Laos NGO restrictions threaten development, say non-profit groups

NGOs fear new curbs on their work will stunt growth of poor Southeast Asian nation where independent civil society remains largely undeveloped

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 September, 2014, 11:43am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 September, 2014, 1:24pm

Erin Hale and Aleksander Solum

Landlocked Laos, the poorest member of Asean, may be taking a page from Beijing’s playbook with a new set of restrictions for NGOs operating in the country, which have alarmed both non-profit groups and Western diplomats.

Foreign and local NGOs play a crucial role guiding development strategy and leading discussions about land redevelopment in the small communist nation, whose civil society is still embryonic after two decades of isolation that ended in the 1990s. The new set of restrictions could damage that role by burying organisations in red tape, according to two draft decrees obtained by the South China Morning Post.

The first decree, on foreign NGOs, said they would be placed under the supervision of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This change mirrors legislation passed in Russia in 2012, which classifies all overseas NGOs as “foreign agents,” and an operation underway in China to investigate the work of all foreign non-profit groups.

The second decree on local non-profit groups imposes restrictions on their ability to receive overseas funding and donations. All non-profit groups would have to report any donation greater than 50 million kip (HK$47,200) to the Ministry of Finance. Foreign donations higher than 100 million kip would have to receive approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Finance, and the Department of Home Affairs.

The same decree also states that the work of domestic non-profit groups should be limited to providing “support” in the fields of agriculture, education, public health, sport, science, and humanitarian benefits. At the moment, both foreign and domestic NGOs in Laos work in a variety of fields from civil society development to rural agricultural assistance.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment, but Western embassies in Vientiane say they are aware of the two draft decrees and concerned about their impact on non-profit groups and NGOs.

The role of NGOs in the country, ruled by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party since 1975, holds a particular significance because of its extremely small civil society compared to other Southeast Asian nations. NGOs and non-profits make up some of the only independent space in Laotian society for open discussions on issues ranging from economic development to education.

Laos stands out in contrast to neighbours like Myanmar, which despite its long-time rule by the military managed to develop an independent civil society, according to John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director of the Washington-based Human Rights Watch.

“If a human rights defender like Aung Sang Suu Kyi were to stand up in Laos and speak out against authoritarian rule, she would be immediately arrested. And unlike Aung Sang Suu Kyi, having the luxury of living under house arrest, you would just be taken off to prison and never seen again,” he said.

The government is likely targeting NGOs with new curbs because many work in the field of development – a controversial topic in Laos in recent years. The country has the dubious distinction of being the least developed in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Despite opening its doors to foreign investment from Vietnam, Thailand, and China, its GDP is just US$9.2 billion – five times smaller than Myanmar, and 40 times smaller than Thailand.

Recent foreign investment projects have relied on large and controversial land concessions to make way for rubber plantations, mining operations, forestry projects and hydroelectric dams. Clear cutting is pervasive in some parts of Laos, particularly in the northwest of the country, near the Chinese border. The United Nations Environment Programme, for example, states that “[More than] 1,200 large-scale land projects, involving 80 million hectares of land, have been sold or leased to international investors since 2001, mostly over the last two years,” on its Poverty-Environment Initiative webpage for Laos.

The government has steadily changed its attitude towards NGOs since Laos hosted the ninth Asia-Europe Forum in 2012, a meeting of heads of state from Asia and Europe. The meeting was accompanied by a parallel session of NGOs and civil society leaders, the Asia-Europe People’s Forum. The forum covered issues from human rights to environmental justice, topics which had not been previously discussed in Laos in such a public manner.

“The Asia-Europe People’s Forum may have shocked some people. There was a lot of public security involved. A lot of things were discussed at that event that may have [made] people … wary or anxious, because they had not been exposed to international civil society before,” said a senior foreign NGO worker based in Laos, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions.

The success of the conference was followed by two events that rocked Laos’s NGO community: the disappearance of its foremost civil society leader, Sombath Somphone, and the expulsion of one of the conference organisers, Anne-Sophie Gindroz, an outspoken Swiss NGO director.

The NGO worker said that while it had been difficult to work in Laos before 2012, since the conference the landscape had slowly gotten more restrictive. She said that it was not unusual to get “friendly warnings” from the government about what the NGO could or could not do. “Usually it comes in the form of advice or even a request – people from Laotian organisations going to an international workshop urging them to say positive things,” she said. “Laos is such a small country and it’s easy to trace things back to people, and so it’s so easy to threaten people.”

However, she said that the ability to operate in the country had become more difficult since 2012. “Before, international NGOs that were in the country long enough to develop a trusting relationship with their government counterparts could sometimes implement their approved project activities without government staff being present all the time,” she said. “Now the government is much more on top of everything and present during field visits.”

Ounkeo Souksavanh, a Laotian journalist who now lives in the United States, said it is possible that the government had been challenged by discussions about development policy, which are often led by NGOs and other civil society groups. He had his own run-in with the government after his radio programme, Wao Kao (Talk of the News) began to invite villagers to call in and talk about issues relating to land redevelopment. Though the programme was popular, the government cancelled it in January 2012.

“Over the past five years, civil society organisations have developed [by themselves]. It seems like civil society organisations [have begun] to have strong positions [against] policymakers who get involved in conflicts of interest,” he said.