Asia in Review Archive
Date of AiR edition
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
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)