.

Human rights watch and other organisation expressed grave concern over the fact the Rohingya crisis, the war on drugs in the Philippines, the punishment of the LGBT community or enforced disappearances of activists were largely ignored throughout the summit. [Bangkok Post]

The Rohingya refugee crisis, although not in these terms, was mentioned at length in the final statement of the 35th ASEAN Summit however. ASEAN leaders noted their desire to facilitate the safe, secure and dignified return displaced persons currently in Bangladesh to

Rakhine State from which they fled. [Chairman’s Statement Of The 35th ASEAN Summit] At the same time, they commended the work of AICHR, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights [for background on AICHR, see this article in CPG’s COM Online Magazine 4/2019]

 

 

5 November 2019

RCEP: 15 countries (RCEP minus India) declare they have agreed and will sign in 2020

(jk) During the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) summit in Bangkok on Monday, 15 countries (The ASEAN-ten, Korea, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) agreed to all 20 chapters of the RCEP and stated that they were “willing to sign” the deal in 2020.

All participating countries agreed to make efforts to resolve the remaining issues surrounding India’s concerns, so it too, can participate. [The Korea Herald]

Despite the positive spin on this development, it will remain a disappointment that RCEP could not be completed and signed by the end of this year as it was initially (if very optimistically) stated.

This disappointing if not entirely unexpected outcome was underscored by the US decision to downgrade US representation at the East Asia Summit, also held in Bangkok this past weekend. It was the first time since the EAS was established in 2005, that a country at the summit was represented by an official below the rank of foreign minister. Instead the US sent the new National Security Advisor, Robert O’Brien, as the Special Envoy to the upcoming EAS and the US-ASEAN Summit. [ISEAS Commentary]

 

15 October 2019

Power shifts between Laos and Vietnam as new dam opens this month

(ls) In Laos, the Xayaburi hydroelectric dam is scheduled to open this month. It is widely expected to reduce water, fish and sediment to about 50 million people downriver, many in Vietnam. However, Vietnam has not openly protested the dam. Observers consider that this is not only due to the countries’ self-perception as socialist “brothers” but also because of China’s growing influence in land-locked Laos. China has helped build infrastructure, most notably a high-speed rail line and special economic zones. Some of the projects fall under China’s 6-year-old Belt and Road Initiative. As Vietnam is witnessing the growing Chinese influence in neighboring Cambodia, analysts say that Hanoi may not want to offend Vientiane and push it closer to Beijing too. [VOA]

At the same time, also Vietnam itself faces the dilemma how to overcome a domestic infrastructure bottleneck to promote economic growth while fending off unwarranted economic and security influences from China. Vietnam needs private capital and technical expertise to build projects in a timely and efficient manner. Reserving these projects for domestic investors may cast doubt on the economic rationality of decision-making. [ISEAS]

 

8 October 2019

Cambodia – Vietnam and Cambodia – Laos ratify border demarcations

(jk) Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Vietnamese PM Nguyen Xuan Phuc have ratified 84 percent of border demarcation work completed between the two nations on their 1,270-kilometre border. [Khmer Times] Cambodia shares another border with Laos, which is also undergoing a demarcation process. PM Hun Sen  and Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith ratified 86 percent of the border between their two countries last month. [Bangkok Post]

 

17 September 2019

Cambodia and Laos agree to demarcate their border

(ls) The leaders of Cambodia and Laos agreed to step up efforts to complete the demarcation of their border, where disputes have led to armed confrontations in recent years. Currently, 86 per cent of the border has been marked. Cambodia and Laos reportedly dispatched troops to the border region last month in a stand-off over the disputed boundary. There was a similar confrontation in August 2017 when Laos objected to Cambodia’s construction of a road in disputed territory. [Straits Times]

10 September 2019

Lao activist and asylum-seeker goes missing in Thailand

(jk) A man from Laos who fled to Thailand has gone missing after seeking refugee status with the United Nations. He was a political activist who criticized and protested against his government frequently. He was also registered as a person of concern with the UNHCR in December 2017. [Bangkok Post]

After a number of such disappearances in the region of late, human rights group fear that some ASEAN countries may have struck an informal deal to “help” each other when it comes to dealing with their respective dissidents who often flee to neighbouring countries. No such deal has been admitted to by any official side. 

Date of AiR edition

News summary

Web links

16 July 2019

China-Laos railway: Financial challenges of BRI projects again on display 

(ls) The rapid progress in the China-Laos railway line has made it a poster child of the Belt and Road Initiative. However, the project is also facing multiple challenges. These are partly connected to the construction through particularly difficult terrain and to conflicts about compensation claims by local populations. Moreover, Laos is facing difficulties in coming up with its share of capital for the project as Chinese banks are exercising greater prudence in disbursing loans, which is a sign that China has doubts about Laos’ ability to repay its debts. It is therefore believed that China is likely to receive bigger shares of the railway’s future income as well as additional mining concessions. [East Asia Forum]

16 July 2019

Laos: Is there an anti-corruption campaign in the making?

(ls) Since Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith came to power in Laos in early 2016, more officials have been dismissed because of graft, and new laws created to tackle it. With growing criticism of corruption within the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party, it appears that it is becoming more commonplace to talk about corruption, which was not the case just a few years ago. However, observers insist that the nature of corruption is intimately tied to the operation of the one-party political system in Laos. Similarities may therefore be drawn to the anti-corruption campaigns in China and Vietnam which have largely erve the purpose of bolstering party rule. [The Diplomat]

11 March 2019

Laos: National Green Growth Strategy takes shape, government considers imposing new tariffs on polluting companies

(zf) Earlier this year, President Sisoulith announced a government plan to endorse a set of policy goals aimed at ensuring the clean development of Laos’ economy in the coming decades. While specifics of the plan, called the National Green Growth Strategy, are still being fleshed out, it is a sure sign that Laos plans to take a lead in promoting clean energy in the region. Under the proposed policy direction, the government aims to give tax breaks to industries that utilize practices deemed safe and sustainable for the environment, while imposing higher tariffs on those that fail to meet those standards. Officials have made clear that details regarding the proposed tariffs have yet to be finalized. However, the move is in line with other efforts to follow through with the new policy, which includes lower loan rates on green companies, and a monetary policy directive that gives investment incentives toward cleaner industry. At current rates, the government imposes a 24% tax on all company profits within the country, with extra excise, value-added, and income taxes on top of that. [Vientiane Times]

4 March 2019

Laos: Government prioritizes child protection as U.N. cites continued high malnutrition rates

(zf) Laos’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Social Welfare announced a partnership this week with RADION, an international NGO headquartered in Chiang Mai, looking to increase official capacities in childhood education, welfare, and prevention of exploitation. The program is set to last five years and will cost over $600,000. The policy directive comes amid renewed scrutiny concerning the plight of children in the country. In a statement this week, the U.N. highlighted the large numbers of rural children that remain malnourished, despite the best efforts of international organizations and humanitarian welfare groups.

For example, in the southern province of Sekong, nearly half of the child population suffers from malnourishment according to government sources. In more assessable areas, it was emphasized that the combination of increased economic production, coupled with more reliable access to World Food Programme assistance, has led to better outcomes. According to the WHO, an average of 44% of Laotian children show signs of stunted growth, which is down from 50% several years ago. [Radio Free Asia] [Vientiane Times] [WHO]

 

23 October 2018

Laos: World Bank’s promotion of dams and Korean company’s role under scrutiny

(ls) About three months after a dam at the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy hydropower complex in southern Laos burst, displacing thousands and officially killing at least 40 people, a panel of water experts has warned that the World Bank’s promotion of another dam, the Nam Theun 2 (NT2), fails to deliver on basic promises and fuels the country’s development of sub-standard hydropower projects. About 140 dams are planned to be built in the Lower Mekong basin, including two on the mainstream of the river in Laos that are under construction and two in advanced preparation or planning. [VOA]

In addition, the Korean company building the Xe Pian Xe Namnoy dam has been accused of altering the structure of the dam to massively boost its profit from the project prior to the disaster. It allegedly lowered the height of auxiliary from designs approved for Korean government assistance. [Asia Times]

23 October 2018

New Laotian land law will bring new challenges

(ls) A new, long-delayed land law is scheduled to be tabled before Laos’ National Assembly next month. According to experts, it may bring greater transparency in land management and modernization of records, but it could also curb the customary rights of rural and indigenous people, and of women. Much of Laos’ land is untitled, and most citizens have customary rights without formal documentation. The government pushes to title all land by 2025. Laos is experiencing rapid transformation due to foreign investment. At the same time, it has committed to keeping 70 percent of its land under forest cover. [Reuters]

9 October 2018

Japan: Countering Chinese influence in Southeast Asia

(dql/ls) Reflecting Japan’s efforts to expand its economic foothold in the Mekong region to counter China’s growing influence, Japan at the 10th Mekong-Japan Summit in Tokyo together with the Mekong countries Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam and Japan vowed in a joint statement to promote development programs and further improve “connectivity” and “quality infrastructure” projects in the region while also confirming the importance of maintaining the rules-based order and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. [Japan Times 1]

In a related development, Prime Ministers Shinzo Abe and Prayuth Chan-ocha ahead of the Mekong-Japan summit affirmed both countries’ cooperation in promoting free trade, with the latter voicing Thailand’s readiness to participate in the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership. [Japan Times 2]

Meanwhile, Japanese troops participated in joint exercises in the Philippines with US and Filipino troops. The exercise, code-named Kamandag (Venom), marked the first time Japanese armoured military vehicles were used on foreign soil since the country adopted a pacifist constitution after its 1945 defeat. A US Marine communications officer said, “it has nothing to do with a foreign nation or any sort of foreign army. This is exclusively counterterrorism within the Philippines.” [South China Morning Post]

9 October 2018

Social media in Laos: Government crackdown vs. freedom of speech on Facebook

(ls) The policing of the internet is becoming more common in Laos, as many internet and Facebook users have received invitations to meet police, or face criminal charges. However, the government crackdown on social media is unlikely to be as severe as in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where cybercrime laws and ministerial decrees are used to jail dissidents. Since the dam collapse in southern Laos, people appear to become more vocal. Back in July, Laotians turned to Facebook when news of the floods was slow to trickle out from government sources. [Al Jazeera]

28 August 2018

Dams along the Mekong: What are the lessons learnt?

(ls) What will be the lessons learnt by last month’s deadly dam collapse in Laos? Despite an order by the Lao government to halt new dam investments, the developers of two hydropower projects move ahead with their construction plans. In response, a coalition of NGOs and community-based groups dedicated to raising public awareness about the risks associated with dams on the Mekong River announced to boycott the prior consultation process, saying that it will destroy the environment, ecosystems, and livelihoods of people in the region. [Radio Free Asia]

An in-depth report by National Geographic lays out the conflicting economic and environmental parameters. Apart from early Chinese developments, the Mekong has stayed undammed largely due to regional cooperation between the four member nations of the Mekong River Commission, which was established in 1995. Energy needs and the financial incentives of hydropower, however, caused Laos and later also Cambodia and Vietnam to launch several dam projects with widespread environmental and social implications. [National Geographic]

On the positive side, last month’s dam collapse in Laos has produced a collective effort to provide emergency relief, involving Laos’s neighbors Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, fellow ASEAN members, notably Singapore, as well as East Asian countries such as China, Japan and South Korea. Two commentaries by researchers of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, discuss the topic of regional responses to disasters in more detail. [RSIS 1] [RSIS 2]

31 July 2018

Laos dam collapse puts social and political costs of energy race into spotlight

(ls) On 23 July, part of the Xepian-Xe Nam Noy hydropower dam fractured and collapsed after heavy rainfall, sending a massive torrent of floodwater into the villages along the Xepian River. The catastrophe in Southern Laos has put the country’s ambition to be the “battery” of Southeast Asia into the spotlight again. Motivated by the high energy demands, dam construction in the region has escalated sharply over the last few years. The projects are usually built and operated by private foreign investors who maintain the rights for the hydroelectric plants for 25 to 30 years before they are transferred to the Laotian government. Poor security and environmental standards along with detrimental effects on local communities have produced criticism by civil society organizations. [Deutsche Welle]

The dam collapse may develop to become a challenge to the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party’s legitimacy. Experts expect that officials may face more pressure to incorporate social and environmental protections for rural people in the push for development. In the decades since the LPRP came to power in 1975, the government has pursued an economic model that prioritizes selling off land, timber, minerals and other resources to giant conglomerates from China, Thailand and Vietnam. [The New York Times]

3 July 2018

Laos, Myanmar downgraded in U.S. human trafficking ranking

(ls) The U.S. State Department downgraded Myanmar and Laos to Tier 3, its lowest ranking, in an annual report on human trafficking released today, citing the countries’ failure to make significant efforts to combat the trade. With regard to Myanmar, the report referred to the displacement of Rohingya and other ethnic minority groups, forced recruitment of child soldiers and reports that government officials were complicit in both sex and labor trafficking. [Radio Free Asia]

Efforts by Lao authorities generally failed to raise the country above their previous year’s ranking. Laos remains a source, destination, and transit country for women, children, and men “subjected to sex trafficking and forced labor,” the reports says. A large number of victims, particularly women and girls, are exploited in Thailand’s commercial sex industry while Lao men and boys are forced to work in Thai fishing fleets or on construction sites. [Asia Times]

17 June  2018

Laos: Upcoming review by UN Human Rights Committee

(ls) From July 11 to 12, the UN Human Rights Committee, which is the body of independent experts that monitors the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by its State parties, will examine for the first time the state of civil and political rights in Laos. The treaty body is likely to focus on reports in recent years of forced disappearances and harsh prison terms handed out to critics of the country’s government. [Radio Free Asia]

10 June  2018

China-Laos relations: Laos’ president Bounnhang Vorachithh on state visit in Beijing

(ls) Chinese President Xi Jinping and Lao President Bounnhang Vorachithh met in Beijing to discuss the two communist countries’ future relations. They agreed to further cooperation in several aspects, among them the cooperation in major projects under the framework of the “Belt and Road” initiative. In terms of security cooperation, they agreed to enhance coordination and cooperation in multilateral mechanisms such as the United Nations, East Asia cooperation, and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, according to an official statement of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Lao People’s Democratic Republic and the People’s Republic of China are long-time allies due to their similar political systems and ideology. [PRC Foreign Ministry]

20 May 2018

China, Laos vow to boost cooperation on law enforcement, security

(am) China and Laos have pledged to boost cooperation on law enforcement and security and maintain regional stability. The pledge came as visiting Chinese State Councillor and Minister of Public Security Zhao Kezhi held talks separately with Chansamone Chanyalath, Lao minister of national defence and Somkeo Silavong, Lao minister of public security here on Monday.

Zhao said China is willing to work with Laos to boost cooperation in safeguarding national security, anti-terrorism, fighting drug-related crimes, hunt for fled suspects and recovering ill-gotten gains, and fighting against Internet gambling, telecom fraud and illegal immigration, among others. [Xinhua]

29 April 2018

Thailand/Cambodia/Laos: Cooperation to track down political enemies

(ls) Thai immigration police have detained Sam Serey, head of the Cambodian opposition group Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLF). A Cambodian official said the government was in discussion with Thailand on the man’s extradition. In 2016, a Cambodian court sentenced Sam Serey in absentia to nine years in prison for plotting an attack. This month, Prime Minister Hun Sen accused Sam Serey and his group of plotting attacks in Cambodia, calling him a “traitor”. [Reuters]

In March, Thailand and Cambodia had agreed on cooperation in searching for “fugitives”. Concerns have formed about an authoritarian alliance of sort emerging between the ruling junta in Thailand led by Prayut Chan-o-cha and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Hun Sen as they seek to suppress dissent and consolidate their authority at home, as Prashanth Parameswaran describes in [The Diplomat].

At the same time, the government of Laos has assured Thailand that Thai political fugitives in Laos will be kept under strict surveillance to prevent them from engaging in lèse majesté activities. The Chief-of-staff of the Lao People’s Armed Forces, on a visit to Thailand, added that “We [Thai and Laos people] are like siblings. (…) we have to help, love and respect each other. We also have to help preserve our traditional rituals and uphold Buddhism so it lasts forever.” [Bangkok Post]

4 March 2018

Laos: Border dispute with Cambodia

(ek) Cambodia undertook live-fire weapons training sessions south of the border with Laos in the contested area OÁlay, in Stung Treng. The military exercise may be a demonstration of force prior to the upcoming elections in Cambodia. A spokesman for the Cambodian Ministry of Defense stressed, however, that there are no bilateral tensions between the two nations [The Phnom Penh Post].

4 February  2018

Laos: Civil society organizations under tight control

(lh/ls) David Hutt reports that the human rights situation in Laos is getting bleaker. An illustrative point is the ruling Communist Party’s tighter grip on the country’s civil society organizations (CSOs). A new decree that entered into force last November requires the government to approve the establishment of CSOs, to permit their projects and ac-ceptance of donations, to review their assets, and to provide advice and assistance to ensure their operations are in line with party policy, the law, and government regulations. Hutt argues that, since the disappearance of prominent civil society leader Sombath Somphone, international interest in Laos’ human rights situation has faded significantly. [The Diplomat]

26 January 2018

Laos/Myanmar: Organized drug crime remains a threat

(lh) Criminal groups in the Mekong Delta area, especially in Laos and Myanmar, are still a major threat to stability and order. According to UNODC’s World Drug Report 2017, several groups raised to significant players in the worldwide production of synthetic drugs. The difficulties to control land and water borders around the Mekong Delta as well as corruption and a lack of law enforcement facilitate the operation of global drug supply chains. [Australian Strategic Policy Institute]

26 January 2018

Laos-Russia relations: Agreement of deepening military ties

(lh) Laos and Russia have long had a close defense relationship that extends across several realms, including military education, law enforcement cooperation, and the purchase of military equipment. But ties have recently become closer, as Vladimir Putin’s Russia tries to deepen ties with Southeast Asian states. At the invitation of the Lao government, a high-level Russian delegation visited Laos earlier this week. Both countries agreed on enhancing their existing long-term partnership by advancing the cooperation between their armies. [Vientiane Times] Against this background, Prashanth Parameswaran analyzes current Russia-Laos military ties for “The Diplomat”. [The Diplomat]

19 January 2018

Laos’ foreign policy between China and Vietnam, and in partnership with Myanmar

(ls) John McBeth describes in the Asia Times how Laos skillfully balances its foreign policy between its mighty neighbors China and Vietnam. Whereas China is heavily invested in mining, hydro power and a (planned) new railway line connecting Kunming and Vientiane, the Lao government agreed to a similar rail link from Savannakhet to the Vietnamese border town of Lao Bao. Also, Vietnam’s foreign direct investment in Laos, mostly in hydro-power, mining, transportation and plantations still claims to match China’s FDI in the country. One explanation for the close Laos-Vietnamese ties is that most Politburo members in Laos are Vietnamese-trained war veterans, and Lao officials still mostly study in Vietnam, not China. [Asia Times]

Regarding Laos’ relations with its other neighbor, Myanmar, the governments of the two countries agreed to enhance bilateral ties and cooperation on the occasion of Laos Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith’s official visit to the country. The documents comprised MoUs on electricity cooperation, science and technology cooperation, and anti-corruption cooperation. [Eleven Myanmar]

5 January 2018

The CIA’s secret war in Laos

A radio producer and son of a former US spy who was active in a covert operation in Laos in the 1960s explores what he felt when his father eventually told him about his secret past and what he came to discover about an operation code-named Pig-Pen (BBC Radio I).

22 December 2017

China-Laos relations: Beijing’s infrastructure funding rises

In a latest development reflecting an increasing dependence of Laos on Chinese development aid and funding, Vientianne witnessed last month a ground-breaking ceremony led by Chinese President Xi Jinping for the construction of a 90 Mio USD hospital. A prior Chinese infrastructure investment is US$6 billion high-speed rail, of which Laos own roughly 30% and of which the government is confident that it will transform the country into a job-creating modern logistics hub for Chinese trade. With a domestic product (GDP) per capita of less than 2,000 USD, which is one of the lowest rates in Asia, Laos is in dire need of foreign investment and cannot waive Beijing’s influx of money and assistance despite the risk granting Beijing political leverage over the country [Asia Times].

17 November 2017

China: Xi visits Vietnam and Laos following APEC Summit

President Xi has wrapped up consecutive state visits to both Vietnam and Laos this week. Besides economic cooperation, in Vietnam, the South China Sea featured high on the agenda [ABC]. In Laos, infrastructure and cooperation were talked about with the goal of a China-Laos economic corridor [ChinaPlus]. Vietnam and Laos, like China, are ruled by their respective communist parties.

6 October 2017

Rising contenders in Asia: India and China

Within Asia the rising powers India and China are competing for dominance manifest in efforts  to assert own’s position vis-a-vis the other across the region and beyond. Military exercises in Djibouti (South China Morning Post I) and a research vessel’s month-long presence in the Pacific Ocean southeast of US territory Guam express China’s ambitions as global player once more. While the US considers the research expedition as directed towards the future build-up of a military base on the island country of Micronesia (South China Morning Post II), India is concerned about the conduct of the first live fire exercise at the Djibouti base. Besides increasing her presence in the region around the Indian Ocean, China continues to advance its influence in Southeast Asia, where Laos and Cambodia are China’s closest allies. However, their respective relation with China differs.  While Laos appears to be savvy in navigating the tricky diplomatic waters and faces less risk of “over-reliance” on China, whereas the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has said his country is China’s “most trustworthy friend” (Myanmar Times). On the other side, two Indian Navy warships made a goodwill visit to the Philippines this week. The visit, a manifestation of PM Modi’s “Act East Policy”, was boost for bilateral ties and part of commemorations under way marking 25 years of partnership between India and ASEAN. The Indian ships sailed from to visit Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines, South Korea, Japan, Brunei, and Russia (The Diplomat). Meanwhile, U.S. defence secretary Jim Mattis said that there was a strategic convergence, a “generational opportunity” between the two largest democracies in the world to work together, based on shared interests of peace, prosperity and stability in the region (Times of India I). Furthermore, during the six days long visit of India’s Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and Chief of the Naval Staff to Vietnam, both countries expressed their strong determination for intensify their strategic partnership and security cooperation (Vietnam News). This meeting comes at a time in which Vietnam is stepping up efforts to build up a robust self-defense on the country’s maritime features in the South China Sea (China Policy Institute: Analysis) while India tries to position itself a regional power to counter not only China’s strategic influence in Southeast Asia (Times of India II), but also its soft power and cultural influence (New York Times).

27 July 2017

No Progress on Rights, Australia Should Use Dialogue to Raise Free Speech, ‘Disappearances’

Beforehand the Australian-Laos human rights dialogue in Vientiane, Human Rights Watch calls upon Australian officials participating in dialogue to urge the Laos government to respect human rights. (Human Rights Watch)

27 July 2017

Lao PDR, Australia Extend Human Rights Cooperation

Deepening the bilateral cooperation between the Lao PDR and Australia, a new AUD 815,000 four-year human rights program was launched in Vientiane on July 18.

(Lao News Agency)