On December 15, on his way back from work, the Laotian director, activist and award winner, Sombath Somphone, mysteriously disappeared. The last people to see him, according to leaked surveillance footage, were the Laotian authorities at a police control post, where he was pulled over, and then driven away in a different car.
Despite that, the Laotian government still went out with a full denial of any knowledge as to why Sombath Somphone was detained…by their own officers. Since then, there has been no sign of the director, and no explanation as to why he disappeared.
Just weeks before, another activist had a run-in with the Laotian authorities – the director of the Swiss NGO Helveta, Anne-Sophie Gindroz, were expelled with a 24-hour warning for writing a critical letter.
The Laotian government explained that she “dismayed” the government with her “improper behavior.” Whatever that means – a quite surprising argumentation for throwing a peaceful activist out of a country.
Somehow , though, Laos has still managed to successfully present themselves as a charming little nation with a slow pace and idyllic farm life for the ever-smiling population. Relaxation, leisure and spirituality are key words in any glittered tourist brochure on Laos.
Truth is that the life in Laos is far from idyllic, and the pace is very, very far from slow. Since the 90s, the Laotians have built dams, constructed hydropower plants and made deals with neighbors Thailand, China and Vietnam so efficiently that the economy is today the fastest growing economy in ASEAN.
The country has recently joined the World Trade Organization, hosted an ASEM-summit – the biggest diplomatic event ever to take place in the country – and they have co-signed a range of international agreements, putting them into a world market that they could only dream of entering just a few years ago.
The main reason for the excellent economical performance is the energy sector. 30 percent of the country´s BNP comes out of natural resources converted into energy, mainly hydro electricity from plants and dams on Mekong and it´s many tributaries.
And while making this profit and shining in the spotlight of international recognition, Laos – quite on par with the behavior in the cases of Somphone and Gindroz – ignores that there are people living on and off these rivers.
Right now, Laos is constructing a dam called the Xayaburi Dam. Since the proposal of the project in 2007 it has been met with protests from experts, governments, activists, NGOs…pretty much everyone, who knows anything about water: It will hurt the migration of fish, it will endanger a number of species of fish – including the rockstar of Mekong; the Mekong giant catfish – and it will affect crops cultivated in and near the river. WWF estimates that a whopping 60 million people will be affected by the dam in its present form.
Naturally, there are negotiations going on, both with international experts and with the neighboring countries, on how to construct the dam with minimal damage. Both Vietnam and Cambodia have officially called for a halt in construction.
The Laotian response? Well. They ignore all the fuss and carry on building.
Laos has risen from dirt-poverty into a flourishing trading nation, and the fact that it will hurt some groups in the population – namely the poor and the minorities – seems to be of minor importance. The logic is: You cannot make an omelet without breaking some eggs.
But you know what, Laos? Economy is not an omelet and people are not eggs. There are ways to have economic growth without shattering the lives of the most vulnerable groups in your nation.
It is so, though, that the cases of horrible governance, the breaches of basic human rights, the bypassing of negotiations and good advice – all these things factor in, when you new lucrative, international friends are to do business with you.
You don´t seem to realize it, but the spotlight is on you now, Laos. What are you going to do with it?
Anya Palm, Journalist and NIAS Associate